Just off the coast of northern Kenya is a beautiful island unlike many others in the Indian Ocean. Like Mauritius or the Seychelles it has white sand beaches fringed with swaying palm trees and lapped by turquoise water, but it doesn’t have any resorts or beach bars. Instead there are just a handful of hotels, a few backpackers and some low-key luxury villas.
Lamu Island has no cars, so everything is transported on the backs of donkeys. Traditional dhows still sail out to sea each day, returning with the fresh catch. Hardly anyone seems to wear a watch. It’s almost as if it’s in a time warp: it seems blissfully unconnected to the modern rat race.
The island is home to the Kenya’s oldest town, Lamu Town, which still looks like it did in drawings from two centuries ago. The history and culture here have influences from Portugal, India, Oman and Persia (people on the east coast of Africa have been trading with the Middle East and Asia for over a thousand years).
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lamu Town is the best-preserved example of a traditional Swahili settlement: it’s all Arab-influenced architecture, old thick wooden doors from India, splashes of turquoise on walls, cool palm-tree shaded courtyards and tiny alleyways that smell of masala tea.
Lamu Town is great for wandering around: snack on newspaper-wrapped deep-fried cassava sprinkled with chilli, check out the fresh vegetable, herb and fruit market, browse shops full of African antiques and locally-made jewellery and visit the interesting museum. While there are hotels in the town, this is not the best place to stay – where you really want to spend most of your days is on Shela Beach, a perfect stretch of golden sand lapped by the warm, calm waters of the Indian Ocean, a short boat ride away from town.
The place to stay on Shela Beach is the Peponi Hotel, which is set right on the beach, with simple but stylish rooms decorated with traditional Swahili furniture with ocean views set among fragrant frangipane trees and coconut palms and a swimming pool under the shade of baobab trees.
Here you can go days lazing by the pool with a cocktail in hand, eating delicious Swahili curries and fresh seafood with coconut rice, and then fall asleep each night to the sound of lapping waves.
If you can drag yourself from the hotel, the little village behind Shela is lovely to explore, with a few shops selling locally designed jewellery, souvenirs and clothes – don’t forget to buy a traditional Kenyan kikoi, which can be used as a picnic blanket or a sarong.
Then there’s the long stretch of beach beyond the village to stroll along. The ocean’s warm enough to swim in for hours, and you can also go snorkeling on an offshore reef. Or take a boat trip to the centuries-old ruined city of Takwa on Manda Island, which is just across the channel from Shela. The one activity you shouldn’t miss is sailing on a traditional dhow at sunset with a Tusker beer, as you watch the sun dip behind the horizon and turn Lamu’s beautiful coastline golden.
However you end up spending your time, it’s so easy to slip into the relaxed rhythm of Lamu life that you’ll find it’s very hard to leave.
Sarah Duff is a freelance travel writer and photographer from South Africa whose assignments have taken her all over Africa. In the name of work she’s tracked mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda, driven around Malawi and Mozambique in a Mini, trekked over sand dunes in the Namib Desert, sailed dhows around Lamu Island in Kenya, eaten her way around Mauritius, hiked into an active volcano on Reunion Island and explored the South African bush on foot. www.sarahduff.com