Mombasa, Kenya's second-largest city, is a hub for commerce and tourism in the country's southeastern coastal region. Though most would-be visitors are seduced by the idea of Kenya as a classic safari destination (because of the many movies and TV shows about the wildlife in the country's interior plains and valleys), Mombasa and its environs offer an interesting alternative that first-time visitors to Africa will find equally exciting and attractive.

Mombasa, which is actually located on an island just off the coast, is known for its white sand beaches and diverse culture. As one of East Africa's main ports, it has been influenced by many cultures during its lifetime. It is also part of the homeland of the Swahili people, traders whose culture and language are influential throughout East Africa.

It is possible to see Mombasa as an alternative to East Africa's other eco-tourism destinations. Safaris and nature preserves can be reached easily from the city, so visitors can still get a classic safari/nature-viewing experience. The nearby islands, water-based activities and beaches give the destination more mainstream appeal.

See green

Guided tours are the easiest way to get out into the natural areas around Mombasa. But that doesn't have to mean barreling through game preserves in a 4x4. At least one tour company, Bike the Coast, offers more eco-friendly transportation options, with guided pedals through the coastal landscapes surrounding Mombasa.

The Bambari Nature Trail runs through Haller Park, a few miles away from Mombasa's island. The park has typical landscapes for the region, but there is something unique about it: It is located on grounds that were used to quarry and produce cement. Before, the area was characterized as a wasteland, but efforts like reforestation and even fertilization of water to stimulate algae growth have made it an attractive natural area once again. Resident hippos and crocodiles are main attractions for visitors, though the whole area is a positive example of a successful reclamation project.

Mombasa's white sand beaches are a major tourist draw, but there is also plenty to do on the water. Sailing is an option, with one company, Kinazini Funzi Dhows, offering the added experience of traveling by wind power in a classic vessel like the ones used by traders who first made Mombasa an important Indian Ocean port. The company offers dolphin-viewing cruises as well as other types of trips. (The boats are equipped with outboard motors for low-wind situations.)

The Colobus Trust, a conservation organization with a center a short drive from Mombasa, is dedicated to the conservation of the endangered colobus monkey. The venue is open to the public occasionally and also accepts volunteers for stints of several weeks or months. The trust is involved with the local community and promotes conservation by doing things such as educating local school-aged children about nature.

Diving is possible at offshore sites around the Mombasa area, with one of the best places to dive a couple hours south at the Kisite Mpunguti Marine Park and Reserve. This area has been a reserve for over 30 years and has drawn biologists because of its population of fish and rare species of coral. A more convenient option sits directly north of Mombasa: The Mombasa Marine Park and Reserve, which is popular with Mombasa-based snorkelers and scuba divers. This 4-square-mile park has both shallow water reef dives and deep water (up to 1,000 feet) options.

Of course, this is Kenya, so land-based safaris are a major attraction. Mombasa-based visitors don't have forgo this experience. The largest game parks in the region, Tsavo East and Tsavo West national parks are about a half-day's drive from the city. A trip will require an overnight stay, but all the major safari animals are here: elephants, lions, rhinos, zebras and antelopes. The Shimba Hills National Reserve is a more convenient option, only about 20 miles outside Mombasa. Most of the park is covered by forest, and the animal population includes antelopes and elephants.

Go green

Mombasa's transit system is based on buses and the omnipresent matatus, privately owned mini-buses. These can get crowded and you will have to get fare information beforehand (from someone at your hotel, perhaps) to be assured that you are not being overcharged. Most local people rely on these buses and mini-buses to get around the city. Taxis are also a cheap means of transport (but not as inexpensive as the buses), though savvy travelers should ask their hotel to recommend a trusted driver or taxi company.

The Old Town portion of Mombasa can be negotiated on foot. Ferries also ply the waters between Mombasa and Likoni, on the mainland.

Sleep green

Beach resorts are the most noticeable part of Mombasa's accommodation offerings. Upscale resorts like the Bamburi Beach Hotel fit into this category. This resort has on-site gardens and nearby nature trails, including an area reclaimed from a cement quarry. Along with the nearby Plaza Beach Hotel, it seeks to support local businesses by sourcing products locally and introducing guests to local culture.

Cheaper options on the island include hostel-type venues like Mombasa Backpackers, which offers tent camping in a courtyard in addition to the usual dorm-style hostel rooms. The area has other similar small-scale bed and breakfast and rental cottage places that offer both low prices and low-impact accommodation.

Eat green

Mombasa has a diverse eating scene influenced by the city's numerous cultures. Vegetarian visitors will appreciate the many Indian restaurants catering primarily to the city’s large Indian community. Shehnai Restaurant and New Chetna Restaurant are two of the more upscale options. Because it is a port city with a long history of interactions with different cultures, other cuisines are also well represented.

Locally caught seafood is also on the menu around town. Tamarind Restaurant features these marine edibles in a high-end setting. A couple of good street food areas serve local delicacies, including Swahili specialties, during the daytime. These street food hotspots (Abdel Nasser Road and near the central bus station on Nyrere Avenue) are also great places to try local fruits and beverages like coconut juice.

Mombasa is a great introduction to East Africa, especially since it has traits that few people associate with this part of the world, namely seaside landscapes and water-based attractions. It is a good base for people who are looking for an African seaside vacation spot or a base for eco-tourism activities.

Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.