Swahili Dreams — a Guide to Lamu, Kenya

Oh, Lamu… mention its name and we get flashbacks of golden sunsets, swaying palms, whitewashed Swahili villas and bougainvillea-covered terraces. This little island, just off the coast of Kenya, was the absolute highlight of our trip to Kenya, yet it remains surprisingly (and luckily) off the well-trodden tourist trail. Don’t make the same mistake as many travelers in Kenya make nowadays – yes, the place can be quite a hassle to get to, but no, absolutely don’t skip it.

St. Barth’s, St. Tropez, Lamu

Ever since the late sixties, Lamu lured the jet set all the way from London and New York for lavish parties in luxurious villas on the beach. The prince of Monaco owns three houses here, and apparently, it was not too uncommon to bump into the likes of Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell while taking a stroll around town. The island was also home to various artist retreats, attracting big figures from the international art scene.

When artists like Marina Abramovíc and Anish Kapoor make the pilgrimage to work here, you know you’re in for something special.

Recent history, however, is unfortunately a bit less glamorous. Between 2011 and 2014, Lamu’s idyllic image was tarnished by reports of terrorist attacks and tourist kidnappings by Somali pirates, followed by negative travel advisories from various governments in the West. From one day to another, Lamu was no longer a place to stop en route from St. Barth’s to St. Tropez. Visitor numbers dropped, understandably, and parts of Lamu changed into somewhat of a ghost town. While some governments still strongly advise against traveling to the archipelago, visitor numbers have gone up again in recent years, giving Lamu a chance to redefine itself.

One island, two faces

lamu mapLamu is a place of contrasts. When stepping out of your propeller plane at the ramshackle Manda Airport, you’re immediately thrown back in time while you take a short boat transfer to Lamu Old Town right across the bay, the oldest settlement in the archipelago. This Swahili town, a UNESCO world heritage site since 2001, is like the Zanzibar of yesteryear where mosques call for prayer multiple times a day, burqa-clad women scurry around its narrow alleyways and fishermen sail out in the early morning to catch fish in old-school dhow boats. Here,  you’ll also be hard-pressed to find a taxi to bring you from A to B, as cars are virtually non-existent. Instead, people rely on some 3000 donkeys to transport people and wares through the town’s winding streets.

But then there’s Shela. Take a short dhow ride or a 30-minute walk along the coastline from Lamu Town and you gradually see alleyways getting cleaner, walls getting whiter and beaches becoming more appealing. Shela Village is the posh sister of Lamu Town, home to flamboyant expats (think jewelry designers, architects and artists) and well-heeled tourists visiting in high season. Shela Village is Lamu’s tourist epicenter where you’ll find boutiques selling $200 kaftans, upscale cafes, beach-side villas bought up and restored by rich foreigners (some turned out questionably kitsch) and about a million stray cats.

Lamu Souvenir

The art of doing nothing

Lamu’s highlight is actually the absence of any must-see’s. There are a few museums that are worth a quick visit, but the real draw is just being there. As the Kenyans say, “pole pole“, take it slow. An ideal day in Lamu starts in the late morning, waking up with a sea breeze and, some yoga and a big breakfast. Then, it’s either off to the beach or a stroll around town before you retreat back to your resort for a good book at the pool or on your private rooftop terrace. Before you know it, it’s late noon, you don some casual-chic attire and head to the Peponi or the Majlis for a sundowner and a lavish dinner. Rest and repeat.

Lamu’s Beaches — The islands in the Lamu Archipelago are fringed by kilometers of white sand beaches and pretty much all of them are completely free from sun-seekers, leaving endless stretches of white sand all for yourself. Don’t expect too much in terms of beach bars and restaurants, though, as most beaches are completely undeveloped. For the easiest accessible beaches, head south from Shela just past the fort, or take a short dhow ride to Manda Island just across the bay. We’ve been warned to look out for wild buffalos, as they are apparently not thrilled about seeing sun-seeking tourists in their territory.

Shela Village, Lamu
Shela Village, Lamu

Get wander-fully lost — With a town so steeped in history, it’d be a shame not to explore it. While there’s an absence of real must see’s, there are quite some interesting sights to be seen. In Lamu Old Town, the lively market is a colorful affair and definitely worth a visit. As is the busy port, where you’ll get a true feel of  Lamu’s daily life. Also look out for wood carving workshops and be tempted to ship some of its intricately carved Swahili furniture back home (seriously, it’s an interior designer’s wet dream). Moreover, we urge you to just stroll around the maze-like alleyways and soak up Lamu’s beautiful architecture. It’s almost impossible to not get lost here, so ask a friendly local for directions or pay one of the beach boys to guide you for a few dollars.

