An African idyll where time has stood still - with its warm welcome, gorgeous beaches and vibrant Swahili culture, the Kenyan isle of Lamu is the perfect winter getaway.
In 1883 Jack Haggard, recently appointed Britain’s first ever Vice Consul in Lamu wrote to his family in England:
If it ever falls to your lot to live in a second Lamu, you will know what perfect peace and quiet is, and happiness too beyond any I have before experienced. It is too good to last. I have no cares, no troubles, no anxieties, plenty to do, a good climate, good health, a kindly population well disposed towards me. The few inconveniences do not counterbalance all these blessings, and I am grateful, but it is too good to last…
Very happily, and quite contrary to Captain Haggard’s expectations, Lamu’s many blessings have lasted and endured – the peace and quiet, the happy isolation and the kindly population that he so enjoyed are still very much intact 125 years later. Indeed the island often seems to have been frozen in time about 100 years ago – and remains largely undisturbed by the cares of the 20th Century, much less the 21st. There are still no cars on the little island (well one or two if you count the District Commissioner’s Land Rover and the occasional tractor) and no real roads to drive them on, and almost all transport is still by sailing dhow or motorboat, donkey or foot.
Lamu is not a place that much believes much in progress - or indeed in haste of any kind – life is lived at a leisurely pace, and its physical appearance and character have changed very little in centuries. The historic layout of the Old Town remains intact – the same maze of narrow, shady streets - most only wide enough to accommodate a fully-laden donkey, the same coral stone houses and mosques, the same ancient sailing dhows and fishing boats at anchor in the port. The population and culture of Lamu remain very largely Muslim. With more than thirty mosques, the island echoes to the muezzins’ call to prayer five times a day. Men still wear full length khanzu robes and embroidered kofia caps, and women often wrap themselves in an all-enveloping black buibui.
The island's venerable old town blends Arab and African culture with a sun-baked, siesta-time feel that gives it a wonderfully sedate charm
Remote and self-contained Lamu may be, but it has always been a sophisticated, tolerant and hospitable place. Lamu’s distinctive Swahili culture is the result of an intermingling over the centuries of many different influences – African, Arabian, Indian, Persian and European to name but a few – brought to Lamu by merchants, travellers, colonisers and conquerors. These influences show themselves to this day in Lamu’s religious and social traditions, architecture, furniture, cookery and many other aspects of daily life.
From Vasco da Gama to Barack Obama, Mahatma Gandhi to Mick Jagger, through the centuries Lamu has always attracted the curious, the celebrated and the cosmopolitan. And in recent years the island has gained a reputation as something of a low-key hideaway for European royalty and international celebrities. Certainly Lamu has always attracted and inspired the spiritual, the creative and the artistic – and the island now hosts regular gatherings of writers, artists and film makers. Regular yoga retreats are also organised at the very special Fatuma’s Tower yoga centre.
Lamu offers the irresistible lure of pristine beaches, ancient ruins, plentiful restaurants, fishing and scuba diving – all in a low key environment that practically whispers ‘do not disturb’
Just a few of the many other sights, tastes and experiences that make Lamu so special - The first captivating glimpse of Lamu Town across the lagoon from the Manda airport jetty – a sight that never fails to lift the spirits of even the weariest traveler. Lamu’s famous cats – whose sleek bodies and elfin faces hint at their Egyptian ancestry. The busy, animated street life when the town comes alive in the late afternoon after a long siesta. Wonderful seafood – succulent prawns, lobster, crab, snapper and tuna – all cooked in distinctive Lamu style with coconut and exotic Indian Ocean spices. Mouthwatering fruits – Lamu’s sweet mangos are renowned all along the Kenyan coast. Shopping for kickois and other colourful local fabrics in Lamu’s dukas and markets. Sunset cruises – sailing the Lamu Channel in a traditional lateen dhow, watching the moon rise above Manda Island. The balmy climate – warm tropical days and humid nights cooled by the sea breeze. The magic of the huge, starry equatorial night sky - the milky way often seems close enough to touch. And most imoportantly of all – the time and space to slow down and let go with family and friends. In a world that is increasingly homogenized and harried, Lamu makes a wonderfully authentic and unhurried retreat.
