Escape to Lamu: Paradise on Kenya's Coast

A sleepy African beach town offers calm to European expats and Arab locals.

ByOlivia Sterns
September 23, 2008, 12:15 PM

Sept. 23, 2008— -- 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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