Lamu, one of the most magical destinations in Kenya, is famed for being the oldest and best-preserved example of a Swahili settlement in East Africa. The Old Town has been inhabited for over 700 years and is made particularly beautiful by the assortment of Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Indian, and European architecture. Since 1370, different cultures have been lured to Lamu, making it an important trading port along the East Africa coast. Nowadays it enchants visitors with its narrow cobbled alleyways, wandering donkeys, weather-beaten stone buildings, hidden courtyards, and the sight of rustic wooden dhows sailing in the distance. Visit the local mosques, wander the streets of quaint Shela village, sail over to the luxurious Majlis Resort for a swim and a cocktail, or while away the hours on an ornate roof terrace.

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Wind through the alleyways and head back in time in Lamu

With narrow cobbled alleyways that allow for pedestrians and the occasional wandering donkey only, weather beaten walls and rustic wooden dhow boats sailing by in the distance, Lamu is a beautiful small town and island that is well worth a visit. Lamu was once one of the most important ports along the East African trade route. In it, you’ll find a mix of cultures in everything from the architecture to the food and the people. Here, the traditional Swahili homes constructed with coral limestone and mangrove timber create a barrier from the sun in the narrow alleyways of Lamu’s old town. Yet, with 60% of the old town owned by foreigners, many of the locals have moved to the newer, livelier (but also less-pretty) part of town. It’s here, in the new town, that you’ll find the best street food in Lamu. There is a lot to do on the archipelago between dhow (boat) rides and beaches, but don’t miss out on a couple of days ambling around the beautiful old town, stopping to buy bits and bobs at market or to visit the local mosques.

Riding a dhow in Lamu

From Lamu, an archipelago off Kenya’s coast, my husband Mike and I arranged for day-long trip in a dhow. This traditional vessel has a simple wooden hull and beautiful arcing white sail. They’ve been used along the Swahili Coast for hundreds of years--and to our surprise, are still in use by fishermen to navigate the narrow channels of the Lamu archipelago. Our boat was run by a captain and three nimble young men who hoped one day to have a boat of their own. In this picture, the youngest crew member was helping to balance the force of the sail by standing on a plank that stretched out over the water. We spent the day fishing, having a picnic lunch on the beach with the “silver fish” we caught, and then taking a long walk on a deserted beach. Later, during a long stretch of quiet sea, the crew sang an a capella version of “Jambo Bwana,” one of Kenya’s top pop songs.

The Stunning Beauty of Lamu House

Words like fabulous, exotic, dream-like, fantastical don’t begin to do Lamu, (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) justice. It was a hard choice between staying in Lamu Town or the beach village of Shela just a 45 minute walk away. When I saw the pictures of Lamu House, my decision was made. Run by a Belgian couple basically living their dream life, the Lamu House is a beautiful place on the water right in the heart of a vibrant culture. The hotel is a walled compound of three large houses connected by an interior courtyard and three pools using classic Swahili details. My room had its own little breezeway exposed to the sky and two balconies that looked out on the bay and let the warm air flow through to naturally cool the space. Every morning I woke to calls to prayer (Lamu’s population is majority Muslim). In the evening the hotel’s restaurant becomes a vibrant hangout for eccentric characters and local musicians. It takes a certain kind of adventurer to settle down here. The special atmosphere of the location and vibe of the tight-knit community made an unusual travel experience. Most often when we journey to far-off locales we don’t get a chance to engage with the residents so quickly but here at Lamu House the international mix of outgoing, artistic expats was a rarity for this road-weary, safari-weary traveler. In short, I felt right at home in Lamu.

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