Escape to Lamu: Paradise on Kenya's Coast

Just south of the equator, tucked along Kenya's lush, tropical coast, a tiny island called Lamu has kept the modern world at bay.

Once a thriving Arab port, this sleepy, exotic Swahili town now gets by on donkeys and sailing vessels called "dhows" and has little desire for an upgrade.

Visitors often describe Lamu as an African Ibiza, an intoxicating mix of Portuguese, Omani and Swahili culture, popular with British aristocrats.

"Its greatest attraction is the lack of the automobile, and long may we keep it this way. And [of course] the casual mixing of cultures and relaxed atmosphere," said Carol Korschen, whose family runs the Peponi, Lamu's best-known hotel.

During the 1960s and '70s, the island earned a reputation as a hippie hideaway for European expats who were living in Kenya or sailing through the Indian Ocean. Today, Lamu retains a small but devoted group of Westerners who have bought homes or continue to make regular trips, including Prince Ernst of Hanover and some Hollywood stars who go there to retreat for months on end.

Lamu is comprised of an archipelago of seven islands that boast miles-long stretches of unspoiled white-sand beaches, perfect for swimming, sailing and snorkeling. The main island is roughly the size of Manhattan, with a population of 15,000. Expats congregate in the tiny village of Shella, most days on the Peponi's swanky seaside terrace.

Though Kenya has had a tumultuous year, with violence breaking out during spring elections, the melting pot of cultures in now-Muslim Lamu coexist remarkably peacefully. This UNESCO World Heritage Site makes an ideal destination for anyone looking to escape.

A Brief History

Lamu first appeared on the map more than 1,000 years ago as a Swahili settlement island on the trade route from Mombasa to Mozambique. In 1506 the Portuguese invaded, taking over the lucrative trade of slaves, ivory and mangrove.

Locals tend to a dhow, left, and Muslim men pass time by the shore.

During the 17th century, Lamu fell to Omani rule, as the empire expanded around the Indian Ocean. Under the Omanis, Islam took hold as the local religion and the slave trade grew. During Lamu's 19th century golden age, wealthy Arab merchants built large private estates on the shore, whose ruins and renovations still stand.

Under the British Empire the slave trade was abolished and Lamu's economy sank. Today, fishing, trading and tourism keep its livelihood afloat.

What to Do

Set Sail. Lamu runs by sea. A trip on a traditional dhow, a lateen-rigged Medieval Arab sailing vessel, is a must. A three-hour sail to the Takwa ruins on Manda island traces miles of pristine beach and goes through a beautiful mangrove channel, prime for bird-watching.

Views of local houses from the water can be thatched huts, left, or a renovated villa.

Excellent deep-sea fishing can be found off the coast, including tuna, wahoo, barracuda and sailfish. Or try fishing closer to shore and make a picnic. Your boat crew can help you catch and prepare a barbecue for lunch.

For a more romantic ambiance, take a sunset tour around the mangrove channel or plan for a picnic on the full moon cruise.

Get in the Water. Stunning coral reefs, exotic fish and clear waters make for fantastic snorkeling and scuba diving. Both can be found on Manda Island, just across from Shella. The bigger reefs are located 45 minutes away by speedboat.

Depending on the tide and the trade winds, Lamu offers ideal conditions for water-skiing and windsurfing. Instructors and equipment are available for hire along the beach.

Soak up local culture. Explore the villages of Shella and Lamu by twisting and turning through a labyrinth of narrow alleys. On Shella, the path alternates from sand to scrappy pavement. A strolling donkey or a barefoot child playing are likely to be found as you turn a corner. Up above, bougainvillea sprawls indiscriminately, from the white-washed villas to 19th century ruins. Consisting of only approximately 100 houses, the whole village can be toured by foot in 30 minutes. writer Olivia Sterns in Lamu's town square, where donkeys roam as freely as people.
The busier town of Lamu bustles around the fresh food markets in the town square. Here women in black full-body "bui buis," men in prayer caps and many more wearing Kenyan "kikoy" (sarongs) intermingle. Check out the local shops and stop by the Whispers cafe if you're craving some continental food. Don't miss the local museum and its exhibition of recreated traditional Swahili rooms.

Where to Stay

The nicest place to stay on the coast of Kenya is the Peponi. Started in 1967 by a Danish traveler, this gem of a hotel is still impeccably well run by the founding family, combining European elegance and Swahili culture.

The porch of the famed Peponi hotel, left, and a view from a Peponi room terrace.

The Peponi's iconic sprawling white villa is perched on a private corner of Shella's shore. All rooms take advantage of this breathtaking water view. The hotel, and indeed its swanky Italian-style cocktail bar, are the heart of the expat community in Lamu. Be sure to order an "Old Pal," the house speciality.

Though the entire island offers escapism, to retreat from any kind of scene, hide away at Fatuma's Tower.

Fatuma Tower's lush inside courtyard, left, and the hotel's entrance.

Just a few blocks up from the beach, branches and flowers burst through the now-renovated ruins of this historic Omani house. Staying in one of the 12 guest rooms in this castlelike complex feels like an intimate fairy tale. Be sure to take a yoga class with Gillies, the proprietor.

Another excellent option is to rent a villa in Lamu, particularly if you're traveling with family. Lamu Retreats offers luxury houses just steps from the beach. Options range from three to 10 bedrooms and include the upbeat hospitality of Swahili staff.

When to Go

Sitting on the equator, seasons and daylight time vary little in Kenya. On average, the weather in Lamu is brilliantly sunny and dry (approximately 80 to 95 degrees), except for a two-month rainy season between April and May. August and December through January are the two high seasons when visitors flock for weeks at a time on vacation.

The ocean is clearest during the northern winter months, making it the ideal time to enjoy Lamu's snorkeling and scuba diving. A trip to Kenya during these months can also be combined with a safari that catches the country's stunning annual bird migration to the Rift Valley.

The sleepy town of Lamu springs to life every year for the Maulid Festival, when thousands of Muslims from around Africa and Asia descend. They come for three days of dancing, games and food to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad's birthday. Dates vary depending on the Muslim calendar, but typically are between May and June.

How to Get There

There are currently no direct flights from the United States to Kenya. Most flights connect through major European hubs to Kenya's capital, Nairobi. American Airlines operates a route that stops in London and then connects on to British Airways to Nairobi.

Safari Link, Air Kenya and Kenyan Airways operate regular flights to Lamu between both Nairobi and Mombasa. Like much of Africa, the Lamu airport has only a dirt landing strip for a runway. Once you touch down, it's a 10-minute walk to the shoddy dock from which you can catch an Arab dhow, or a speedboat if you're lucky, to cross over to the island. It's best to have your hotel pick you up and arrange your transfer.

Lamu is located on Kenya's northeast coast between Malindi and the Somali border. Map courtesy of Lamu Retreats.