Lamu is an island along the coast of Kenya, with one of the most preserved cultures of ancient civilization in East Africa, making it a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Center.
The island-town is built in coral stone and mangrove timber, with simple architectural forms of the Arab and Swahili cultures. With narrow streets, courtyards and donkeys as the primary means of transport, Lamu offers a unique experience that has for decades attracted foreign and domestic tourists alike. Lamu also hosts major Islamic and other cultural festivals, which draw thousands of visitors yearly.
Lamu is close to a volatile area along the border with Somalia. In 2011, a British couple enjoying their dream holiday was attacked by the Al-Shabaab, an armed group based in Somalia, in one of the popular villas in the Island. The husband was killed and wife abducted and released after six months. This unfortunate incident led to a decline of visitors to Lamu, which really hurt the local economy. However, it is now regaining momentum, after a massive ongoing security operation along the border with Somalia.
Back to our experience of Lamu.
There are two ways of getting to Lamu. By air, one lands at the Manda airport, a small airport with several commercial (mainly safari) airlines. There are also various private charters one can use. The other alternative would be to take a bus from Malindi, which takes about 6 hours, but not highly recommended since the road is bad and passes through a volatile area.
After disembarking from the plane at Manda airport, one crosses over to the Island using a speedboat, with the option of hiring or using one with other passengers thus saving on costs depending on the experience you are looking for.The 5-minute ride is awesome, with gushing winds refreshing you from the heat and humidity of the Kenyan coast. Our captain cum tour guide was very friendly and offered us a free ride around the coastline while fascinating us with stories of Lamu.
Unfortunately I never took pictures of the hotel, but it had a large room with mahogany doors, a traditional bathroom with Swahili soaps and oils, and an open balcony facing the vast ocean.
We visited the Lamu Museum, which was constructed as a fort, and completed in 1821 with the support of Seyyid Said, the Sultan of Oman who was then cultivating an alliance with Lamu. It first served as a garrison for Omani soldiers, and its protective nature sparked several other developments around, leading to the sprout of the town as is today. It later served as a prison from 1910 to 1984 by both the British colonial regime and the Kenyan government before being converted into a Museum.
The exhibits represent the material culture of the various coastal peoples in the context in which the items are used, like the kanga (shawl-like wrap for women) and heena (decorative paintings mostly on hands and feet) in the below picture. We got out own for about ksh. 500 (USD 5). It fades after a few weeks depending on how you wash it off.
We also visited a donkey sanctuary and got to tour the town while riding them, an experience that you can hardly get anywhere else apart from Lamu. The relaxing beaches and blue waters provided a perfect two day getaway. Our captain also took us around the different islands surrounding Lamu, in a whole day cruise with different stops for lunch and drinks.
Lamu is highly recommended especially if you are looking for a closed, serene and relaxing holiday full of culture, sun, sand along the turquoise Indian Ocean waters.