Authentic, laidback and not too scary for first-timers to Africa, the Kenyan island of Lamu has deserted sandy beaches, offshore reefs and a proud Swahili culture to explore
Lamu is a world away from the hawker-ridden resorts of Mombasa and Malindi. It’s one of the few places on the Kenyan coast where tourists can relax undisturbed on the beach - and walk safely on their own. And what a fabulous beach: 12km long, firm to walk on, dunes to hide in, and all but deserted.
Not surprisingly, it’s become a celebrity hideaway. Sienna Miller, Ewan McGregor, Marianne Faithfull and Gillian Anderson have all found winter refuge from the paparazzi here. In the fashionable village of Shela, wealthy Europeans with a hippy bent have restored the old Arab houses and often rent them out. It’s the perfect place to write a book - and many come to do just that.
The long swathe of golden sand that forms the island’s main beach links Shela to the beach community at Kizingo. Here things are kept simple and eco. Palm-thatched shacks on stilts are scattered in the dunes, conveniently close to the island’s best ‘no-news-no-shoes’ beach lodge.
Until a couple of years ago bandits regularly held up buses heading north from Malindi to Lamu and the only safe way to travel there was by air. Now the road has been made safe and those on a budget will find cheap rooms in houses in Lamu Town. It’s a World Heritage Site and a smaller, more intimate, and far more friendly version of Zanzibar on the Tanzanian coast.
WHAT TO DO
You may well be happy simply lying on the idyllic tropical beach, but if you get itchy feet, here are some suggestions:
Swim with wild dolphins led by Louis van Aardt from Kizingo lodge (see below).
Hire a crewed dhow and sail right round the island through the mangrove-lined creeks and out into the Indian Ocean.
Take a speedboat out to the reefs that surround offshore islets. Excursions from Kizingo and from Peponi Hotel to Manda Toto.
Join a yoga or meditation class and have a daily massage in Shela village.
Take a guided walk across to neighbouring Manda island to the ruins of a 15th-century trading port.
Kayak through the mangrove swamps with experienced guides; www.sanddollarexpeditions.com.
WHERE TO STAY
This lovely lodge has seven beachfront ‘bandas’ with walls made from woven palm leaves, a convivial bar and restaurant, and charismatic hosts, Louis and Mary Jo van Aardt and their son Dion. The lodge attracts people who enjoy a sociable drink, hate musak and contrived entertainment, and whose idea of holiday bliss is to spend the day in a hammock with a good book. There’s also the chance to swim with wild dolphins from November-April. Doubles US$390 full board.
Favoured by celebrities, this is a small, managed complex of luxury villas with pools, just along the beach from Kizingo. A four-bedroom villa rents for €2,600-10,000 a week, depending on season.
A house that grew into a hotel. There are 24 stylish white rooms that open onto lawns shaded by rare palms. Faultlessly run by Carol and Lars Korschen and their nothing-is-too-much-trouble Kenyan staff, its public bar is the social hub of Shela. Game fishermen will appreciate Nils Korschen’s vast experience in these waters. Doubles from US$200 b&b.
This is the best b&b option in Shela and there are yoga classes and a wellness centre next door. Doubles €90; rooftop suite €130.
Four luxury villas in Shela, the Beach House has the best location, with panoramic views and steps onto the beach. It has five bedrooms and rents from €700 per night.
WHERE TO EAT
Peponi is the best place to eat on Lamu: sushi straight from game boats, mangrove crab and Swahili curries. It also does the best castaway island barbecues (complete with boat and captain). About £20 a head.
For simple Swahili fare try the Stopover Cafe on the waterfront in Shela, where tourists join locals for Stoneys ginger beer and fish stews. About £5 a head.
Lunch at Kizingo is a fitting reward after a three-hour walk along the beach from Shela. There’s a big curry lunch on Sundays and fresh lobster in season. A boat will take you back. About £20 a head.
No restaurants in Lamu Town are worth recommending at present. But drop into Whispers, attached to the town’s best craft shop in the main street, for coffee and fresh fruit juice.
WHEN TO GO
November-March, when the sea is calm and nights are balmy.
British Airways, Kenya Airways and Virgin fly daily to Nairobi. It’s a 90-minute internal flight on to Lamu with Kenya Airways or Air Kenya.
Anti-malarials: you need Malarone tablets, which are also suitable for children weighing more than 11 kilos.