Just off the coast of northern Kenya, some 300 km from Mombasa, Lamu Island has the perfect combination of tropical-island beauty (think near-empty white beaches fringed by palm trees), history and culture in a centuries-old town, and a low-key charm that you don’t find on many other African islands. In place of huge resorts and high-rise hotels, it has boutique hotels, family-run guest houses, and luxury villas tucked away in old stone buildings with evocative courtyards and rooftop restaurants. And instead of cars, there are sweet-natured grey donkeys plodding along and dhows with billowing sails gliding across the calm ocean. Step on to the island and it doesn’t take you long to take off your watch and slip into island time.
Founded in the 14th century, Lamu Town is the best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, and Kenya’s oldest town. An atmospheric world of old Swahili-style buildings splashed with turquoise, ornate carved wooden doors and labyrinthine alleyways where the fragrant smell of masala tea and spices waft out of restaurants, it’s a fascinating place to explore, and the museum should be your first stop. Delve into the town’s layers of history and rich Swahili culture while perusing exhibitions that span the centuries of this little island’s place on the millennia-old Indian Ocean trading routes.
While there are lots of hotels here, most travellers choose to stay in Shela Village, a 30-minute walk or short boat ride away on the northern end of the island. The sleepy little village has bucketloads of allure: Stone houses with simple symmetrical lines and Arab-influenced arches line narrow streets laden with pink bougainvillea, while the star attraction is the beach that lies in front of the village: 12 km of pristine white sand lapped by gentle waves.
In-between downtime spent lazing on a lounger watching the dhows sail past, exploring Lamu’s ocean surroundings takes more or less active forms. Hop on a boat and head off to a nearby offshore coral reef to snorkel with schools of tropical fish, turtles and dolphins, take some kitesurfing lessons from a school on Shela Beach, make a splash waterskiing and wakeboarding, go kayaking in the mangroves, or try your hand at deep-sea fishing for marlin, tuna, dorado and barracuda.
Then there are the more sedate options: Boat rides to a few of more than 65 islands that make up the Lamu Archipelago in search of deserted beaches and perfect picnic spots, or – an unmissable highlight – sailing on a dhow at sunset to watch the golden orb dip below the horizon with a Tusker beer or gin and tonic in hand.
For such a small island, Lamu has a generous sprinkling of chic boutiques and interesting shops. In Shela Village, browse Swahili-inspired Bohemian-chic kaftans, dresses, Masai jewellery and leather accessories made by a local designer at Aman Lamu, and shop for quirky artwork, cushions and bags made by local fishermen out of recycled sails and beach debris at Alilamu. Don’t forget to pick up some Kenyan kikoys from Aalyshah Designs to take home as gifts. In Lamu Town, Gallery Baraka has a good collection of African art, masks, jewellery and antiques. The town is home to crafts-people and artisans who create beautiful pieces, such as the wooden fish carved out of driftwood at Isiah’s workshop, and rings made out of porcelain salvaged from shipwrecks several centuries ago at silversmith Mohamed Omar’s workshop.
With its mixture of African, Arab and Indian influences, Swahili food is rich in flavour and spices, and the fresh seafood fusion dishes are definitely something to write home about. On wanderings around Lamu Town, try the street food: Piping-hot samosas and newspaper-wrapped deep-fried cassava sprinkled with chilli. You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to characterful restaurants: Tuck into ginger and chilli crab or punchy Swahili curry at Peponi Hotel’s sea-facing candlelit tables on Shela Beach, fish tacos at Moonrise Restaurant, tamarind fish and coconut rice while sitting on Swahili mats under the stars at Baitil Aman Guest House, prawn curry with pineapple crumble at Diamond Beach Village, and coconut crab at the rooftop restaurant of Msafini Hotel.
Where to stay
An excellent budget choice, family-owned Msafini Hotel in Shela Village wins good reviews for its homely atmosphere, clean minimalist rooms – each with its own private balcony – and for the rooftop restaurant, where Swahili dishes come with fabulous views.
Peponi Hotel on Shela Beach has been a Lamu favourite for decades – and for good reason. Offering beautifully decorated rooms in Swahili-style buildings spread out in a pretty garden on the beachfront, and a baobab-shaded swimming pool overlooking the ocean, the unpretentious hotel seals the deal with its friendly staff, superb food at the romantic veranda restaurant, and an inviting bar.
Red Pepper House
With just five spacious villas featuring private beach areas and bomas, set between a beach and a forest close to Lamu Town, the Red Pepper House couldn’t be more exclusive and intimate. The hotel’s award-winning design and stylish decor – an eclectic mix of crystal chandeliers, traditional Swahili furniture, tribal masks and colonial antiques – is a highlight, but the standouts are the attentive service from your butler, and the personalised activity itinerary, which makes the best of your time on the island.