What you need to know:
Lamu Museum is a good place to learn about the Swahili culture and the nautical history of the coast. Built in 1813, Lamu fort was initially a Sultan’s fortress that later became a prison. Today, it is a national museum with a big collection of Swahili poetry.
“I recently discovered the delights of Lamu when Jambojet relaunched its flights to the coastal town after a four-year break.
I felt like I had stepped into a different world, one of culture, history, and an easy-going atmosphere.
From Manda Airport on the mainland, we crossed the channel on a motorised taxi boat, the typical form of transport to Shela on Lamu Island.
I have not been to Lamu in many years but not much seems to have changed besides the presence of boda bodas.
The six hotels I visited
I was expecting to find very few tourists during these Covid-19 times, but was pleasantly surprised to see guests in all the hotels we visited, and that most were Kenyans or resident expatriates.
I visited six hotels and stayed in three. At Peponi House, a family-run establishment opened in 1966, an initially four-bedroom house is now a 28-room boutique seafront property with rustic Swahili interiors.
Even if you are not booked into Peponi, stop by for a taste of their fantastic seafood. Our party had dinner on candlelit tables at the restaurant veranda, with magical views of the channel, moored boats and twinkling lights of Manda, and a fresh sea breeze blowing all evening.
Kijani Hotel, another old establishment with a charming, laid-back ambience on the Shela seafront, has 15 rooms, on two levels, arched walls and makuti roofs.
Resident tortoises live in the lush front garden around the swimming pool.
High Lamu beds, shuttered windows, and carved wall niches in the airy guestrooms give the feeling of a traditional home.
A leisurely breakfast in the upstairs restaurant was a great start to the day, watching the sea sparkling with the light of sunrise.
Also on the quayside and closer to Shela town is Petleys Inn, said to be the oldest hotel in East Africa at 170 years.
For a more luxurious option, there is Majlis Hotel on Manda Island. Its 25 rooms in several villas are spread out over the beachfront property.
In all the villas, I found amazing African art, paintings, sculptures, and cultural pieces.
There is more accommodation in the heart of town, where family homes have been converted into guesthouses.
These are ideal for holidaying families or groups of friends. I stayed at one such place on my last visit and remember that housekeepers attended to the rooms daily, a private chef cooked whatever we wanted and we dined on the rooftop.
Booking a Lamu hotel at half board or on bed and breakfast is a good idea as it allows you to try other eateries.
The average-looking Stopover Hotel between Kijani and Peponi hotel serves up some very tasty meals as well.
A flavoursome Swahili buffet lunch was served to us at Lamu House and afterwards, two Swahili women decorated our legs with heena designs.
Water sport activities
For the adventurous, there is a good selection of water sports such as windsurfing, water-skiing, snorkelling and paddle boating.
An easy kayak cruise through the mangrove creeks is my kind of excursion, where I can take some nature as well. On other days, we just relaxed by a swimming pool.
There are still no cars on Lamu Island and donkeys remain important for transport.
Each morning I saw donkeys herded down to the dockside to collect blocks of stone, bags of sand, and other goods newly arrived on boats.
Old town is a must-see
You can walk around by yourself or use a guide to lead you through the maze of narrow streets.
Walking in Old Town is like stepping back in time and some places are only wide enough to let one person through.
You need to stand aside for a loaded donkey to pass.
Nevertheless, the old quarters are bustling and we passed shops, businesses, curio stores, silversmiths, furniture yards, kiosks, boarding houses and mosques.
Culture lovers will marvel at the beautifully-carved Lamu doors and intricate trellis balconies, a heritage of the Arab Asian influences in the coastal region.
We had a look inside one of the original Lamu homes. A covered waiting area at the entrance was typically used as a baraza spot to chat with visitors.
The three-storey house was built around a central open courtyard that lets in lots of light and fresh air.
Decorative pieces were placed inside carved wall niches and an open rooftop area is a cool place for relaxing.
Lamu Museum is a good place to learn about Swahili culture and the nautical history of the coast.
Built in 1813, Lamu Fort was initially a Sultan’s fortress that later became a prison.
Today it is a national museum with a big collection of Swahili poetry in its library. All these historical treasures are what make Lamu a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Lamu, Pate and Manda are the largest islands of Lamu Archipelago. There are smaller islands such as Kiwayu, next to Kiunga Marine National Reserve, where we spent a couple of days.
The trip to Kiwayu on speed boats takes two hours and goes past the new Lamu Port, the starting point of the LAPSSET corridor and several small fishing villages.
At Kiwayu, we stayed at Mike’s Camp, one of the most secluded getaways in Lamu. Nestled high up on a hillside, the Camp has a gorgeous vista of the ocean.
This eco-friendly camp is entirely made from woven makuti mats and mangrove poles, and the sleeping bandas are modestly furnished.
On another day, we took a 30-minute boat ride through mangrove-lined channels to Takwa Ruins on Manda Island. The abandoned town was occupied between 1500-1700 AD but now, only ancient baobab trees bear witness to the crumbling walls of a once vibrant settlement.
Mosque and pillared tomb
A guide showed us around the old mosque, pillared tomb and sunken graves inlaid with ceramic plates from China.
Fighting with neighbouring communities and lack of freshwater are the likely reasons for Takwa’s abandonment although, it is still used as a prayer place by residents of Shela.
A late afternoon dhow ride was the perfect end to the day. The boat cruised quietly in the open sea, big canvas sails gently fluttering in the wind while we sipped our sundowner drinks against a stunning sunset.
Lamu is now more accessible with two airlines flying there and the daily bus ride from Mombasa and Malindi. My six-day trip went by too fast.
Facts about Lamu
Lamu Old Town is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, retaining its traditional functions.
Built in coral stone and mangrove timber, the town is characterised by the simplicity of structural forms enriched by such features as inner courtyards, verandas, and elaborately carved wooden doors.
Lamu has hosted major Muslim religious festivals since the 19th century, and has become a significant centre for the study of Islamic and Swahili cultures.
Unlike other Swahili settlements which have been abandoned along the East African coast, Lamu has continuously been inhabited for over 700 years.
The town is characterised by narrow streets and magnificent stone buildings with impressive curved doors, influenced by unique fusion of Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Indian and European building styles. The buildings on the seafront with their arcades and open verandas provide a unified visual impression of the town when approaching it from the sea.
Lamu Old Town, located on an island known by the same name on the coast of East Africa some 350km north of Mombasa, is the oldest and best preserved example of Swahili settlement in East Africa.
With a core comprising a collection of buildings on 16 ha, Lamu has maintained its social and cultural integrity, as well as retaining its authentic building fabric up to the present day. Once the most important trade centre in East Africa, Lamu has exercised an important influence in the entire region in religious, cultural as well as in technological expertise.
Lamu has retained its important status as a significant centre for education in Islamic and Swahili culture as illustrated by the annual Maulidi and cultural festivals.