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Home / Articles / Destinations / Destination Review: Lamu Island, Kenya

Destination Review: Lamu Island, Kenya

Top image: An aerial view from Sarilink’s approach to the airport on Manda Island. Lumu Old Town is visible across the channel, as is Peponi Hotel and Shela Village towards the sea.

There’s a tangible sense of the past, as if time has ceased to exist in Kenya’s Lamu Archipelago, that is uniquely memorable and appealing for niche leisure tourism. By Des Langkilde.

This information map of the Lamu Archipelago is displayed in the Lamu Museum.  Destination Review: Lamu Island, Kenya Lamu Map

This information map of the Lamu Archipelago is displayed in the Lamu Museum.

The words of author L. P. Hartley (from his book ‘The Go-Between’), “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” flitted through my mind as our media retinue, hosted by the Kenya Tourism Board, leisurely sailed on board a Dhow ferry that miraculously resisted the incoming tide flowing up the channel that separates Lamu Island from Manda Island in Kenya’s Lamu Archipelago, where the Lamu district’s small airport is located.

Airport transfers between Manda and Lamu Island's are provided by Dhow operators.  Destination Review: Lamu Island, Kenya Dhow Ferry

Airport transfers between Manda and Lamu Island’s are provided by Dhow operators.

At first glance Lamu Island appears to be an idyllic island of tranquillity but beneath the surface lies a fascinating Smörgåsbord of history, culture, biodiversity and unique Swahili heritage.

So beguiling is Lamu that it sparks a creative chord with artists, like Christian Rock artist Michael W. Smith’s song of the same name released in 1986 (in his album ‘Pursuit of the Dream’) in which the opening verse says:

“Here we are on a boat out on the sea
Off the coast of Africa
Heading for peaceful shores
With a cast of strangers
To an island hideaway.
I hear you telling me
Of the place we soon will be
A rebirth from life’s demise
Where the world is still – it’s ideal
Anything you dream is real
It’s Hotel Paradise
And you say it’s nice (when you run to).”

And the verses on escapism intersperse with the chorus line:

“Lamu – far away
Leave the pain far behind you
Hoping it won’t find you.
Lamu – far away
You say it’s there that you can run.”

The fabled Lamu Archipelago is located in the Indian Ocean close to the border with Somalia, and is a part of Lamu District. The largest of the islands in the archipelago are Pate Island, Manda Island and Lamu Island. Smaller islands include Kiwayu, which lies in the Kiunga Marine National Reserve, and Manda Toto. The largest town in the archipelago is Lamu Town, on Lamu Island.

But Lamu Town would be part of day two in our media group’s itinerary. For now, we were headed for Peponi Hotel, where we gathered on the hotels balcony for a quick briefing by Andrew, the Peponi Hotel General Manager, while sipping on vodka cocktails made with fresh lime juice.

Peponi Hotel on Lamu Island (the white building on the beach)  Destination Review: Lamu Island, Kenya Peponi Hotel

Peponi Hotel on Lamu Island (the white building on the beach)

Peponi Hotel's General Manager, Andrew  Destination Review: Lamu Island, Kenya Peponi Andrew

Peponi Hotel’s General Manager, Andrew

Peponi is owned by the Korschen family, who opened the hotel in 1967 and developed the property to its current 29 rooms, which are divided into suites, superior and standard rooms.

Andrew jovially brags that Peponi is the only hotel on the island where all rooms have ocean views and are differentiated only by their location, size and private outside area with swing bed. All rooms have overhead fans, mosquito nets, showers (no baths), fresh flowers, and personal safes.

Peponi Hotel is ranked third out of eleven hotels on Lumu Island by TripAdvisor, and received its Travellers’ Choice Award for 2014 in the Small Hotels category.

To get a visual sense of what Peponi Hotel has to offer, take a look at the video (copy the link below the image & paste in a new browser window), produced by D. David Morin of Slingshot Productions based in Nairobi, Kenya.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=MrBFkAUEvKE  Destination Review: Lamu Island, Kenya Peponi Video

www.youtube.com/watch?v=MrBFkAUEvKE

Andrew is also justifiably proud of the fact that Peponi Hotel started the Lamu Marine Conservation Trust (LAMCOT) in 1992. The project began with the translocation of a turtle nest to the hotel grounds for protection. Since then the project has been growing every year and has been managed by Carol Korschen of Peponi Hotel from the start.

I could waffle on the merits of this hotel’s cuisine, relaxing atmosphere and friendly hospitality for the rest of this article, but suffice to say that every moment is a memorable experience.

Lamu Town

Day two of our media retinue’s Lamu itinerary saw our group of five sailing up the channel for a visit to Lamu Old Town, accompanied by our hotel guide, Abdul Alim.

Lamu-Old-Town-1  Destination Review: Lamu Island, Kenya Lamu Old Town 1

Lamu Old Town showing the narrow alleyway streets, an ornately carved door with fossil coral wall cladding, the Donkey Sanctuary and beans on display at the fresh produce market.

