Why you should care
It’s a paradise of an island with a very inconvenient location.
Most people’s image of Kenya hasn’t changed much since the release of Out of Africa 30 years ago: lions, zebras, Land Rovers, mosquito nets and Masai warriors. Perhaps it includes Mombasa Old Town, the endless beaches of Malindi or even the mysterious Mau Forest. Yet Kenya still guards many secrets — and one of them can be found north of Mombasa, off the coast.
It’s Lamu, a picturesque island dotted with mangroves and surrounded by turquoise waters, part of a larger archipelago with the same name. It feels like Zanzibar must have before mass tourism took over and the “Jambo Bwana” song started playing on a loop at every resort. In Lamu, time seems to pass more slowly, and its inhabitants (mostly Muslim, unlike the mainly Christian mainland) are known for their laid-back attitude. They exhibit a surprising nonchalance toward visitors, who might be shocked to find themselves walking down the waterfront undisturbed.
Laze under the sun, snorkel, fish for your own lunch and cook it on the beach.
The island has a carefully curated history museum, a handful of fancy hotels and a couple of shops selling Masai souvenirs. (It’s quite odd for the land-loving Masai to be so far away from their families and cows, but tourists have come to expect them.) Lamu’s Old Town is the oldest Swahili settlement in East Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The architecture of its white houses and along its winding alleys is elegant and timeless. Swahili homes are built using coral stone and mangrove timber, and many have beautiful courtyards and intricately carved wooden doors.
Lamu can be a dangerous place for tourists. In 2011, a British tourist was kidnapped by Al-Shabaab and her husband was murdered. Shortly after, a French woman also died while being held hostage by the Islamist group. And in June and July of 2014, more than 70 locals were killed during a series of Al-Shabaab incursions on the mainland of Lamu County.
Visitors can go straight to Shela for a beautiful and seemingly endless sandy beach just a quick boat ride away from town. The easiest way to enjoy Lamu is to take a dhow — a traditional wooden boat — and cruise about for a day, laze under the sun, snorkel, fish for your own lunch and cook it on the beach. Lonely Planet says the island is a great windsurfing spot, but not everyone agrees. Kayvan Walker, a 32-year-old British tourist who visited a year ago with the sole purpose of catching some waves, found only one gear rental place in the entire archipelago — and it had poor gear and high prices.
The real catch is that Lamu is dangerously close to the border with Somalia, which has made it the target of several attacks by Al-Shabaab, the Somali terrorist organization that has vowed to retaliate against Kenya for its military presence in the conflict-torn nation. Since the attacks “business has really slowed down,” admits the owner of a guesthouse in Lamu who asked not to be named. Meanwhile, construction has begun on a nearby oil pipeline from South Sudan that could bring important changes to the small, idyllic island.
Time is of the essence for those who want to discover this otherwise perfectly wonderful island, because if we have learned anything from books and TV, it’s that paradises rarely stay that way for long.