When most people think of beach destinations in East Africa, they mostly think of Mombasa or Zanzibar, often overlooking little-known Lamu Island where life is wonderfully simple and laid back. Located on the Kenyan coast, Lamu’s charm stems from the fact that it feels a little bit forgotten. There are literally no cars on the island, transportation is mainly by boat, donkey and a few motorbikes, which are rendered useless during high tide. Lamu Island’s mesmerizing ancient Swahili architecture and remoteness have aptly earned it a UNESCO World Heritage Site title.
Lamu has a lot to offer to both solo and group travelers. It is known to host international celebrities owing to its perfect blend of seclusion and discreteness. Here are some tips on how you can make the best of your time on Lamu Island.
1) EXPLORE LAMU OLD CITY WITH A LOCAL
If you are a culturally inclined traveler, spend some time walking through its maze of narrow streets punctuated by beautifully decorated doors. Most of the buildings and houses date back to the 17th century and will make you feel like you have just stepped into hundreds of years of history. The old city bears similarity to Zanzibar’s Stone Town, both known for retaining the authentic grittiness of their ancient traditions by largely escaping gentrification.
Drop by the Lamu Fort, constructed in 1830 to learn more about the island’s rich history and the influence that the Portuguese, Omanis, Chinese and Brits have had on the island. The fort was once used as a slave gateway and later on became a prison. Other attractions include the Lamu Museum and Swahili house.
The old city is a dynamic beehive of activities. Check out the colorful spice and food market and pick up souvenirs including antiques, jewelry, paintings, handmade Swahili crafted furniture, reed hats and baskets. Bolster the local economy by getting one of the local ladies to paint your hands with beautiful patterns made from the local dye (henna). Be sure to make the best of the experience by seeing it through a local’s eye, as they will help you identify some hidden gems. Plus, you never know when you might have to dodge a donkey. There are more than 3500 donkeys on this small island.
2) SAIL AWAY TO THE SUNSET
Relaxation permeates every part of a Lamu vacation. There is no better way to partake of this than by drenching up the sensational sunsets while sipping a sundowner on a dhow (Lamu’s unique traditional sailboats). This experience guarantees you a front row, uninterrupted view of the Indian ocean. If you are lucky, this postcard-like scenery is made all the more special with the sunset blending seamlessly with the full moon’s appearance in the horizon. A sunset cruise costs between $40 and $60 and the dhows are readily available anywhere on the island.
Travel tip: Negotiate the price directly with the boat’s captain as there will be beach boys acting as middlemen who will try to rip you off.
3) WHEN THERE IS LITTLE LEFT TO DO BUT CHILL AND RELAX
The slow pace of the island coupled with the endless white sand beaches makes it an ideal spot for long lazy lunches and soaking up the sun. It is worth noting here that Lamu is an archipelago with Lamu town being the main business hub, where most locals shop and live. The best way to describe it is a pocket of perfect congestion.
Shela Village, a 15 minutes boat ride from Lamu town is less crowded and more touristy with pristine beaches making it the perfect spot for a sand-in-feet experience. Make sure to walk up the dunes in Shela, for a stunning birds-eye view of the island. Manda island is characterized by a wide stretch of sand and palms-lined backdrop, making it impossible to take a bad photograph there. For water sports lovers, kayaking and waterboarding type activities are on offer at Manda Bay.
4) INDULGE IN SAVORY AUTHENTIC SWAHILI DISHES
Lamu offers a diverse range of culinary options that are an eclectic mix of the different cultures (Portuguese, Indian, Arab) that have lived on the island over the years. For a genuine taste of local Swahili food, indulge in fresh seafood seasoned with local spices and coconut rice or chapati (local nan). For breakfast do not pass on the mahamri (spiced doughnuts) often served with peas cooked in coconut milk.
5) PLAN YOUR TRIP AROUND A FESTIVAL
One of Lamu’s wealth of cultural attractions is the numerous festivals held on the island. The most famous of which is the Lamu cultural festival held in August. The festival is a jamboree of activities including traditional dancing, a donkey race, and a dhow competition.
