A little island surrounded by the warm Indian Ocean, where narrow, winding alleys lead past the intricate carved doorways of majestic white stone houses and numerous mosques, spices and the smell of grilled food scent the air around the markets. After nightfall the streets are lit by lanterns, while the jinns fall asleep in their jinn jars in their family?s home. Lamu island, part of the Lamu Archipelago, situated on Kenya?s Northern Coast Line, offers a setting which could be swept away from a page in Schehezerade?s One Thousand and One Nights. Here time stands still.
The former protectorate of Oman and oldest Swahili trading port, holds over a thousand years of East African, Omani, Yemeni, Indian, Portuguese and Victorian British influences, which all left their mark on the island?s architecture, the language, the atmosphere, resulting in a mixture which can be best described as uncomplicated boho-chic. With mystique and calmness part of the island?s very essence, beaches are deserted, donkeys are the sole means of transport, electricity is a rare good, jinn jars are kept in every household. Lamu is a favorite Royal destination, frequently visited by English aristocracy, as well as Prince Ernst of Hannover and Princess Caroline of Monaco.
Dating back to the 12th century, Lamu Town is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and is steeped in history. The Lamu Museum, situated in the palace of the last English governor and known for its exquisite Swahili ethnography exhibits, offers an excellent introduction to Lamu?s local culture.
The numerous silversmiths, tailors, artisans and furniture stores of Lamu Town offer unique shopping finds such as handmade wooden furniture, jewelry, silverware, textiles and local art. The Baraka Gallery along the town?s main street is Lamu?s best-known arts and crafts store, with a wide range of items, from handmade slippers to beautiful homeware and African art. Aman boutique in Shela, a nearby village less than an hour stroll from Lamu Town, has an exclusive collection of fine clothing, and accessories, adding to the bohemian spirit of the island. Behind the Peponi Hotel Aalyshah Designs has a comprehensive range of beads, clothing, sandals and the Kikoy, the traditional striped cotton sarong.
The ocean plays a vital role in the life and livelihood of Lamu. A trip on one of the traditional wooden sailing dhows offers a relaxing way to travel to neighboring islands, Manda, Pate and Kiwayu, while passing by the dense mangrove forests, fishing villages, and dolphins? inviting you to swim with them. Also, Lamu?s rich underwater world makes for a wonderful snorkeling and diving spot, with many sites still unexplored.
The local dish par excellence is lobster, which can be enjoyed at the many open-air seafront restaurants like Olympic Restaurant, a quaint little restaurant down the opposite end of town, with on its menu an extensive seafood platter. The Hapa Hapa Restaurant is a favorite hangout for those who enjoy fresh fruit pancakes, fresh juices, like Passion Lime Juice and Avocado milkshakes. Hidden behind a corner near the Riyadha Mosque the friendly owner of Lamu?s Ice Cream shop produces his own ice cream from fresh fruits. Very refreshing and tasty, the ice cream shop is extremely popular with local kids, and although it requires a bit of asking around, it?s worth searching for. Because of its Islamic culture, alcohol isn't big in Lamu, but the Peponi Hotel in Shela offers wonderful cocktails on its terrace, which go well with its mixture of Swahili, Arabian and Indian cuisine, such as mild curries made from coconut sauce, spicy samosas in lime juice, or fish pilau infused with cinnamon, cumin, cardamom and chillies.
With a free boat shuttle from Shela jetty, the channel can be crossed from Lamu Island to Manda Island?s Ras Kitau Bay, home to The Majlis (Ras Kitau Bay, Manda Island, Lamu), a luxurious boutique hotel, with gorgeous views towards Shela Village. Owned by Italian gentleman ?Nanni? and his wife Elena, the hotel was originally built as a family retreat from the pressures of the world and Europe?s cold winters. Built from local bleached-white coral blocks and delicately styled to reflect a fusion of Italian style and Swahili culture, the cream-hued coral palace rises elegantly above the silver sands of Manda Island.
Inside, Nanni and his interior designer Armando Tanzini filled the rooms with delicate Swahili niches, intricate fretwork, luscious rugs, hand-made furniture and an eclectic collection of art, sculpture and carvings. Flamboyant paintings of artist and film director Julian Schnabel, painted on local dhow sails, hang on the pure white walls of the drawing room, alongside the works of local artists and Swahili craftsmen. The rooftop, containing an open air restaurant and rooftop bar, was constructed in a traditional Swahili style, featuring over one million palm leaf ?tiles? and a soaring Makuti (palm thatch) roof providing shade.
The islands of the Lamu Archipelago resemble a world before humans took over. It might be one of the best places to visit and do absolutely nothing. Barefoot.