One time favourite destination on the hippy trail, the last few decades have seen Lamu making it onto the celebrity hideout scene where you’re just as likely to encounter European royalty as back packers.
Lying off Kenya’s north coast, Lamu was one of many coastal settlements created by Arab, Islamic merchants along the east coast of Africa. Inter marriage with the Africans resulted in a culture that became known as Swahili. Settled since the 14th century, Lamu’s character has Omani and Portuguese influences as a result of invasions and settlement over the course of its history. When, in the 1920s the town went into decline, its isolation from the rest of the world kept its identity and construction intact. When the rest of the world finally rediscovered the island in the 1960s, what they found was a Swahili settlement virtually untouched since the 18th century.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lamu town has no roads and no traffic, using donkeys to transport goods and people around the island. Traditional houses are constructed from coral and mangrove wood, streets are too narrow for more than two people to walk abreast and the sewers run open along the sides of the streets. Traditional sailing dhows carry passengers and goods to and from Manda Island and on cruises around the islands, their sails catching the sunset as it spreads en route to the coral houses of the town.
Most of Lamu’s well heeled property owners and visitors prefer to live and stay at the 8 mile long sand dunes and beach of Shela, two miles south of Lamu town, where Swahili houses have been converted into chic guest houses and night life consists of drinking on the verandah watching the dhows sail past at the only place in town that serves alcohol – Peponi Hotel.
Buzz Trips Opinion
Visiting Lamu town is leaving the world of Twitter and iPhones and stepping into a culture, time and place where your senses are assailed by the dust, sights, sounds and smells of a primitive past, all of which are intensified by the heat and glare of the sun. The mood is one of quiet conservatism where pointing a camera feels intrusive and all you want to do is wander, look and absorb all the fascination of this medieval, cloistered society where the women wear black bui-buis robes and veils, the men wear traditional kikoyi sarongs and donkeys doze on street corners, hoping the day’s work is done.
It’s ironic that in the 21st century of adventure travel where extreme sports are so readily available, flying from Mombassa to Manda Island in a prop plane flown by a flip flop wearing pilot and then transferring to a dhow sail boat to skirt across a thin strip of the Indian Ocean to Lamu Town is one of the most memorable experiences of our travels.