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Photo: Giustino

Dhows and seaports, mosques and minarets, and long white sandy beaches overhung with coconut palms.

The Swahili Coast is an ancient place where cultures have met and blended during ten centuries of trade. Lamu Town, on Lamu Island off the north Kenya coast, is the purest expression of Swahili culture remaining.

Getting there

Lamu Island is one of the larger islands of the archipelago by the same name that lie scattered along the Kenyan coast just south of the border with Somalia.

The easiest and safest way to reach Lamu is by air, since the roads are poor and sometimes impassable, and the infamous Somali pirates operate offshore. Several of Kenya’s reliable small airline companies fly daily from Nairobi to Lamu, including Air Kenya and Safarilink (out of Wilson Airport), and Fly 540 (from Jomo Kenyatta International).

Photo: Cessna 206

Be prepared for sticker shock — a roundtrip is over $300 per person.

The flight carries you out to the rustic landing strip on nearby Manda Island in about two hours. Collect your bag, walk down to the new jetty, and board a dhow to cross the channel to Lamu Town, visible in the distance. It’s only a 15-minute boat ride.

Shortly after taking to the water, Lamu Town will come into focus. Sure, modern amenities like satellite dishes and telephone poles are present, but overall the town retains the image of an old Swahili port with mosques overlooking the dockside go-downs and tall houses of once-wealthy merchants.

The waterfront is full of fishmongers and wholesalers, idlers and laborers, men in kanzu and kofia (caftan and traditional embroidered cap), women shrouded in black bui bui, and uncountable donkeys, dogs, cats, chickens, and children taking it easy.

Getting around

The narrow alleyways of the old town hardly permit the passage of two people side-by-side. There’s only one automobile on the island, and almost everyone gets around on foot, or on donkey-back.

Photo: Sand Paper

Water taxis are available for a few hundred bob (local slang for Kenyan shillings). Bargain hard. The price will come down.

Even on the hottest days of the year, the alleyways of Lamu Town are cool and shady. Bougainvillea and frangipani line the walls and the passages are animated by the billowing veils of Muslim women in their bui bui.

With more than 30 mosques and a population of just over 5,000, Islam is ever-present, beginning with the first call to prayer before sunrise.

Harambee Avenue, the main street parallel to the wharf just 50 meters from the waterfront, is good for a wander. Other than the occasional tourist and a few modern boutiques, there’s little to indicate the town has changed much in the last few decades.

Lamu Fort Square / Photo: Author

Locals will ignore you as they go about their business or chat in the doorways of the many little dukas that line the street.

In the town square in front of the old Fort, built by the Omani Arabs in 1808, an ancient almond tree with broad, dark green leaves creates an atmosphere of calm and a shady place for people to gather.

The fort is interesting to explore, and the National Museum nearby is supposed to be one of the best in Kenya.

Where to eat

It’s easy to eat well for very little in Lamu. Whispers Cafe on Harambee, behind the old waterfront mosque (now abandoned), has a cool courtyard filled with palms and flowering vines.

Shela Village / Photo: Author

A couple miles east along the waterfront is Shela Village, where you’ll find the Peponi Hotel.

A local institution since the 1960s, and still operated by the founding family, the hotel is worth a visit, and the restaurant is excellent.

If nothing else, try a dawa (a popular Kenyan drink made of limes, honey, and vodka) on the veranda, where you can sit and watch the boats sail by.

Where to stay

Near the Peponi in Shela Village is Kijani House, a complex of a dozen rooms built around a labyrinth of little gardens with small dipping pools for cooling down on a hot day. Rates are very reasonable.

There are other small boutique hotels in Shela, and many hotels and rooming houses in Lamu Town. If you prefer peace and quiet, and easy access to a wonderful beach, Shela is the better option. The southern shore of Lamu Island has a 13km sandy beach, and you’ll rarely see 10 people at a time on it.

Manda Beach / Photo: un punto in movimento

You can also hire a dhow to take you to Manda Island to walk the beach opposite Shela.

There are B&Bs and a bar there, and at the eastern end, just before you reach the wild and rocky Indian Ocean coastline at Ras Kitau, there’s a camping area for backpackers.

Ras Kitau seems to go on forever, with craggy promontories, wide sandy beaches, and big tidal pools — the Swahili Coast as the Portuguese saw it in the 16th century.

Community Connection

Matador’s got you covered if you’re heading over to Africa’s west coast as well. Check out Five Reasons to Go to Angola in 2009 (And Beyond).

Trip Planning


 

About The Author

Gregory Kruse

Currently living in Nairobi, where I look after the garden and the cats and write about the Swahili Coast. After many winters in Kyiv, I've decided I prefer places where I can dangle my toes in warm tropical seas. Sometimes when I'm diving, I don't want to come up. Know what I mean?

  • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/candicew86 Candice

    Wow, this placei s dreamy. “Whispers Cafe”? I love it.

    • http://www.tanzaniasafarivacations.com Santos

      I surely agree with you,Kenya is such a beautiful destination that every tourist must make an endeavor and visit the country.They have all the tourist attractions that will make you fall in love with the place.I love their food and the beaches are beautiful.Great pictures and the site.

  • Ross

    Been there…and can’t wait to go back. This is not a place to miss if you take a trip to Kenya — and all of these rec’s were right on the money.

  • Izabela

    The article sums up Lamu, it’s a magical place and definitely worth a visit. The Peponi has tons of atmosphere!

  • http://www.guideforafrica.com/ Eddie Tours

    Wow! This is pretty nice. Well I too concur that Lamu is the ultimate place to visit on the Kenyan coast. The white sandy beaches of Lamu, the old town of Lamu and the donkeys of Lamu are the most attractive feature on this Island. It has a seren atmosphere ideal for vacations. I appreciate the author’s efforts. Cheers

  • Ruth Beißel

    The bus ride from Mombasa to Lamu might be a little rough (and yes, our bus broke down a couple of times and even the locals on it were annoyed), but it cost us only about 13 US$ and a little time. Of course you should be aware of the dangers and annoyances, but most of the time its hardly as bad as the internet says. So if you don’t have 300$, you can still visit this beautiful island! ;-)

Really, the best way to find these beach spots and swimming holes is to ask a local.
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