Dhows, donkeys and sundowners: visit Lamu

Lamu is a UNESCO World Heritage site on the coast of Kenya. Home to wandering donkeys and lazy dhow boats sailing by, this historic Swahili town is magical, mystical and idyllic. I wrote this article for Rough Guides about why now is the time to visit:

Original article on RoughGuides.com

Why should I go?

Founded in the 14th century, Lamu is the best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Over the centuries, the island has been inhabited by Asians, Persians, Indians, Europeans and Kenyans, and as a result it has a unique charm of blended cultures. Crumbling old forts lie next to elegant rooftop cafés; narrow, cobbled streets wind past intricately carved front doors; Muslim school children laugh and play in the street between lessons.

But huge infrastructure projects, such as the Lamu Port, a multibillion-pound development of Lamu’s harbour area, threaten to change the isle forever. It may be a case of seeing Lamu in all its age-old splendour, before it’s too late.

Lamu, KenyaAleksey Dorofeev/Flickr

How should I spend my days?

Lamu Old Town has a wealth of beautiful, historic buildings, so a tour of this area is a good place to start your exploration. The Lamu Museum is here, offering an introduction to the island’s rich history and architecture. Just down the road from the museum, pop into Lamu Fort, which was built by the Sultan of Paté between 1810 and 1823. During British Colonial rule, the fort was used as a prison – today it’s a library.

For the past five years, Lamu has also been home to an annual yoga festival, attracting flexible travellers from across the globe for four days of classes, meditation sessions and workshops on the beach. This year’s festival takes place from November 1–5, but yoga classes run daily at the Banana Health and Wellness Centre in Shela Village throughout the year.

As the afternoon ebbs away, take a dhow boat ride from Shela beach or Lamu Old Town jetty along the sheltered strait of water between the island and the mainland. Your accommodation can usually book these trips for you, and the traditional old sailboats are often bedecked with chunky cushions to laze back on and a cool box of chilled drinks to enjoy as you sail into the sunset.

 

Donkeys in Lamu, KenyaAleksey Dorofeev/Flickr

 

What’s for lunch?

Lamu is full of hidden rooftop restaurants and simple little venues to choose from. One popular haunt is Whispers. Tucked away off the main street in Lamu Town, it’s a café and coffee shop serving iced drinks, fresh soups and smoothies in its covered outdoor garden.

If you’re feeling flush, take the short boat ride across from Shela Village to The Majlis Resort on Manda Island. The restaurant here is superb, and lunches include zingy mango salads, garlicky al-dente spaghetti and crisp white wine.

Whispers, LamuSea Kayak Oban/Flickr

Where should I go for a sundowner?

A local favourite is the Floating Boat bar, bobbing around in the mangroves of Manda Bay. It’s a simple spot with a lively crowd and is accessible only by boat.

The go-to spot for stylish sundowners in Lamu is the Peponi Hotel. Sitting right on the beach front in Shela Village, the 50-year-old, family-run establishment does a mean gin and tonic and perfectly chilled local beers. If you’re feeling adventurous, try an Old Pal – it’s the signature cocktail, and they keep the recipe under lock and key.

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