The Lamu Archipelago is a group of islands located just off the North-Eastern coast of Kenya in the Indian Ocean. Lamu is Kenya’s oldest and best preserved living town and has been classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site to protect its historical value, many buildings date back to the 18th Century or before. Characterized by its narrow streets, carved wooden doors, the call to prayer of mosques, men in full length robes and veiled women, the town has remained unchanged for centuries, there is still no motorized traffic and transport is still only by donkey or traditional sailing dhow.
Whether you are interested in exploring the Swahili Culture, the many Historical sites in the area, or whether you are searching for a beach holiday with a difference, and enjoying the relaxed rhythm of the islanders, Lamu offers some of the most beautiful and unspoilt sandy beaches in Kenya. Shela Beach is one of the grandest to be found anywhere, fourteen kilometers of beach backed by sand dunes, still far away from mass tourism.
Tucked away at the Northern end of Kenya’s coastline, sandwiched between the hot, dry lands of the North-Eastern Province and the crystal, aqua-marine waters of the Indian Ocean, lies a little group of islands, the Lamu Archipelago. On the Arab trading route, as early as the 7th Century, Arab dhows brought trade to this coast. Metal tools and weapons were bartered for African products such as mangrove poles, ivory and rhino horn, prized throughout the civilized world. In time, the Arab traders settled here, intermarrying with the local Bantu to form the Swahili, whose unique culture survives on the East African coast today.
These islands are steeped in history. Lamu is the oldest surviving town in East Africa. Its narrow streets, its stone buildings with beautifully carved doors, its busy waterfront teeming with dhows and its fascinating people belong to a bygone age. Lamu has changed little in 200 years. Although rapidly-decaying, the town today is a living monument to its past. There is no motor traffic and transportation is by donkey or dhow. The town retains an almost unspoiled 19th Century appearance and lifestyle, some of the mosques date back to the 14th and 15th Centuries, but almost all other buildings are late 18th Century. Very little architectural development has taken place since this time and the narrow cloistered town plan and arabesque structures are still intact. The island is still largely untouched by ‘civilization’ which accounts for its unique charm. Inset in the unbroken lines of tall buildings are heavy, ornately carved wooden doors and shuttered windows.
There are tiny shops in alleyways, veiled women walk the narrow streets. The main town square and market area are a focal point in the town and are dominated by the impressive old Sultan’s fort, begun by the Omani’s in 1808 and completed some 12 years later, it was the island’s prison for a few years after Independence, and is now also part of the museum. The Lamu Museum, opened in 1971, shows a collection of many outstanding examples of local arts and crafts, including carved doors which rival those of Zanzibar, ebony thrones inlaid with bone and ivory, Arab chests made from Tanzanian teak, scale-model dhows and jewelry fashioned by Lamu’s few surviving silversmiths.
Lamu has a good natural harbour, protected by the island of Manda from the open ocean, which is due south-east. The promenade and harbour wall were built after the first world war. Lamu was recently named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In Lamu town very cheap accommodation is available in local guest houses and small hotels.
Tourism arrived in Lamu in 1967 at Shela Village when the first small family beach hotel opened. Situated just South of Lamu town, about 3 kilometres along the Island’s coastline, Shela Village enjoys an ideal, sheltered position on the point overlooking Manda Island. The site is probably 500 years old, reaching its zenith in the last century but still boasting a fine mosque with a conical minaret dating from 1830. Other interesting ruins can be seen. Its inhabitants, traditionally fishermen, are amond the friendliest folk to be found anywhere. Shela’s main attraction is its 12 kilometres of unspoilt golden sands backed by dunes. Ideal for children, safe swimming at all times. A range of local cheap guest houses, small exclusive hotels as well as private houses are now available to visitors.
Arrival in Lamu is either by light aircraft from Nairobi, Malindi or Mombasa which land at the airstrip on Manda Island, or by road from Malindi. Vehicles can be left at Mokowe on the mainland before taking the short boat trip to Lamu, crossing the narrow channel between Lamu and Manda Islands.
On the South-Western tip of Lamu island is the small village of Kipungani, about 40 minutes by motor boat from Lamu town. Here there are two small properties offering accommodation to visitors,situated directly on the beach and constructed entirely from local materials, with grass floors and thatch roofs woven by the neighbouring villagers, these small hotels offer personalized service and a very private and remote setting.
About 40 miles North of Lamu Island lies Kiwayu. Private and personalized, eco-friendly accommodation is available at a small family-owned camp on the island, as well as on the mainland, accessible either by air or by sea.