During the fifteen minute sail by Dhow, Abdul gave us a brief history lesson. “Lamu Town was gazetted as a UNESCO World Heritage Monument in 1983 and is Kenya’s oldest continually inhabited town. Unlike other Swahili settlements which have been abandoned along the East African coast, Lamu has continuously been inhabited for over 700 years and is East Africa’s oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement, founded in 1370. Lamu Town covers over sixteen hectares and is famous for its narrow streets, magnificent stone buildings and impressive carved doors, influenced by Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Indian and European building styles,” said Abdul.

The buildings on the waterfront with their arcades and open verandas certainly provide an ‘Old Town’ impression when approaching it from the channel. The buildings are internally decorated with painted ceilings, large niches (madaka), small niches (zidaka), and pieces of Chinese porcelain. The buildings are reasonably well preserved and carry a long history that represents the development of Swahili building technology, based on coral, lime and mangrove poles.

According to UNESCO, 65% of the buildings are in good condition with 20% being in need of minor refurbishment and the remaining 15% need total restoration. And restoration is indeed taking place as our media group noticed during the tour down narrow allyways.

Lamu Fort is visible on approach to the harbour docking quayside, and we were informed that it commenced construction under Fumo Madi ibn Abi Bakr, the Sultan of Pate, and was completed after his death in the early 1820s.

Lamu-Old-Town-2  Destination Review: Lamu Island, Kenya Lamu Old Town 2

Lamu Museum has an incredible array of exhibits that portray the island’s rich history, Arabic influence and Swahili culture, most of which have been donated from the private collections of local residents.

What impressed me while ambling past the Donkey Sanctuary and along the narrow street passageways, is that apart from the odd bicycle, there are virtually no vehicles on the islands – people get around on foot, by donkey or arrive in the town by lateen-rigged dhow. Lamu has a sizeable artisan community, including carpenters who are involved in boat building and making ornate doors and furniture. Culturally, Lamu’s Arab influences and traditions are audibly apparent by the daily calls to prayer, which still dominates local life. Lamu is home to 23 mosques including the Riyadha Mosque, built in 1900, Abdul tells us.

Abdul continues the enthusiastic history lesson as he guides us along: “The town was first mentioned in writing by Abu-al-Mahasini, an Arab traveller who met a Judge from Lamu while visiting Mecca in 1441. In 1505, the Portuguese invaded Lamu, forcing the King of the town to pay protection money to them.”

I later learn that the Portuguese invasion was prompted by the nation’s successful mission to control trade along the coast of the Indian Ocean. For a considerable time, Portugal had a monopoly on shipping along the East African coast and imposed export taxes on preexisting local channels of commerce. In the 1580s, prompted by Turkish raids, Lamu led a rebellion against the Portuguese. In 1652, Oman assisted Lamu to resist Portuguese control.

My research also reveals that Lamu’s years as an Omani protectorate during the period from the late 17th century to early 19th century marked the town’s Golden Age. Lamu was governed as a republic under a council of elders known as the Yumbe who ruled from a palace in the town (little exists of the palace today other than a ruined plot of land). During this period, Lamu became a centre of poetry, politics, arts and crafts as well as trade. In the middle of the 19th century, Lamu came under the political influence of the Sultan of Zanzibar. The Germans claimed Wituland in June 1885. The Germans considered Lamu to be of strategical importance and an ideal place for a base. From 22 November 1888 to 3 March 1891 there was a German Post Office in Lamu, to facilitate communication within the German Protectorate in the Sultanate. It was the first post office to be established on the East African coast; today there is a museum in Lamu dedicated to it, the German Post Office Museum. In 1890, Lamu and Kenya fell under British colonial rule and gained political independence in 1963.

Our tour continued along Harambee Avenue, noted for its cuisine, and range of stores including the Halwa shop, which sells sweet treats and miniature mutton kebabs. The town contains a central market (the fresh produce and fish / meat markets are thankfully separated), the Gallery Baraka and Shumi’s Designs shop, and the Mwalimu Books store.

Hotels

The oldest hotel in the town, Petley’s Inn, is situated on the waterfront. Other hotels include the American-restored Lamu House, the 20-room Bahari Hotel, the Swedish-owned Jannat House, the 3-storey 23-room Lamu Palace Hotel, the 13-room Stone House Hotel, which was converted from an 18th-century house, and the 18-room Sunsail Hotel, a former trader’s house on the waterfront with high ceilings.

Hotels-Lamu  Destination Review: Lamu Island, Kenya Hotels Lamu

Hotels in Lamu Old Town include (from left to right) Petley’s Inn, Lamu House, Bahari Hotel, Jannat House, Lamu Palace Hotel, Stone House Hotel and Sunsail Hotel.

Shela village

Back at the Peponi Hotel, we have the rest of day at leisure before our itinerary demands a sundowner cruise (media trips can be tough), and after a refreshing shower I take an exploratory walk to Shela village, which is located just behind the hotel, and is oddly empty and quiet in contrast to Lamu Town. I’m intrigued, so surf the net when back in my room.

