Visitors can relax and escape from the hustle and bustle of city life on the beach in Lamu Island, Kenya.
Peaceful, magical and unspoiled by tourism, visitors will find it a haven of tranquility
Apart from the fascinating annual wildebeest migration, the dramatic Great Rift Valley, mountain highlands and the national parks and reserves filled with roaming wild animals, Kenya’s coast offers up some beautiful beach holiday spots and unique Swahili culture.
The port city of Mombasa is popular for beach destinations in Kenya. However, the little-known and overlooked Lamu Island is a unique tourist spot boasting a wealth of unrivaled experiences for holidaymakers.
In addition to the island’s unique culture, rich history and breathtaking long sandy beaches and rolling dunes, visitors can feel the slow pace of life there, which makes it an ideal place to unwind.
The island’s mesmerizing antique Swahili architecture and remoteness earned it a UNESCO World Heritage Site title in 2001.
The courtyard of the Lamu Fort serves as a place for the local community to hold meetings, celebrations, weddings and public performances.
The first place that any visitor should go to is the Lamu Old Town. There are several beautiful and historic buildings with unique coral stone decorations.
Dating back to the 14th century, the town is the oldest inhabited Swahili settlement and it is comparable to Zanzibar Island’s Stone Town in Tanzania. Lamu Old Town has about 1,200 old structures, and the architecture shows years of influence from Europe, Arabia, India and Persia among others.
While walking through the Lamu town’s narrow streets, visitors are greeted with intricately carved wooden doors, coral-stoned buildings, verandas and rooftop patios. There are no vehicles on the island, and donkeys, dhows and motorbikes – which were introduced recently and mostly used during low tides – remain the dominant forms of transport.
Lamu Museum, Lamu Fort, Swahili House and Shela village are some of the must-visit places at the island.
Located at the seafront, Lamu Museum is housed in a grand Swahili warehouse. The museum displays artifacts of the Swahili culture and the archipelago’s rich history.
It also exhibits interesting artworks and sculptures such as Chinese porcelain and ceramics – an indication of trade contacts between China and Kenya in the past.
Featuring a central courtyard and located in the center of town, Lamu Fort dates back to 1813.Between 1910 and 1984, it was used as a prison.
Today, the fort has a museum with an environmental conservation exhibition on its ground floor. The second floor houses offices, laboratories, a workshop and a rental conference venue hosting various local functions. It also houses a library with an excellent collection of Swahili poetry and reference material on the island. The courtyard serves as a local community area for meetings, celebrations, weddings and public performances.
The Swahili House Museum gives a glimpse into ancient Swahili home architecture. The house has thick walls, small windows and a high ceiling to provide a cool atmosphere, which does away with the need for air conditioners. The interior of the house features a reception room, two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a kitchen.
Shela Village is one of three villages in Lamu Island, with the other two being Kipungani and Matondoni. Located 3 kilometers from Lamu town, Shela features pristine white sandy beaches and rolling dunes dotted with palms and acacia tortilis trees.
It is also a great spot for photography during sunrise and sunsets, with the sandy pathways of Shela Village as a backdrop.
Shadrack Charo, a front manager at Peponi Hotel, said Shela is a must-see for any visitor to Lamu Island.
“If you come to Lamu and don’t step into Shela and specifically the beach, then you have not been in Lamu,” Charo said.
“It’s very safe to walk on the 12-km beach to Kizingoni at low tide. Peponi Hotel has employed policemen to walk along the beach to ensure safety of visitors. They are mostly in civilian wear.”
Shela Village is popular with Western expats and celebrities who visit the quiet settlement to unwind. Most property in Shela are owned by westerners.
In addition to sightseeing, visitors can participate in fun activities like boat rides on traditional dhows, snorkeling and diving.
The Floating Pub and Restaurant is a favorite spot for clubbing and partying.
Sunset and nightlife
A sunset sailing trip is the best experience to conclude the day’s activities, as visitors watch the sun set over the beautiful Lamu Archipelago. Visitors can also get the opportunity to explore mangrove bushes and view different species of birds on the sunset sailing cruise.
The Floating Pub and Restaurant is the local favorite for parties and dinners, and is mostly packed from 4 pm to midnight. It is also a fantastic spot to watch the sunset as visitors drink whisky and beer.
The pub is on a wooden pontoon supported by 250 plastic drums and floating in the channel between Lamu Town and Shela Village. The pontoon is made from traditional makuti and coconut timber lined with Swahili mats. The pub is only accessible by boat.
According to Pascal Baya, who has been working in the floating pub as a barman for the last five years, the pub is packed on Fridays and Saturdays with both local and foreign customers.
The food prices range from $1 to $12, while drinks cost $3. The pub is solar powered. The 10-year-old pub also hosts birthday and wedding parties.
Lamu town is Muslim dominated and its culture prohibits people from drinking beer in public. Thus, the pub is a favorite spot for clubbing and partying.
UNESCO recognized Lamu Island as a World Heritage Site in 2001 for its fascinating Swahili culture.
Lodging and dining
Lamu offers accommodation for all types of travelers, ranging from premium and luxurious to midrange and budget.
In terms of dining, one can feast on traditional Swahili cuisine, tasty and fresh seafood, or intercontinental cuisines.
Lamu has so many spacious restaurants serving nice and affordable Swahili cuisine such as pilau, biryani, coconut chicken curry, bhajia, coconut rice with mango chutney, and snacks like kitumbua and mahamri.
According to Charo, Lamu Island is a safe place and there have not been any recent security incidents involving tourists.
How to get there
It is advisable to fly to Lamu because there are safety concerns on the road to the island.
Lamu Island is serviced by an airstrip on the neighboring Manda Island. There are daily scheduled flights from Nairobi, Mombasa, Diani and Malindi. The average direct flight duration from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport to Manda Airport is 1 hour and 30 minutes, while a connecting flight is usually 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Passengers are then ferried by dhow to either Lamu town or Shela. A private boat ride from the airport costs between $5 and $10, while a ride on a public boat costs $1. From Shela to Lamu or vice versa, a private boat costs $5 in the daytime and double the price at night.