Mama Mia Malindi! Kenya's Own Little Italy

The Italian bakery in Malindi, Kenya. Photos by Bill Pfeffer.
The Italian bakery in Malindi. Photos by Bill Pfeffer

By Bill Pfeffer

Mama Mia! What is a person to do? My Italian wife needed a pick-me-up after our Kilimanjaro adventure and Rome was out of the question and beyond our budget.

'Va Bene.' San Francisco has its North Beach, Kenya has its own 'Little Italy.' After all, doesn't every country and region in the world have one?

Malindi is on the Kenyan coast about two hours north of Mombassa. It is the 'little Italy' of Africa. Billboards advertise in Italian, grocery stores stock shelves of olive oil, delis slice salami and prosciutto, and tanned Alberto Tombos wander the beaches in skimpy bikini trunks. Did I mention pizza joints and fine wine?

When we checked into our Malindi resort, the woman at the reception desk said we would either love it or hate it. The beaches are not as nice as Diani Beach and the breezes blow a little cooler. Still, the red-blooded, macho Italian influence is weirdly matched with Swahili culture in this vacation destination on the Indian Ocean.

Large herd of elephants at Tsavo West
Large herd of elephants at Tsavo West

Our guide, Okeno of Brayogo Safaris, provided transport from Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to the coastal retreat of Malindi - a long eight-hour trip.

Tiny little guy
Tiny little elephant.

Along the way, we met the witch doctor Kimboi, shopped for soapstone carvings in downtown Mombassa, and visited the Bombolulu handicapped woodcarving cultural center. We also stopped in Mwatate – the gemstone center of the region - where Okeno was looking to buy raw stones

There were at least two hundred elephants in the group, and they all politely took turns filling up with water and splashing mud on their bodies.Driving through Tsavo West, we stumbled upon a migrating herd of elephants that were sharing a watering hole by the side of the road.

The week before, Okeno had made a special preview trip by bus to check out resorts in Malindi. We intended to stay seven days to recuperate from our six-day Kilimanjaro climb.

Our first choice – Scorpio Villas – was fully booked, though we liked what we saw. It is nicely landscaped, has multiple pools and outdoor dining areas, is a short walk to the beach, and close to downtown. If you have a family, this is the place to book.

Coral Keys Resort, our second choice, was less attractive. A larger resort, it caters to Italian tourists. Unfortunately, not many were staying there and it had a deserted feel to it. As much as I love the Italians, the thought of hanging out in a big empty resort was not appealing. 'Buon Giorno' only goes so far.

Driftwood Resort

Okeno's choice – Driftwood Resort – was perfect. At the end of a dirt road, it has twenty-five individual cottages, privacy, great bar and outdoor areas, and a friendly staff. It also draws an older and broader independent clientele.

From the resort, it is a good half-hour walk to downtown. For a buck, you can flag down a tuk-tuk, something you will definitely want to do after dark.

Just down the street is an Italian deli, which sells baguettes, slices of meat, and homemade cheeses. Some nights we just bought bread, meat, and cheese from the deli and sat on our veranda. The deli also employs the most beautiful girl in Kenya – 'una bella ragazza.' You order from her in English, she translates it into Italian, and the owner slices the meat.
The Gelato stores

The Gelato stores

The owner mentioned in fractured English that they were getting 'wild game' from Nairobi next week. Great, I said, never had giraffe or lion. The most beautiful girl in Kenya thought that was funny. When you leave, you say both 'ciao' and 'asante sana'.

Gelato Shop

Next-door is the gelato shop, owned by an Indian family and run by an Italian couple. At the end of a hard day on the beach, this was a mandatory stop, though it seems more ice cream than gelato.

This area feels prosperous. New resorts are under construction, while apartments are advertised for sale or rent. Locals who once lived along the ocean are certainly being pushed further inland. The sun gets hot here, and the cool breeze disguises the actual burning effects.

Deep-sea fishing is a big sport here. For a couple hundred bucks, you have the opportunity to haul in sailfish and even a marlin. Years ago, this was a favorite hangout of Ernest Hemingway (Is there any place this guy has not been to?).
The beach at Malindi

The beach at Malindi

African beach boys, hawking snorkel trips, reef walks, and woodcarvings, all make their pitch in Italian (which seems odd). If you are a single girl walking the beach, you will have five guys trailing you – all vying for your attention. If you are a single male walking the beach, some of the local girls will 'want to be your friend.'

When the tide recedes, you can walk a half-mile offshore to a spit of coral reef along a well-worn sea trail. Unfortunately, the beach boys harvest the shells, sea urchins, and starfish during this lull, and later sell them along the sand. The beach itself was littered with dry seaweed pushed up from high tide. In Diani Beach, they raked the beach and buried the seaweed - here it just lies about.

Downtown, there are a number of fine restaurants all clustered in a two-block area. Our choice always came down to which pizza place to try. Thin-crust, a cold beer, a glass or two of red wine, balmy evenings - we were quite content.
Pineapples for sale in Malindi

Pineapples for sale

If you are keen on shopping for souvenirs (especially textiles and carvings), spend some time downtown. This is by far one of the more interesting places to shop that we have been to in Kenya. You will need to go downtown to replenish your money from the ATM, since there are only a few banks that allow foreign withdrawals.

'Le dolce vita' - the sweet life of Malindi. Where you lounge all day, talk about where to eat dinner that evening, read books, walk on the beach, and take dips in the pool. If you are ambitious, head downtown to buy more wine and stop and snack at the Italian bakery.

If our choice is love-it-or-hate-it, then it is easy. We loved Malindi – the food, wine, lazy beach life, rich Italian geezers, tuk-tuks, and gelato. It is a wonderful place to unwind after a dusty safari.

I can hear Dean Martin now...

When the moon hits your eye,like a big-a pizza pie
That's amore.
When the world seems to shine like you've had too much wine
That's amore.

Bill Pfeffer

Bill Pfeffer has recently returned from a thirteen-month trip around the world overland journey. He lives in Northern California, and is a successful artist and aspiring travel writer. Visit his website Bill Pfeffer.com

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Bill Pfeffer
Bill Pfeffer was born and raised in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, along the shores of Lake Michigan. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in Economics he moved to California. He is a plein-air oil painter of landscapes and seascapes, preferring to paint on location under the pressure of changing light and weather, so as not to deliberate so much over each and every stroke of paint. He has painted every beach scene along the Sonoma coast, his favorite location for spending the day. He and his wife Marge enjoy traveling around the world.