Swahili Guide to Lamu Kenya

Lamu … mention his name and we get flashbacks of golden sunsets, swaying palm trees, whitewashed Swahili mansions and bougainvillea-covered terraces. This small island off the coast of Kenya was the absolute highlight of our trip to Kenya, but it remains surprisingly (and fortunately) off the beaten track. Don’t make the same mistake that many travelers make in Kenya these days –yes, the place can be quite difficult to reach, but no, definitely don’t skip it.

St Barts, St Tropez, Lamu Island

Since the after 60s, Lamu has attracted the Jet Set from London and New York to luxurious beachfront mansions for rushed parties. The Prince of Monaco owns three houses here, and apparently it was not uncommon to meet people like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell during a walk around the city. The island has also hosted various artist retreats that have attracted great personalities from the international art scene.

However, recent history is unfortunately a little less glamorous. Between 2011 and 2014, Lamu’s idyllic image was tarnished by reports of assassin strikes and kidnappings of tourists by Somali pirates, followed by negative travel advisories from various Western governments. Overnight, Lamu was no longer a stopover on the way from Saint-Barth to Saint-Tropez. Attendance naturally dropped and parts of Lamu turned into a kind of ghost town. While some governments still strongly discourage travel to the Archipelago, attendance has increased again in recent years, giving Lamu a chance to redefine itself.

One island, Two faces

Lamu is a place of contrasts. Getting off your propeller plane at the dilapidated Manda Airport, you will immediately be transported back in time during a short boat transfer to the old town of Lamu, right in front of the bay, the oldest settlement in the Archipelago. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2001, this Swahili city is like Zanzibar of yesteryear, where mosques call for prayer several times a day, women dressed in burkas rush through the narrow streets and fishermen come out early in the morning to catch fish in old dhows. Here you will also find it difficult to find a Taxi to take you from A to B, as there are practically no cars. Instead, people rely on about 3,000 donkeys to transport people and goods through the winding alleys of the city.

But then there’s Shela. Take a short dhow ride or a 30-minute walk along the coast of Lamu city and you will start to see cleaner alleys, whiter walls and beaches becoming more attractive. Shela Village is the chic sister of Lamu Town, home to extravagant expats (think jewelry designers, architects and artists) and well-heeled tourists who visit during the high season. Shela Village is the tourist epicenter of Lamu, where you will find shops selling caftans, high-end cafes, beachfront villas bought and restored by rich foreigners (some turned out to be dubious) and about a Million stray cats.

The art of doing nothing

The highlight of Lamu is actually the absence of everything there are a few museums that are worth a quick visit, but the real attraction is simply being there. As the Kenyans say, “Pole Pole”, take it slowly. An ideal day in Lamu starts after in the morning with a sea breeze, Yoga and a great breakfast. Afterwards, head to the beach or a Walk around town before retiring to your resort for a good book by the pool or on your private rooftop terrace. Before you know it, it’s noon after, you dress casually and head to the Peponi or Majlis for a sunset and a sumptuous dinner. Rest and repeat.

Lamu Beaches-the islands of the Lamu Archipelago are lined with kilometers of white sandy beaches and just about all of them are completely devoid of sunlight, leaving endless white sandy beaches all to yourself. However, don’t expect too much in terms of beach bars and restaurants, as most of the beaches are completely undeveloped. For the easiest-to-reach beaches, head south from Shela, just past the Fort, or take a short dhow ride to Manda Island across the bay. We have been warned to keep an eye out for the wild buffaloes, as they do not seem delighted to see sun-hungry tourists on their territory.

Take a walk-completely lost-with a city so full of history that it would be a shame not to explore it. Although the real sites are not found, there are interesting sites to see. In the old town of Lamu, the lively market is a colorful affair and definitely worth a visit. Just like the lively port, where you will get a real idea of the daily life of Lamu. Also keep an eye out for wood carving and be tempted to send home some of the richly carved Swahili furniture (seriously, this is an interior designer’s wet dream). In addition, we recommend that you take a walk through the labyrinthine alleys and enjoy the beautiful architecture of Lamu. It’s almost impossible not to get lost here, so ask a friendly local for directions or pay one of the Beach Boys for a few bucks.

Take a dhow ride —no trip to Lamu is complete without a ride in a dhow, a traditional Arabic sailboat. Don’t worry about finding a captain to take you, because once you set foot on Lamu or Shela Beach, you will find them. Most excursions include a visit to the Takwa ruins and a barbecue picnic on the beach of Manda Island, but if you organize your trip with a self-employed and independent captain, the itinerary can be adapted to your preferences. Since not all captains are equally honest, it is better to plan a tour with your hotel or look for a reputable dhow tour operator. The Mozambique-style hippo dhow is receiving rave reviews and its friendly captain Yusuf Ahmed is working hard to make his trip go smoothly (pun intended).

Bring a piece of Lamu home – just like places like Marrakech and Rajasthan, Lamu is an interior designer’s dream destination. No wonder artists from all over the world have flocked here, because this place is incredibly inspiring. Browsing through Shela’s mansions is like walking on the set of Elle Decor, with Swahili daybeds, Vintage treasure chests and driftwood decorations that make us pale with envy. Lamu is also known for its finely carved wooden doors, although most of the original pieces have already been confiscated by savvy sellers. Although unfortunately we are not able to ship furniture, we managed to find souvenirs to bring some Lamu home. In the old town of Lamu you will find various shops selling tourist trinkets, while in Shela you will find a selection of products and antiques. At Aman Lamu, don’t forget to take a look at boho-chic kaftans, bags, sandals, jewelry and more, made from fabrics from India and Africa.

Stay stylish

For such a small island, Lamu has an insane amount of beautiful resorts, hotels and boarding houses. Whether you want to spend per night, you are sure to find something you like. Make sure to book in advance because the best offers fill up quickly during the high season.

Some of our favorites:

We stayed at the Majlis Resort on The Island of Manda, a magnificent charming complex built as the summer house of an Italian family. Filled with an eclectic mix of artwork and furniture from around the world, each space was a feast for the eyes. We loved the two swimming pools and the beautiful beach bar which was perfect for a sunset. Be sure to opt for a room with a sea view (we were on the first floor and had two balconies to ourselves) because the rooms at the back lack character.

The Red Pepper House, one of the most chic options on the Island. This secluded luxury resort, 2 kilometers north of the old town of Lamu, consists of only 5 rooms, deliciously decorated with an eclectic mix of African artifacts and Western works of art. The food is excellent, the staff is extremely helpful and the access to the private beach makes this resort a fantastic choice, although expensive.

An Instagram favorite is Fordhani House, a large whitewashed Villa located right on the beach in the village of Shela. The spacious living rooms, the picture book pool and the breathtaking view of the bay make it very difficult to leave the premises. The Fordhani House can accommodate up to 12 people in 5 different bedrooms, all with private bathrooms.

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