When you go through the gate into Serena Beach Resort and Spa, in Mombasa, you may wonder where exactly the hotel is as the frontage is filled with trees and bushes.
Only when you go through the foyer do you see the expanse of the hotel — the swimming pool, dining areas, and all the way to the beach, through an arc graced with large traditional urns like those used to pour kahawa chungu (black coffee).
Martin, in charge of events at the hotel and one of our guides today, tells us that this is the way that rich Swahili people built their homes back in the day. “They did not want to flaunt their wealth, so they kept the main buildings hidden,” he says.
The hotel was opened in 1975. It has two wings — the Village wing, which is the original part of the hotel, and the Garden wing, which was built in 1990. We were staying in the Village wing.
My friend and I were on a tour of the hotel, learning about its rich culture and conservation efforts. On this hot afternoon, our tour would take about 45 minutes.
“If you look closely, you will see that there is a recurring theme in the hotel design and decor — a turtle motif,” Martin tells us.
As soon as he pointed out the body shape, legs and head, we started to see the motif everywhere — on the picture frames in the rooms, on the keyholders and on the walls.
Turtle conservation is a key activity at the hotel, which has hatcheries on the beach. The hotel also has a butterfly park. Samuel, who manages the centre, takes over this part of the tour.
“The park was set up in 2003. We breed butterflies, especially endangered species. We started with the African queen butterfly,” Samuel says. “We also propagate plants, as the butterflies only lay eggs on specific plant leaves. We have 67 species. There are more than 200 species in the Coast region.”
The park has three large cages. The first one holds eggs and caterpillars. The second holds pupae that hatch after about nine to 12 days, and the third has butterflies. In the first cage, we see green caterpillars at various stages of growth. One is about to weave a cocoon.
“Other species we have include the citrus butterfly, the African immigrant and the African blue tiger.”
After about 15 to 20 days, the butterflies are released into the wild.
“To manage pests, we make our own natural pesticide, using onions, garlic, chilli, neem leaves and stinging nettle.”
Our tour continues, taking us to the other side of the hotel. The main buildings sit on 12 and a half acres, and much of the land is still undeveloped so there is room for expansion.
At the beach is a large chessboard, with life-size pieces at each end. The chess pieces are colourful as they were made from thousands of recycled flip flops. On one side are the turtles and on the other, the butterflies. I wonder who would win the game.
The beach is raked every day, and the leaves are left in a pile so that the incoming tide washes them back into the ocean. This keeps the beach clean without interfering with marine life. Once a month, there is a major clean-up, in conjunction with the Kenya Wildlife Service.
We make our way around the front left side to the reflection pool. The pool has fish in it, and is surrounded by benches with bougainvillea branches hanging over them, providing a welcome shade. We take a break and chat with the guides.
I mention that the soap, shampoo and lotion dispensers in the rooms are different from any I’ve seen at other hotels. They are large, and are clamped to the wall.
This is part of the hotel’s measures to reduce its plastic footprint. The small bottles were cumbersome to recycle and resulted in much waste. The larger bottles are simply refilled when a new guest is checking in.
And, last week, Serena Beach Hotel and Spa signed a commitment to stop the use of plastic straws, to replace all plastic bottles with sustainable alternatives, and to educate and inspire their employees and guests to combat plastic pollution.