Forest Dream is a lovely compound of Swahili-style cottages nestled in a lush equatorial forest just a 10-minute walk from the white sands of Diani Beach on the Indian Ocean. Diani is 30 km south of Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city and a major international seaport, located on one of the oldest trade routes in the world.
Diani Beach is a playground for mostly Europeans in the summer months and again during the Christmas holidays. Come September, when we arrived on the scene, most of the tourists had left, even though we are told it is the best weather of the year, sunny and mild. It is a wonderful time to enjoy the natural beauties of the area and explore Kenya’s South Coast.
Forest Dream is the brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur and conservationist Cornelius L. "Kees" Van Velzen, who was residing at the compound during our stay. He settled in Kenya 20 years ago after traveling the world and fell in love with the land and its abundant wildlife. He has chosen to live here and has created a resort that is itself a small self-contained kingdom of natural resources.
As he acquires more land, his forest dream is continues to grow. For example, on part of the massive property he is putting the finishing touches on a nature preserve for small animals such as the African dikdik (a member of the deer family about the same size as a terrier), wart hogs and exotic birds. A natural pond will go there, as well.
Having developed properties in an unspoiled part of Portugal before he came to Kenya, Kees learned a lot. "It’s all about putting the wildlife ahead of the people," he explained. When he arrived, there was bare ground of mostly coral rock with only a few trees. He quickly got into the business of bringing in 1,500 truckloads of topsoil so he could plant the dense haven of trees it is today. He even has a farm nearby to provide fresh vegetables and fruit to his chef, along with a natural deep well of sweet water.
The forest compound has five large cottages, each one large enough to accommodate a large family or a few couples. Each cottage is spacious, with bed-and-bath suites, kitchen and open-air lounges, all decorated with artistic touches of animal paintings. Air conditioning, fans and mosquito nets/coils are provided. (We rarely saw a mosquito in our room, which was screened, with a sealed doorway.)
Each Swahili-style cottage has two to five detached bed-and-bath suites with linen service, an open-air living room with TV, and a kitchen with fridge, stove, and cooking-dinnerware. The kitchen is for optional self-catering if you wish to prepare some or all of your own meals. Water is provided from a fresh-water well on the property, and both bath and kitchen water are heated. Some of the cottages have a Jacuzzi, a Koi pond, upstairs quarters and special enclosed lounges.
Also on the lot is a Moroccan-style mansion, which Kees had built to his meticulous plan over a period of seven years. This impressive house, known as the Sultan unit, has exquisite handmade touches such as tile mosaics, beautiful arches, Jacuzzis, separate apartments and its own private pool. From the top floor, you can look out over the grounds and even take a snooze on the roof futons. We were told the house was already rented out for the Christmas holidays to a large family.
Basic rates include hot breakfast in the dining room. Partial and full-board plans are available if you wish to take some or all of your meals in the restaurant. Although Forest Dream’s chef Ameci is very talented, you will probably want to venture out on occasion to have lunch or dinner at the beach at one of the fine restaurants or resorts outside the compound, such as Nomad, Sail, Ali Babba, Leonardo’s, or Punjab. And there are many more. Budget 400 – 600 Ksh cabfare to and from Forest Dream in addition to 3,000 – 5,000 Ksh cost of dinner for two (100 Ksh ~= US $1.25).
The resort facilities include a large swimming pool with swim-up bar, diving board and water slide, as well as a tennis court, billiard table and a restaurant.
The grounds are a haven for Vervet, Sykes, and Colobus monkeys, which scamper and swing among the trees. You’ll also see lots of baboons and the occasional bush baby. In 1997, Kees founded the Colobus Trust, a local organization with a mission to preserve the beautiful and endangered Colobus monkey, which has a distinctive, dramatic black coat and handsome long white hair. Unlike the other types of monkeys at the compound, the Colobus is a shy creature that is indigenous only to the south coast of Kenya and a small part of Tanzania. With the explosion of population and tourism, its habitat is quickly shrinking. There have been electrocutions from monkeys walking on power lines and fatal car accidents when they cross the road. And some locals still use illegal snares to trap any animal they can catch and eat, including monkeys.
Among its efforts, the Colobus Trust has installed 32 elevated crossing ladders that span the road between the treetops for monkeys to cross safely. Workers from the trust have also cut down tops of trees that are too close to power lines, and they encourage the Diani hotel owners to cover the lines with inexpensive insulation they can supply for this purpose. The trust also provides veterinary service for injured monkeys and takes in monkeys that have been illegally kept as pets, rehabilitating them for return to the wild.
The concept at Forest Dream is the all-inclusive family stay in a quiet, secluded forest location. The cottages are set up for parties of two couples or one couple with children, and larger parties can be accommodated in the Sultan house, which can sleep a party of 8 – 10 guests. Rates for this standalone accommodation run about $60 per person per night when booked by a group.
Kenya is a long way to travel for an American, but it is a unique and fantastic vacation destination. You can enjoy a wide variety of wildlife that is being nurtured and preserved unlike anywhere else in the world in the country’s national parks. And then you can kick back and enjoy the coastal life while taking in the gorgeous waters of the Indian Ocean and its pristine beaches.
You will also learn a lot about a complex and emerging culture, still immersed largely in poverty, but with its economic outlook on the rise. With the brand new, more democratic constitution passed on August 27 with much rejoicing, hopefully Kenyans will finally emerge richer and with more control over their destinies and their abundant resources. We found the Kenyas to be wonderfully sweet, charming and caring people, even though most of them are poorer than any American can imagine.
You can book the Forest Dream cottages on a nightly basis. Or, starting in January, bookings can include all-inclusive local tour packages, including day trips for snorkeling and dolphin watching to the Waikini Islands, trips to Colobus Trust and the Sacred Forest (untouched for at least 600 years), and safaris in the nearby Shimba Hills National Reserve and the Mwalugaje Elephant Sanctuary. For those who haven’t yet been on safari, you may decide to book a three-night add-on to the fabulous Masai Mara game preserve, where you will be flown by Safarilink airline from Diani’s Ukunda airport to small airstrip within the park, where you will stay at one of the bush camps as a base for a series of safari game drives.
We found our visit to Diani Beach, coming right after an intense nine-day safari where we were rising at the crack of dawn each day, to be a lovely and unhurried rest. Forest Dream a beautiful place to relax and kick back, doing things at your own leisurely pace. Play with Dina, the lovable Rottweiler, watch the bush baby come down from the trees at 7 pm each night to snatch a few pieces of banana, observe baboons and monkeys at close range, and go for a refreshing swim. Or just loll by the pool and have the friendly staff bring you a local Tusker beer (or two).
Like our charming host at Forest Dream, we, too, have fallen in love with Kenya and hope to return.
Photographs by Georja Umano
Forest Dream Cottages
Optional meal plans: Full board, half board, or self-catering with kitchen
Luxury double, family, and group, or backpacker units available
Inclusive tour packages (safari, sights, boats) available