Lamu was once an essential stop during any trip to Kenya. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this historic Swahili town is home to wandering donkeys and lazy dhow boats sailing by: it is magical, mystical, idyllic.
Yet many tourists have avoided Lamu in recent years due to security concerns. But, with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office lifting the travel advisory on Lamu Island earlier this year, there has never been a better time to visit before the crowds rush back. Here’s what you need to know for your trip:
Founded in the 14th century, Lamu is the best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Over the centuries, the island has been inhabited by Asians, Persians, Indians, Europeans and Kenyans, and as a result it has a unique charm of blended cultures. Crumbling old forts lie next to elegant rooftop cafés; narrow, cobbled streets wind past intricately carved front doors; Muslim school children laugh and play in the street between lessons.
But huge infrastructure projects, such as the Lamu Port, a multibillion-pound development of Lamu's harbour area, threaten to change the isle forever. It may be a case of seeing Lamu in all its age-old splendour, before it's too late.
Lamu Old Town has a wealth of beautiful, historic buildings, so a tour of this area is a good place to start your exploration. The Lamu Museum is here, offering an introduction to the island’s rich history and architecture. Just down the road from the museum, pop into Lamu Fort, which was built by the Sultan of Paté between 1810 and 1823. During British Colonial rule, the fort was used as a prison – today it’s a library.
For the past five years, Lamu has also been home to an annual yoga festival, attracting flexible travellers from across the globe for four days of classes, meditation sessions and workshops on the beach. This year’s festival takes place from November 1–5, but yoga classes run daily at the Banana Health and Wellness Centre in Shela Village throughout the year.
As the afternoon ebbs away, take a dhow boat ride from Shela beach or Lamu Old Town jetty along the sheltered strait of water between the island and the mainland. Your accommodation can usually book these trips for you, and the traditional old sailboats are often bedecked with chunky cushions to laze back on and a cool box of chilled drinks to enjoy as you sail into the sunset.
Lamu is full of hidden rooftop restaurants and simple little venues to choose from. One popular haunt is Whispers. Tucked away off the main street in Lamu Town, it’s a café and coffee shop serving iced drinks, fresh soups and smoothies in its covered outdoor garden.
If you're feeling flush, take the short boat ride across from Shela Village to The Majlis Resort on Manda Island. The restaurant here is superb, and lunches include zingy mango salads, garlicky al-dente spaghetti and crisp white wine.
A local favourite is the Floating Boat bar, bobbing around in the mangroves of Manda Bay. It’s a simple spot with a lively crowd and is accessible only by boat.
The go-to spot for stylish sundowners in Lamu is the Peponi Hotel. Sitting right on the beach front in Shela Village, the 50-year-old, family-run establishment does a mean gin and tonic and perfectly chilled local beers. If you’re feeling adventurous, try an Old Pal – it’s the signature cocktail, and they keep the recipe under lock and key.
Arriving into Lamu Town by boat, one of the first buildings you’ll spot on the waterfront is Amu House, harming guesthouse with central pool courtyard and rooms overlooking the sparkling archipelago. The location is ideal: right on the edge of Old Town with its fort and locals trading goods at the market.
On the east of the island is Shela Village, a tranquil location with lots of cafés, restaurants and beautifully crafted Swahili houses to rent out for groups. The whitewashed Shella White House is set right on the waterfront, with the pool overlooking the dhow boats floating by.
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