Take a dhow ride  No trip to Lamu is complete without a ride in a dhow, a traditional Arab sailing vessel. Don’t worry about finding a captain to take you, because as soon as you step a foot on Lamu or Shela beach, they will find you. Most trips include a visit to the Takwa Ruins and a BBQ picnic on the beach on Manda Island, but when you arrange your trip with an independent ‘freelance’ captain, the itinerary can be tailored to your preferences. As not all captains are equally honest, your best bet is to either arrange a tour with your hotel or look out for a reputable dhow-trip organiser. Mozambique-style Hippo Dhow receives raving reviews and its friendly captain Yusuf Ahmed works hard to make sure your trip will sail smoothly (pun intended).

Take a bit of Lamu home — Just like places like Marrakech and Rajasthan, Lamu is an interior designer’s dream destination. It’s no wonder artists from around the world flocked here, as this place is incredibly inspirational. Browsing around Shela’s villas is like walking on the set of ELLE Decor, with Swahili daybeds, vintage treasure chests and driftwood decorations making us green with envy. Lamu is also known for its elaborately carved wooden doors, although most of the original pieces have already been snatched up by savvy salesmen. While we’re unfortunately not in the position to ship out some furniture, we did manage to find some keepsakes to bring a bit of Lamu back home. Dotted around Lamu Old Town you’ll find various shops selling tourist trinkets, while in Shela you’ll find a selection of curated goods and antiques. Don’t forget to take a look at Aman Lamu for boho-chic kaftans, bags, sandals, jewellery and more, crafted from fabric sourced from India and around Africa.

Stay in style

For such a small island, Lamu has an insane amount of beautiful resorts, hotels and guest houses. Whether you want to spend $25 or $2500 a night, you’ll be sure to find something you’ll like. Make sure to book ahead, as top choices quickly fill up in the high season.

Some of our favorites:

The Majlis Resort, Lamu
The Majlis Resort, Lamu

We stayed at The Majlis Resort on Manda Island, a gorgeous boutique resort that was built as an Italian family’s summer house. Filled with an eclectic mix of artwork and furniture from around the world, every space was an absolute feast for the eyes. We loved the two swimming pools and the beautiful beach-facing bar that was perfect for a sundowner. Make sure you opt for a sea-view room (we stayed on the first floor and had two balconies to ourselves), as the rooms in the back lack some character.

The Red Pepper House, one of the swankiest options on the island. This secluded luxury resort, 2 kilometers north of Lamu Old Town consists of just 5 rooms exquisitely decorated with an eclectic mix of African artifacts and Western works of art. The food is outstanding, the staff is beyond helpful and the private beach access makes this resort a fantastic – albeit pricey – pick.

An Instagram-favorite is the Fordhani House, a large whitewashed villa smack on the beach in Shela Village. The huge lounge areas, the picture-perfect pool and the stunning views over the bay make it very difficult to ever leave the place. Fordhani House can accommodate up to 12 people in 5 different bedrooms, all with private en-suite bathroom.

Another way to ‘do’ Lamu in style is by staying in one of the gorgeous villas in Shela village. Most of these European-owned villas function as vacation homes and are only used for a few months per year, leaving them available on Airbnb most of the time (sign up using this link for $30 travel credit). In most cases, you will be taken care of by the friendly staff that will likely be able to provide you with breakfast and dinner.

Getting there

It’s not possible to reach Lamu directly from outside Kenya, so a stop in Nairobi is necessary (spend the night at Tribe Hotel). Several flights leave from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport (NBO) and Wilson Airport (WIL) daily, usually with a short stop in Malindi – resulting in a flight time of just under two hours. Flights also leave from Mombasa (MBA), landing in Lamu just 45 minutes later. It’s also possible to reach the archipelago by bus from Mombasa or Malindi, you’ll be dropped off at the jetty in Mokowe from where you can take a public ferry or private boat to Lamu town. However, roads can be rough and there have been reports of attacks on public buses in this part of the country, so flying is recommended.

More Lamu? Check out the insider guides by the awesome Kenyan travel writer Wendy Watta