Swahili culture has fascinated me ever since I visited Mombassa and the surrounding coast in 2001. Unable to visit Lamu Island at the time, I promised myself that one day I’ll make it there. I managed to do just that in October 2012 and spent a memorable month in the heart of Lamu’s Old Town. What follows were the highlights of my trip.
1 Indulge in excellent food
Moonrise Restaurant, on the veranda of Lamu House Hotel, is the perfect place to watch life flow past. Over a cold drink you can watch the comings and goings of dhows and motorboats, hard-working donkeys, children splashing in the water, old men ambling past, or women on their way to or from the market. It serves excellent food, and has a set menu on a Friday night with live Swahili music. They also run The Beach Club on Manda Island where you can indulge in a set lunch, laze around on sun loungers, or cool off in the ocean.
Bustani Café is hidden in the labyrinth of streets of Lamu Town, so it is best to get someone to show you where it is the first time, even though, if you look carefully, small signs will guide you there. It is set in a lush courtyard with tables and chairs scattered into secluded corners, and is a perfect place to while away a couple of hours reading. The food is tasty and cheap, and you can also pick up the current edition of Chonjo, an excellent local magazine. Hadija Bwanaadi Ernst, does not just call this place home, but is also editor of the magazine.
Another gem in Lamu Town is Whispers Café. Here you can have an excellent cuppucino and freshly baked cake while reading one of the daily newspapers they provide. They serve a variety of delicious meals, and you can either sit inside or at the back in their shady courtyard. It is in the main street, next to Baraka Gallery, and easy to find.
An exceptional spot for a meal or a drink is the veranda of Peponi Hotel in Shela. The food is scrumptious, and it is the perfect place to soothe a parched throat after a long walk on Shela beach that starts at the hotel.
If you happen to be in town on a Saturday night, I strongly recommend you pop over to Diamond Beach Village on Manda Island for a movie and one of the best pizzas you’ll ever have. All al fresco. Go early to enjoy a swim and the spectacular sunset.
You can also have a meal at Subira House’s Karkadeh Restaurant, even if you are not a guest. You will have to book in advance though. Michael is a wizard in the kitchen, and your specially designed three course meal will reflect what is fresh and in season. Served in the courtyard under a canopy of stars, it will be one of your most memorable experiences on the island.
2 Go turtle watching
If you are visiting while the turtles are hatching, you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to witness this special event. Check with Peponi Hotel in Shela as to when the next excursion will be, or get your guest house to do it for you. You can read about my experience of it here.
3 Visit the past
Takwa ruins on Manda Island can only be accessed during high tide, but you can make a day out of it and pack lunch or combine it with a dhow trip that includes lunch on the beach and a swim. At the ruins you can either hire the local guide to tell you about the history of the town that dates back to the 1500s, or you can leisurely stroll through the site and allow your imagination free reign.
4 Spend time in paradise
Manda Bay is a boutique lodge located in one of the most beautiful and unspoilt spots on Manda Island. It is far beyond what we can afford, but it is only a 30 minute speedboat ride from Lamu Town, and an excellent place to gaze at the sea, sip a cool drink or two and allow the silence to permeate your being. You are also bound to meet interesting people here if you feel sociable. You will have to organise a speedboat that will wait for you, which can be a bit costly, but it will be worth it. If you enjoy deep-sea fishing, you can charter a boat from here. Read what my husband had to say about our experience, as well as my version of it. Close by is Manda Toto where there is excellent snorkelling. For this you can organise a dhow in either Lamu Town or Shela.
5 Spend time in Lamu Fort library
If you are interested in the history of Lamu and the surrounding area, you should spend some time in the library located within Lamu Fort. The staff is helpful and they have an extensive selection of books on the area. Choose a chair and table by one of the windows overlooking the square to add flavour to your reading time.
The maze-like streets of Lamu Town allow for an exciting shopping experience. They are filled with little shops and workshops where you can interact with the artisans before buying their wares. There are silver rings and pendants decorated with slivers of old Chinese pottery, colourful kikois, cheeky kangas, an assortment of items made from coconut shells, tie-dyed kaftans, and various imaginative items made from old flip-flops, to name but a few of the interesting things you will find. Artists abound and their creativity will blow your mind. Thus, allow yourself to get lost in the winding alleyways of Lamu Town. It is good to note that opening hours are flexible from day to day, especially after lunch, and when the shops are closed you may not even realise that you are walking past one. So wander around at different times of the day or evening.
7 Explore Shela
It is worth spending time exploring Shela, about an hour’s walk or a quick boat ride from Lamu Town. Shela is a beach town with many restored or new houses belonging to foreigners that include various members of the royal family of Monaco. It has a very different feel to Lamu Town and the shops here generally cater for a more affluent market.
Long walks on the seemingly endless beach at Shela is a must.
8 Take time to meet the locals
Allow yourself time to interact with the locals. The ‘beach boys’ you will meet everywhere, who are intent on selling you different tours may irritate you at times, but if you can keep your sense of humour, you will find the inevitable and unavoidable interactions delightful.
For a more relaxing encounter I highly recommend the Friday staff lunch at Subira House. You will, unfortunately, have to be a guest to partake in this heart-warming weekly event.
The town square in front of Lamu Fort is the gathering place for locals, and if you are lucky, you will be invited to sit and partake in the conversation.
Linger in the shops and workshops. The locals are all very eager to share their stories and their town with people who show an interest in their culture.
9 Sail anywhere in a dhow
There are many options and opportunities for sailing on dhows here. Use them all and enjoy every moment of it. Most guest houses have a relationship with a captain and will organise trips for you, or you can simply wander down to Shela beach where the Rastafarians hang out and do the negotiations yourself.
10 Stay at Subira House
If you want to feel as if you are part of a family during your stay, this is the place to lay down your head every night. For photographs of Subira House, click here.
11 Visit the donkey sanctuary
Apart from dhows and speedboats, donkeys, bicycles and hand-drawn carts are the modes of transport on the island. Lamu Island is practically without vehicles, apart from a tractor and motorbike or two, the commissioner’s Land Rover and the ambulance (which seems to function more like a taxi service). The narrow lanes do not allow for much more than a donkey, and they are used to transport almost everything on the island. The donkey sanctuary opened its doors in 1987, and owners can take their donkeys there for free treatment and advice. It is a wonderful place to visit and easy to find along the waterfront.
12 Get up early to witness the spectacular sunrises
* There is much more to do and experience in the Lamu Archipelago, and if you ever decide to visit Kenya, please do not, like many people, spend only 2 nights on Lamu Island. You will miss so much if you do that. Not everyone can spend a month here, but give yourself at least a week to adjust to the slower rhythm of this magical enclave.