Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Allure of Lamu

It was April and I set off to explore one of Kenya’s most talked about coastal locations: Lamu island. If I wasn’t a nervous flyer, I probably would have enjoyed the scenic flight from Nairobi to Manda Airport. But I am a gibbering wreck on small, shaky airplanes so in fact I kept my head down, praying that I would survive and listened to my trusty boyfriend 'oooh' and 'ahhh' over whatever brilliant landscape was passing by thousands of meters below us. Three hours later we landed in Lamu and I breathed a massive sigh of relief!

The air here is thick and hot – just what you would expect when landing anywhere along Kenya’s toasty coastline. But what really set this spot apart for me was walking through the airport and meeting the man with the wide smile and bare feet. He grabbed my bag from me and chatted away about monkeys and Kenyan politics whilst we walked to the seaside to catch our connecting transfer to Diamond Beach Village on Manda. Lamu island is technically an island, but on all sides bar one it is entirely surrounded by land. To the east it looks across to Manda, beautiful thick mangroves dominate the north and north-eastern edges and then desert-like dunes look great the ocean to the south. So, we hop aboard our water taxi and what happens? Of course the only pair of flip flops I have brought along with me snap! Did I bring an emergency pair of lip flops? Nope. Did I bring any other shoes at all? This is the beach. Obviously not! “Hakuna shida,” says our boat driver. “Hakuna ina viatu katika Lamu.” (Nobody wears shoes in Lamu).

Twenty minutes later we are marshaled onto some sort of fairytale on Shela beach where Rachael, the owner of Diamond Beach Village meets us. Diamond Beach is not actually a village but this low cost, character filled ‘lodge’ is set up like a small village, with alleyways leading to an array of rooms from single, semi detached bandas to multi room treehouses. Our room is the nearest to the beach (brilliant!) and we washed the sand from our feet before entering into the rustic banda. Everything here seemed totally in tune with its beachy environment; seashells decorated nooks and crannies and bougainvillea flowers brought colour to the doors and walls. We spent one night here, hosted by Rachael who was full of great stories and the chef whipped up a delicious seafood curry. The next morning we strolled along the beach, exploring the exposed coral rock formations and laid our white bodies out to bake on the beach. Bliss.

The next day we transferred to Peponi hotel in Shela (directly opposite) by boat and were shown to a room that was discretely tucked away along the beach under the hotels breakfast deck. The room and its veiled beachside location were agonizingly beautiful. It was immediately apparent that the hotel owner, Carol had gone through each element of these rooms in fine detail and her laid back, stylish personality shone from the ornate four poster beds to the unique brass coffee pitchers. Her personal style was not what drew me in the most though; it’s how superbly this hotel was tucked away into the island. Blink and you might miss it. Stop and look and you will never regret it. Later that day Carol took me back stage to explore some of the hotel private suites – I never even knew they were there. It all just blends in so well!

In recent years I have heard great stories about the food at Peponi, and it certainly lived upto its reputation! Dinner here was one of my favourite meals of this whole trip. The following morning, after popping into the back streets of Shela to purchase a pair of emergency flip flops we took a boat to Lamu town. This place is totally incredible and walking the streets of this ancient port, it was hard to imagine that Lamu town had been the source of so much controversy of late. I have spent a lot of time in a lot of dodgy back end towns in Southern and Eastern Africa but Lamu town is not one of them. In fact, I have never felt safer! Islamism is strong here and incorporated into nearly every element of the town. I was requested to cover up as I walk the streets to show respect and I was happy to oblige. On Lamu there are no cars, only donkeys and the narrow alleyways and polite smiles at nearly every turn made us feel a little claustrophobic, but totally at ease. Our trusty guide Bob (also known as Mohammed!) takes us to his house on the fringes of Lamu’s old town, and the Arab architecture along the narrow streets is breathtakingly beautiful. We finish up the trip sitting in the town square drinking coconut milk fresh from the coconut and watching the world go by. 

After our second night at Peponi a speed boat picked us up from the beach below the hotel and transferred us to the southern tip of the island where we were met by the Van Aardt’s and show us to what is now my new favourite place in Kenya! Kizingo is the epitome of wild, beachside living. Beyond our bedroom the room opened out onto what could be the most private beach in the world! We walk up and down and swim and lie out on the sand and build sand castles all afternoon and see absolutely nobody. It’s exquisitely secluded and hopelessly romantic. I am sad that we have only spent one night here as we don’t get the chance to enjoy any of their brilliant activities: sea fishing, snorkeling and swimming with dolphins. All the more reason for us to go back I’d say. 

The next morning, after breakfast I am so sad to pack my bag and leave this castaway paradise. I immediately mark Kizingo on my ‘favourite places of all time’ list and recommend it to almost anybody who asks me about Lamu.

Ever since the 2011 kidnapping Lamu has been bombarded with red tape. But I have never felt safer or slept better anywhere in Kenya and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this fantastic, friendly island as a beach destination to anyone.

How could you work a trip to Lamu island into your safari? See an example here.

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