Lamu is a place to chill out and relax. Leave the mobile and laptop behind and immerse yourself in a medieval peace only punctuated by the braying of donkeys and the call to prayer from the many mosques on the island.
The Lamu archipelago is the jewel of the Kenya coast.
Lamu Island is a step back into a medieval past where the air smells of spice (and donkey dung!), dhows are the main form of transport (no cars bar one belonging to the District Commissioner) and the ancient Muslim culture, customs and traditions of a bygone age sit together with internet cafes and satellite phones.
There are many other islands of the Lamu archipelago to explore through local dhow operators or on more formal organised visits and Lamu district also incorporates vast ranges of bushland on the mainland inhabited by fascinating ethnic groups such as the hunter-gatherer Boni people and the pastoralist Orma. It is though pretty inaccessible for the casual visitor or tourist.
Most of the locals speak English however you will gain more respect and be able to assimilate into the culture more readily if you learn at least some rudimentary Swahili.
(Hujambo = Hello, used only by tourists ) (Habari gani? = whats up? ) (Asante = Thank you ) (Pole = sorry ) (Tafadali = please) (Karibu = welcome ) (Hakuna Matata = no worries ) (vitu vya ngano = little doughnut (literally "small sugary thing" ) (ndizi = banana ) (mzee = term of respect for an older person ) (mzungu = light skinned person ) (Choo iko wapi? = where is the bathroom?)
Lamu town on Lamu island is best reached by air either directly from Nairobi (Air Kenya and a small regional airline fly from Wilson Airport, Nairobi) or from Mombasa or Malindi to the south (operators include Mombasa Safari Air and other small local airlines). The airport is located on an island opposite the main village necessitating a short boat/ferry ride. Tourists are generally charged a premium price for the short trip.
For those on a tighter budget a daily bus service does run from [Mombasa] via Malindi. This route was notorious for attacks by Somali bandits and buses have in the past been stopped and robbed. As of Oct 2005 the security situation was deemed to be OK. Armed guards are taken on board the buses for the most dangerous part of the journey close to Lamu.
There's no need for transport (other than boats), as everything is a stone's throw away, and the windy pathways are only just wide enough to walk down. However, there are things that must be noted. Donkeys are the primary form of heavy transport on the island, and they are allowed to go to the bathroom wherever they want. Unfortunately, this also tends to be where you want to walk. As such, think twice about bringing expensive shoes, as it is very likely that at some point you will accidentally step in something you wish you hadn't.
It should also be noted that lighting at night of the narrow streets is very minimal. A flashlight is a recommended accessory for walking around at night. If you don't bring one with you, many of the tiny shops sell cheap lighters that come with small, but effective, built in LED flashlights.
a) Visit Shela beach on the North end of the Lamu island is a beautiful stretch of white sand and tiny broken sea shells. The walk from main Lamu town is only about a mile and a half and well worth it due to the locals you meet on the way. Watch for the young boys selling homemade samosas on the beach. They are delicious!
b) Lamu Museum:
Built in 1891, the Lamu Museum was the former residence of the British Governors during the colonial era. Here, you will experience and learn about the rich Swahili culture that is ever so evident in Lamu Town.
You can explore the Lamu archipelago by dhow. A dhow is a traditional Arab sailing vessel with one or more lateen sails. It is primarily used along the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula, India, and East Africa. Dhow trips are the ultimate experience on a trip to Lamu. They are relatively inexpensive and you can go as far as Manda Island, Takwa Ruins or Matondoni. Kiwayu is the most pristine of the islands and it is in a biosphere reserve. Several companies specialize in trips to Kiwayu but it's nice to patronize the local captains, who know the islands and the villages best (not to mention the sea!) One small company called Nature+Culture makes Kiwayu and ecotourism its specialty and works closely with the villages and they also do smaller trips: www.lamutravel.com. (Tour guides are licensed on Lamu and they will show you their license on request and they have a well-organized association and work together cooperatively.) Another company, http://www.my-kenya-guide.com/kenya-beach-safari.html] Sailkenya, runs three day trips.
The seafront restaurants in Lamu Town offer excellent seafood at reasonable prices. Delve further back from the dock for more traditional Swahili fare. The Seafront Cafe is an excellent value and the locals eat there. Try the garlic crab or crab soup.
Also, if you are there more than a couple days and you look like a tourist, you will likely be approached by a short, stout, elderly man who will introduce himself as "Ali Hippy," who will offer you the opportunity to eat in his house for a fee. Don't be afraid to take him up on his offer. The food is good, and his family will perform musical numbers for you afterwards. An interesting experience that is worth having under your belt. However, think about bringing your own utensils, otherwise you will find yourself trying to eat oil-soaked rice with your fingers - not the easiest task.
Meet up and drink beer with fellow travellers,at 'Petleys' one of the few bars in the town.
You can also enjoy a Tusker at the Lamu Palace hotel, but this is more expensive than Petley's, and very quiet, but OK if you want to hear the waves crash against the sea wall and read a book.
However, the cheapest beer on the island is at the Social Club, hidden away in the bush, down the coast after the power station.
This is where all the locals go, and thus has the best music and cheapest beer and pool table.
DEFINITELY go to the social club on a Saturday night for boogie boogie disco! - A mixture of traditional african and reggae. Everyone screams and goes crazy when Bob Marley is played!!
When you find the music too hot and loud, go round the side and enjoy a game of 8 ball pool. The locals willingly play winner stays on, but you might have to pay for their game too, but at 50c a game who cares! There will be a pool attendant to keep you cue well chalked and to set up the table for you (buy him a couple of tusker for his trouble!).
The walk to the social club can seem a bit daunting especially as the sea wall isn't lit too well, but basically just walk away from the town centre towards shela keeping the sea on your left, go past the hospital, past the power station, and keep going until you see a sand path through the mangroves into the bush on your right, and a few dim lights at the end of it. On a Sat night you will definitely hear the music before you arrive!!
If you are still concerned about taking the walk, ask one of the local beach boys (Staboy, Mburu or Issac) to show you the way just buy them a beer for their trouble. Make sure that they realise that you are only buying them 1 beer otherwise they will keep asking for more!
Accommodation in Lamu ranges from a wide range of budget hotels and guesthouses to the luxury of Peponi Hotel in the village of Shela on the north-east tip of the island.