Lamu-Shela-Beach-House  Destination Review: Lamu Island, Kenya Lamu Shela Beach House

This German owned private residence is one of two built on the dunes at Shela Beach. Locals are concerned that degradation of the dunes, which serve as a filtration system for rain water, will affect Lamu Islands’ 18 million litres of natural subterranean fresh water. The listing of Lamu as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 has put a stop to further degradation.

I come across a report by Erin Conway-Smith, writing for the Global Post in 2011 that perhaps explains the contrast between Shela Village and Lamu Old Town – the home owners all appear to be abroad.

“That’s because wealthy foreigners, among them Princess Caroline of Monaco and her husband Prince Ernst of Hanover, now own about half of the properties in Shela.Villagers who sell their properties earn enough to buy a big house or two in the cities of Mombasa or Malindi, down the Kenyan coast. Locals say that within five years, every house in Shela will be foreign owned.”

Conway-Smith’s observations, even four years later, are confirmed by Abdul (our media group’s guide through Lamu Town), who says that local imams (Islamic leaders) are cautious about the effect of outside influences on local culture but that they praise foreign property owners for helping to preserve the historic Swahili architecture.

Development

Abdul further elaborates that locals are cautious of development projects in the Lamu district. This sentiment is borne out by our ‘booze-cruise’ Dhow skipper, who says that the new harbour development will take away their livelihoods. He does not expand on exactly how this will come about and I decide not to press him, but back in my room I again surf the collective knowledge base of humanity, known as the world wide web and discover that it is the Lamu Deep Water Port Project, which presumably is part of the Kenya Coastal Development Project (KCDP), which has them riled up.

The objective of the KCDP initiative is to strengthen conservation and sustainable use of marine and coastal biodiversity and to support climate change mitigation initiatives. The project is being co-financed by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development at US$41.69 million (spanning eight operational programmes), which began on 26 May 2010 and is due for completion by 30 September 2014 and the World Bank (who are financing US$35 million of the afore mentioned sum), which began on 27 July 2010 and closes on 29 October 2016.

The project will promote sustainable management of tourism and fisheries resources in line with the Kenya government’s Vision 2030, which identifies tourism as an engine of growth, job creation, poverty reduction and wealth generation in the Coastal region.

Video courtesy of National Television Kenya  Destination Review: Lamu Island, Kenya NTV Video Lamu Port 2

Video courtesy of National Television Kenya
www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6gIsxUlmuY

It can’t be the KCDP that has them riled, so I continue my online research and find that Lamu’s economy apparently declined with the emergence of the Port of Mombasa, but thanks to the Lamu Deep Water Port Project, the local economy will purportedly be boosted through the creation of Kenya’s second transport corridor, headquartered in Lamu, which this report (copy the link below the image & paste in a new browser window) by Ferdinand Omondi on NTV seems to confirm.

According to a report in The Star newspaper, the Kenya Ports Authority management have said that construction of the first three berths at the Lamu port will start in June 2014.

As I quoted at the start of this article, “The past is a foreign country…” and Lamu locals seem determined to live in it. And so would I, given the chance!

Activities

Besides the history and cultural aspects, there’s a lot to do in and around Lamu. Sunset cruises onboard lateen sailed Dhows are popular as are viewing excursions around the network of islands and sand banks in the archipelago.

A Dhow sightseeing cruise as it sails past hotels and private residences that line the shore of Manda Island.  Destination Review: Lamu Island, Kenya Lamu Dhow Sunset Cruise

A Dhow sightseeing cruise as it sails past hotels and private residences that line the shore of Manda Island.

Day three of our itinerary allowed time for an early morning excursion to immerse ourselves with the marine life. We headed off through the channel mouth, past Shela beach and headed for the distant horizon onboard a fibre-glassed boat with powerful outboard engines. Our destination, a rocky outcrop in the middle of nowhere hove into view and after tossing anchor, we donned masks and fins and plunged into the warm Indian ocean. The usual assortment of reef fish could be spotted through the somewhat turbulent, and hence reduced visibility but no sharks could be seen – a fact that my media colleagues seemed more than thankful for.

Snorkeling and scuba diving on Lamu's many pristine reefs is a major attraction.  Destination Review: Lamu Island, Kenya Lamu Snorkling

Snorkeling and scuba diving on Lamu’s many pristine reefs is a major attraction.

Getting There

SafariLink departs from Wilson Airport in Nairobi daily at 13h45 and arrives at Lamu at 15h30. Note that the luggage allowance limit is 15kg.

South African Airways (SAA) have introduced wide body aircraft on the Johannesburg – Nairobi route, effectively increasing capacity into Kenya by 582 seats per week.

SAA previously operated the Airbus A319 and the Boeing 737-800 into Kenya. These aircraft are now replaced by the Airbus A340-200 and the A340-300. The introduction of these wide body aircraft means additional seat capacity on the route, lie-flat seats in Business class, as well as a wider cabin and touch screen in-flight entertainment for both Business and Economy class.

KTB-Lamu-Ad  Destination Review: Lamu Island, Kenya KTB Lamu Ad