On the north coast of Kenya lies the magnificent Lamu Archipelago. A dreamy beach destination full of history that is so unique, it is on the Unesco World Heritage list. The island of Lamu is known for its Swahili architecture, celebrities who mix with the locals, serene beaches, and the Swahili culture that is visible and tangible everywhere.
For the past 50 years, Lamu has attracted travelers from all over the world. From hippie-like backpackers who liked to go off the beaten track to celebrities and royalty looking for peace and anonymity. It is not just about the elegant white beaches, but also the old-fashioned vibe and historic background of this Swahili settlement that appeals to many.
When you arrive at the port of Lamu Town, it feels like a step back into time. The old town Lamu dates back to the 12th century and in the course of history, Lamu has become a significant centre for the study of Islamic and Swahili cultures. Winds blow softly from the Indian Ocean, fishermen on the quay, lay their nets for the catch of the day. Dozens of dhows, the traditional wooden Arab sailing ships, are docked in the port. A call to prayer sounds from the mosque.
When entering the town, the labyrinth of narrow streets are full of mosques and walled white houses, and it is easy to get disoriented. But the friendly town people are happy to give direction or ask for a guide to show you the town. Merchants, dressed in their long, wavy white robes, try to get customers to come in to view their wares. Donkeys pull wooden carts loaded with heavy bags of stones. Lamu has no cars, and transport comes in the form of donkeys or boats. The residents of Lamu are very dependent on the 2500 donkeys on a population of 20,000, and there is even a donkey hospital.
Lured by Africa’s many treasures and the urge to explore, Bantu, Arabs, Persians, Chinese, Indians and Europeans sailed to the East African coast, making Lamu a prosperous centre for trade and supply. The current inhabitants of Lamu have ancestors from all corners of the earth.
Lamu town showcases architectural designs dating back 700 years and they are a mixture of many cultural influences using Swahili building techniques. Many houses are built from coral stone and mangrove timber. They feature inner courtyards, painted ceilings, niches and heavy wooden doors with beautiful carvings. The narrow streets provide cool for the heat.
By the nineteenth century, Lamu supplied the ocean dhows with large quantities of ivory, oil, seeds, animal skins, turtles, and large numbers of slaves. After a number of invasions of enemy tribes and the restrictions imposed on the slave trade the economic importance of Lamu was reduced.
The beaches at Shela offer an almost Mediterranean feel with a string of upmarket hotels and rental villas scattered along its shore. Hotel Peponi, is run by the same family since 1967 and has become a fixture in the area with lots of character. Many celebrities have stayed here, mixing with the locals at the bar. Here you can taste the rich Swahili culture of Lamu in their excellent food, served on the patio overlooking the ocean and fishing boats. Across the narrow channel, lies the Majlis Resort, which offers peace and quiet and barefoot luxury.
Book a private sunset dhow cruises on your first day, to get into the right mood for Lamu immediately. These can be booked from most hotels. The boats meander through the mangroves and you can watch the sun go down from the water in spectacular scenery.
Snorkelling and swimming is possible in front of the hotels around Shela but the best way to explore the archipelago is to book a snorkelling day trip to the coral island Manda Toto and around Kiwaiyu. The beautiful corals are close to the surface, making it an easy swim, but bring plenty of sunscreen for your bum and back because you will be floating exposed to the sun, with your head in the water admiring turtles, large schools of tropical fish and perhaps even a manatee. Catch a fish for lunch and have a private bbq on one of the secluded beaches. Or even better, bring fresh limes and a bottle of bubbles and pluck delicious oysters straight off the rocks.
How to get there
Nowadays, it is easy to reach Lamu island from mainland Kenya with flights arriving daily on Manda Island from Nairobi or Mombasa. A short boat ride on a dhow will take you across to Lamu Town, or your accommodation.
This article appeared in Inzozi Magazine, Summer 2018 issue under the title “Karibu Sana Lamu, paradise revisited”