NEW YORK TIMES
Sleepy yet sophisticated, Shela is probably the most relaxing and seductive place you will every visit. Sitting a mile or two south of Lamu Town, where the channel meets the ocean, Shela has a languid, undisturbed atmosphere all its own. Only a generation ago Shela was being described as something of a ghost town, but in the past decade many of the village’s historic Swahili houses have been beautifully renovated, and any number of ravishing holiday homes and guest houses built along the village’s pretty waterfront and jumble of narrow sandy streets. Beyond the charming Peponi Hotel, centre of Shela social life, the beach stretches almost as far as the eye can see – miles and miles of empty white sand facing the Indian Ocean and backed by magnificent dunes.
Most visitors to Shela are lulled into a sense of blissful indolence, content to stroll along the beach, browse in one of the village’s boutiques, enjoy a cocktail or two at Peponi, or simply to subside on a shady rooftop with a book and enjoy the rhythms of the day. For the more energetic there is deep-sea fishing, scuba-diving, sea-kayaking, windsurfing and waterskiing available. Shela has a thriving holiday rental market and many of the gorgeous private houses in the village are available to rent through rent through Lamu Retreats and Shela House.
Talcum-soft sand, maze-like alleyways filled with the scent of spices, ancient dhows bobbing on the Indian Ocean…
The eight-mile crescent of Lamu Beach runs south from the Swahili village of Shela. The dawn walk along the water’s edge to breakfast at Kizingo Lodge is a rare chance to explore a virgin Indian Ocean beachscape. Translucent pink crabs scuttle into the sea, sand dollars litter the beach like confetti and birdsong drifts from the dunes beyond
‘The World’s Best Beaches’ DAILY TELEGRAPH
Lamu Town was established before the fourteenth century, but the island had already been settled long before, and travelers from Arabia and around the Indian Ocean have known of Lamu for 2000 years. In 1505 a Portuguese warship arrived at the island, and Lamu’s rulers agreed to pay cash tributes to the Portuguese in return for their not sacking in the island. Portuguese dominance of Lamu continued for 180 years, threatened only briefly by a Turkish fleet.
Through the centuries, merchants and travelers from Arabia arrived and settled in Lamu and other towns along the East African coast, creating a network of Swahili city states that stretched the length of the East African coast – from Mogadishu in the north to Mozambique island in the south – and including Pate, Malindi, Mombasa, Zanzibar and Kilwa. These ports became the gateways for external trade with Africa – exporting slaves, ivory, tortoiseshell, animal hides, ambergris and other precious commodities to Arabia, Europe and across the Indian Ocean.
Lamu's ‘Golden Age’ began at the end of the seventeenth century. The Portuguese had been ousted by the Omani Arabs, and Lamu prospered and flourished for the next 150 years. Ruled by the Yumbe council of elders, Lamu was controlled only loosely by the Omanis. Lamu became the dominant port on the East Africa coast and a center of religious education, poetry, politics, arts and crafts as well as the trade which made it rich. It was during this period of prosperity that most of Lamu’s magnificent stone mansions and townhouses were built by its wealthier inhabitants. The town’s unique Swahili Architecture is one of its most enduring legacies.
Lamu was often in competition and conflict with other East African port cities, and in 1812 the island was attacked by a force led by the Mazrui Arabs of Pate and Mombasa. The invaders were defeated at the Battle of Shela, and the Lamu Yumbe, fearing bloody reprisals, asked the Sultan of Oman for protection. From their new base in Lamu, the Omanis proceeded to dominate the entire East African coast, eventually moving their Sultanate to Zanzibar. With the abolition of the slave trade, and the growing dominance of Mombasa and Zanzibar, Lamu went into a steep decline at the end of the 19th century, and remained almost frozen in time for the next hundred years.
Lamu seemed like some ancient vessel becalmed in the seas of history, its sails furled, unrocked by tempests, even the barnacles on its keel fast asleep.
Elspeth Huxley, Out in the Midday Sun
Visitors should not miss a visit to the excellent Lamu Museum, which is filled with historical artifacts and insights into the history, culture and archaeology of the region. Lamu Fort dominates the town square, and was built by the Omanis as a garrison in the early 19th century. Used as a prison for many years, it now houses a library, the town’s conservation department and hosts regular photographic and ethnographic exhibitions. Lavish Swahili wedding parties often take place in the courtyard of the fort, and female visitors are usually very welcome to attend.