If you are looking for a detox vacation that will help you bring harmony between your breath, mind, and body, then the Lamu Yoga Festival, which I was attending, should be on your bucket list. Held annually in March, the festival brings together yogis from all over the world with more than 20 different types of yoga classes and workshops held daily for a week.
Other festivals held in Lamu include the religious Maulidi festival that celebrates prophet, Mohamed. Lamu boasts of a very vibrant and well-developed arts and crafts scene, it is no wonder the island also hosts a hat and a painters’ festivals. It goes without saying that you would need to book your flights and accommodation well in advance during festival seasons.
6) ENJOY A PICNIC IN MESMERIZING HISTORICAL SURROUNDINGS
If you are still yearning for more culture, a 30-minute boat ride from Lamu town will land you in Takwa ruins on Manda Island. Remains of its artfully gilded architecture dating back to the 16th century, are a sight to behold. Takwa was considered an important trading center before it was abandoned in the 17th century. As a result, there is an incredible history to be discovered at the ruins. It is worth visiting for a couple of hours and makes for a great picnic site.
Siyu Fort on Pate Island, although not as ancient, is also worth exploring. Its claim to glory is the fact that it is the only fort on the Kenyan coast constructed by the locals themselves. A bonus for visiting the fort is the opportunity to shop for leather accessories by local artisanal.
IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT LAMU ISLAND
HOW TO GET THERE
There are daily flights to Lamu from Nairobi’s Wilson airport operated by Safarilink or Fly 540. The flight duration is about an hour. Airport transfers to and from the hotels are by speed or traditional boats. Travelling between the islands is also by boat. The boat ride from Lamu town to Shela costs $5 for a private boat and about $1 for a public one. At night, a private boat costs $10 each way.
WHERE TO STAY ON LAMU ISLAND
Most of the accommodation comprises of refurbished coral stone Swahili houses that are run as guesthouses. If traveling in a group, it is preferable to rent a house. In Lamu, I recommend Andavelo House located in Lamu museum, a superlatively small hotel with bespoke art pieces sourced from all over the island. Swahili Dreams and the Amber House in Stone town are affordable and tastefully furnished.
Try Shela House and Village which is where Gillian Anderson from X-files got married at in 2005. If you are looking for a high-end boutique hotel, the Majlis Resort in Manda is your go to place: it is elegant without being pompous and has a cozy pool bar if you just want to chill for the day.
WHERE TO EAT
Peponi Hotel in Shela has amazing food and an unbeatable view of the ocean from its balcony. For an epicurean journey of local cuisine try Ali Samosa. The Moonrise Restaurant at Lamu House Hotel has a good menu of continental and local dishes and probably the best margarita I have ever had.
WHAT TO WEAR ON LAMU ISLAND
The people of Lamu are predominantly Muslim. While locals are tolerant and you can pretty much wear what you want, needless to say, that it is important to respect the local culture. You can tie a scarf/sarong around very short or tightly fitting clothing.
ESSENTIALS TO BRING
Although most hotels are equipped with bed nets, bring some mosquito repellent. Lamu gets quite hot and humid, a hat could go a long way. But fret not if you forget to bring one, you can purchase a unique Lamu reed hat easily on the island. If you are looking to have one custom-made, as I did, walk over to Lamu house hotel where they can order one for you from a nearby island. I was happy to note that most establishments are plastic-free which means no single-use water bottles. It would be helpful to bring your own reusable water bottle.
NIGHTLIFE IN LAMU ISLAND
Alcohol is only available in certain restaurants and hotels on the island. For party-loving hedonists, beach parties with DJs are sometimes held at hotels like Majlis. A unique feature of Lamu’s party scene is its floating bar, located midway between Lamu and Shela.
There have not been any significant security incidents involving tourists in recent years. It is relatively safe for female solo travelers. Just be careful as you would anywhere else. You only have to watch out for beach boys promising to take you to a real Swahili wedding.
Lamu Island is a wonderful off the beaten path vacation destination in Kenya and I highly recommend you plan a visit during your next trip!
We hope that this article has helped inspire you to take a trip to Lamu Island. If you have any questions about the destination or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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Our Top Places To Stay In Lamu Island, Kenya
- Majlis Resort
- The Red Pepper House
- Andavelo House
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