Sultry, dusty Mombasa is the gateway to Kenya's sparkling Indian Ocean coast. Crammed onto an island that is connected to the mainland by a short causeway to the west, a bridge to the north and a ferry to the south, this distinctly tropical city is steeped in history. Its chunky fort, historic houses and cosmopolitan population bear witness to its long pedigree as a trading centre: Swahili, African, Indian, Chinese, Omani and British traders have been striking deals here since the 12th century, and dhows (traditional sailing boats) still ply the surrounding waters.
Mombasa's best suburban beach, Nyali, just north of Mombasa Island, is close enough to town to get busy at weekends. Here you can lounge on pale, palm-shaded sand, hire windsurfing or snorkelling equipment, drink coconut juice fresh from the shell, take a camel ride along the shoreline or visit the Mombasa Marine National Park. Watersports centers at or near resort hotels also rent pedalos, bogie boards and catamarans. Some places even offer accredited diving courses.
Mombasa's Old Town, a maze of alleyways dotted with historic Swahili houses and mosques, is engrossing to explore on foot. Presiding over the harbour entrance is the late 16th-century Fort Jesus, a chunky coastal defence built by the occupying Portuguese to keep the coastal Swahilis at bay; it has battlements to climb, and a small ethnographic museum to nose around. Central Mombasa's signature landmarks are the gigantic aluminium elephant tusk arches on Moi Avenue: they commemorate a visit by Britain's Princess Margaret in 1956.
Central Mombasa is not an obvious family destination, but kids may enjoy a visit to Fort Jesus; they'll also love splashing around in the pools of the suburban beach hotels, snorkelling off Nyali Beach, and spotting elephants and zebras on a day trip to Shimba Hills, 33km (21 miles) southwest of town.
Many visitors to Mombasa build a safari into their stay. The closest destination is Shimba Hills National Reserve, 33km (21 miles) southwest of town. This is one of East Africa's last remaining coastal rainforests, where elephants wander through the morning mist and you stand a good chance of seeing rare and magnificent sable antelopes. With more time to spare you could head inland to Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks, 140km (87 miles) northwest of Mombasa, which together form one of the largest game-viewing areas in the world. Far less crowded than Kenya's more popular parks, they are home to lions, hippos, elephants, zebras and a great many species of antelope and gazelle.
On special request, you can explore Mombasa harbour in style aboard a traditional dhow. For a real treat, book a private sunset cruise. The crew will do all the work, leaving you free to relax on a pile of cushions with a dawa (the classic Swahili cocktail of vodka muddled with brown sugar, honey and lime) and enjoy the gentle lapping of the waves against the wooden hull. With a little notice, hotel travel desks will book a trip for you.