The Swahili House Museum is a recreation of a traditional small coral stone house built in the early 18th century and is filled with traditional furniture and decorative plasterwork. Lamu’s grand Riyadah Mosque was built in the late 19th Century by Islamic scholar Habib Swaleh and is the focus for Lamu’s annual Maulidi Celebrations. These take place in May or June and commemorate the birth of the Prophet Mohamed, attracting pilgrims from all over East Africa and the wider Islamic World.
Lamu’s popular Swahili Cultural Festival takes place every November and celebrates every aspect of the Swahili way of life - including concerts of taarab music from Mombasa and Zanzibar, demonstrations of traditional arts, crafts and dances, films and talks on Swahili history and civilisation, and even riotous dhow and donkey races.
Matandoni and Kipungani are the only other settlements on Lamu - both are sleepy fishing and farming villages on the island’s west coast. Beyond Kipungani and close to the southern tip of the island are two remote and relaxing beachfront lodges – Kipungani Explorer and Kizingo, and a low-key, eco-friendly development of luxurious beach houses – Kizingoni Beach.
You're guaranteed to have Manda beach to yourself - except for the fishermen who arrive with baskets of just-caught sailfish, tilapia, lobster and fat shrimp for your cook to choose from
NEW YORK TIMES
Manda Island is Lamu’s nearest neighbour - its dense, bushy interior quite different to Lamu’s more open landscape. Manda is known for its wonderful bird life and attracts wildlife from the mainland too - it is home to wide variety of animals, from monkeys, antelopes and anteaters to the occasional buffalo and elephant and even lion. Manda’s long sandy beach looks across the channel to Shela and is a popular place to swim and sunbathe, its simple little eco-lodge Diamond Beach Village is a lovely place to stay and unwind. Manda is also home to the beautiful Takwa Ruins – the ancient remains of a Swahili town deserted in the 17th Century – accessed along a tiny channel through the mangroves which fringe much of the island. The ruins are highly atmospheric, particularly in the late afternoon light and make a memorable dhow-excursion from Lamu or Shela. On the ocean side of Manda, through the narrow Mkanda channel, pretty little Manda Toto (‘baby Manda’) Island is a nice place to swim, snorkel and picnic. Nearby is the luxurious and exclusive resort of Manda Bay.
A beguiling archipelago whose inhabitants live closer to the age of Sinbad than to the 21st century… Theirs is a luminous world - half sea, half sky, divided by low horizons of dunes, mangrove creeks, deserted beaches and coral reefs… Its waters are the haunt of turtles, pelicans, dugongs and whale sharks.
A few miles north of Manda lies fascinating Pate Island – remote, inaccessible and archaic even by Lamu standards. A trip to Pate is a worthwhile adventure and gives an insight into how life was lived in the archipelago in centuries past. Once an important town in its own right and rival to Lamu, Pate Town was founded in the early days of Islam and settled by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. On its outskirts are the Nabahani Ruins – the remains of an ancient Arab Town abandoned in the early 19th Century. Pate’s livelihood now relies on fishing and the cultivation of tobacco and bananas. At Siyu, in the centre of the island, once an important centre for Islamic scholarship, silk weaving and other crafts, there is an impressive Omani Fort, recently restored by the National Museums of Kenya, and some interesting domed tombs. Close to the south east coast of the island lie the extensive Shanga Ruins. The sleepy villages of Faza and Kisingitini on the island’s north coast are centres of dhow-building and lobster fishing. Further north still is the romantic Robinson Crusoe-style desert island of Kiwayu – home to the utterly laid-back and hedonistic Munira Island Camp.
Take a journey to Nairobi and the old Muthaiga Club, or to Lamu, where the long white beach is, with the dhows beached on their sides and the wind in the palms at night
Ernest Hemingway, The Fifth Column
Getting to Lamu is easy, but forcing yourself to leave can be harder… Lamu is served by up to four scheduled flights a day from Nairobi – on Kenya Airways, Air Kenya, Fly 540 and Safarilink – the quickest flights take just over an hour. There are also regular flights down the coast to Malindi and Mombasa. Flights arrive at the charming little airport on neighbouring Manda Island, from where it is just a few minutes ride by dhow or motorboat across the channel to Lamu.
Nairobi is very well served by international flights to the UK, Europe and beyond. British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Kenya Airways fly direct to and from London Heathrow daily. KLM, Emirates, Air France, Egypt Air and others all fly to Nairobi and have daily connecting flights to the UK.