On This East African Island, Getting Lost Is Half the Fun

Lamu, Kenya, encourages visitors to slow down and appreciate life without cars.

Left: A woman walking down a street in Lamu. Right: A dhow, a boat with a large triangular sail, off the coast.

Lamu hosts several events a year, including competitive dhow races and a yoga festival.

Photos by Khadija M. Farah and Eric Lafforgue

Walking the sandy, winding streets of Shela—a village on the southeastern coast of Kenya’s Lamu Island—is an exercise in trusting the process. The island is essentially free of motor vehicles, and the alleyways are only wide enough for pedestrians and donkeys. Even after visiting a dozen times, I take it as a given that I will get lost. I also trust that Shela is small enough that I will eventually stumble upon that carved wooden door I passed earlier, that patch of fiery fuchsia bougainvillea, or that mosque with the atonal call to prayer singer, and I will find my way once again.

Lamu Island, which today has a population of about 25,000, was established more than 700 years ago. Its prominent Swahili culture is a rare fusion of Bantu, Arab, Persian, European, and Indian traditions. For centuries, Lamu was a strategic trading post for the Arab world—dealing in minerals, mangrove wood, game trophies, and enslaved people, the last banned in 1873. Its dozens of mosques and annual Maulidi festival, which celebrates the birth of the prophet Muhammed every October, have made it an important site for Islam.

The island has widely eschewed large-scale development, and that is a point of pride. Lamu Town, located a few minutes north of Shela by motorboat, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001 for its “close-knit” and “well-preserved” society. Signs request that visitors cover their shoulders and knees in public, to preserve the island’s conservative culture. Most buildings echo traditional Swahili architectural norms: thick, white-plastered exteriors, often adorned with coral; barazas, or terraces; and decorative wooden doors. And in 2019, Lamu successfully rejected a plan to build a coal power plant in the county, arguing irreparable harm to the area’s culture and ecology.

“Our government makes sure the culture of Lamu will exist for many years to come,” says Muhidin Athman, assistant to Lamu County’s speaker. “If you want to come with your Jet Ski or motorbike, nobody wants it on the island.”

Visitors can fill their days with such activities as snorkeling or kitesurfing, but an action-packed agenda would miss the real invitation that Lamu offers: to embrace a slower pace of life. Most hotels, such as the Jannah in Shela (created by Anna Trzebinski, founder of the art-forward Eden Hotel in Nairobi), tout chic Swahili-style furniture for lounging. Visitors can browse shops such as Aman for flowy garments and Natural Lamu for skincare products. Walking tours of Lamu Town showcase its distinctive history.

Some of my most blissful moments in Lamu took place on wooden dhow sailboats, eating samosas and admiring the way white egrets pop against the archipelago’s dense mangrove forests. Once, during a new moon, my friends and I sailed at midnight. In the absence of light pollution, hundreds of stars flickered in the inky sky, and, to our childlike delight, bioluminescent creatures danced in the waters below. Trusting the process, we jumped in the water,bathing ourselves in an ethereal green glow.

Tips for planning your trip

  • Where to stay: The recently renovated Peponi Hotel in Shela delivers sea views, a high-end fusion restaurant, and lime-and-ginger dawa cocktails.
  • Required eating: Swahili curry, which is ubiquitous on the island, features fresh coconut milk and spices such as cinnamon, turmeric, and cloves.
  • Local Lore: It is believed that a Chinese ship sank near the Lamu archipelago 600 years ago. Survivors found their way to Shanga Village, where their descendants still live today.

For the full list of our favorite destinations this year, read Where to Go in 2024.

Sarika Bansal is the editorial director of Afar Magazine and editor of the book Tread Brightly: Notes on Ethical Travel.
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