Have you ever heard of Lamu Island? Once popular with tourists as a retreat for writers, yoga enthusiasts and hippy types, Lamu Island has an enthralling history, culture and landscape. It is easy to see how many writers were entranced by it’s alleyways, deserted beaches and slow pace of life. Its history is enough to make even the most well-travelled enthusiast captivated.
So far, so “standard Lonely Planet intro.” But where can I find it?
Lamu Island is a small island that is part of Lamu Archipelago, off the coast of Kenya. The population of Lamu County is only around 101,000 and that’s spread across 35 different islands. Lamu Island is home to the settlements of Lamu Town and popular tourist destination, Shela. Bursting with history, in addition to it being one of the first Swahili settlements in East Africa, you can still see the influence of Portugese, Omani and Indian settlers.
Okay…we get it. It’s small and historical. But what makes it different?
The answer? Almost everything.
There are no cars on Lamu Island
First of all, there are very few streets in Lamu, just narrow alleyways. It stands to reason that driving a car wouldn’t be very efficient – so there aren’t any! People mostly travel on foot, by bicycle or by donkey. Throughout the streets, you will see many donkeys tied up, waiting for their owners. Expect to fall asleep to the sound of donkeys braying (which I never realised could be so noisy!)
You can trace its history on every doorstep
The history of Lamu Town is in its doorways. Before visiting Lamu, I had spent time in Zanzibar where the intricately carved Swahili doors are almost a tourist attraction in itself. The interesting thing in Lamu is that the doors are different in each part of town, depending on whether it was built during the Portuguese occupation or the Omani Protectorate.
People are happy to share their culture with you
Visit Lamu during Eid al Fitr celebrations and you will find that people will welcome you into their homes for Iftar, women will offer you henna and everyone will be happy to stop and tell you about Lamu and its history. Lamu is highly dependent on tourism, which sadly has declined due to unrest on the Kenyan coast.
Although Lamu Island itself is a very safe place, local people have suffered due to events in the region. For this reason, tourists are welcomed with open arms. While you may feel under pressure to spend while you are there, at least you will know you are supporting the local economy.
You might have an entire beach to yourself
Lower tourist numbers mean that overtourism isn’t a worry for Lamu thankfully. Go during low season and you are almost guaranteed to have the entire beach to yourself. The most well known beach on Lamu Island is Shela. Shela is as historic as Lamu Town – the beach is the site of a famous battle between the Lamu Islanders and Mombasa and Pate invaders. Today the beach is a blissful escape from the narrow busy streets of Lamu Town, Luckily it is just a 20 minute safe walk or a 10 minute boat ride away. Alternatively, you could stay at one of the many upmarket hotels there.
There is a donkey sanctuary!
I already mentioned that the main form of transport on Lamu Island is donkey. With around 3000 donkeys on Lamu Island, unfortunately not all are cared for. For those donkeys who are old or overworked, The Donkey Sanctuary will take care of them and ensure they are well fed and looked after. You can even visit and make a donation to support their work.
There’s no such thing as airport traffic jams
Arriving to and leaving Lamu Island are some of the most memorable experiences. In fact Lamu Island sums up the phrase “it’s not the destination, but the journey that matters.” Arriving at Lamu Island is as simple as following the signs from the airport to the nearby dock and hopping on a boat. Leave the excess luggage behind as the boats are small but if you need assistance there are plenty of guys at the shore willing to help for a small fee. Going home is equally as simple. Skip the chartered boats and take the local one for just 200 KES.
The view as you leave will make you want to stay
Few places leave you with such a sense of longing as Lamu Island. The only way to the airport is by boat, so be sure to look back for an awesome view of the waterfront. I promise, it will make you want to stop the boat and stay for longer.
Know before you go:
- There are safety concerns on the road to Lamu so visitors are advised not to travel by road.
- Flights depart daily from Nairobi, Mombasa and Malindi with Fly540, SafariLink and Silverstone Air among others, for as little as 30 USD.
- I stayed at Subira House – a beautiful eco-hotel in the heart of Lamu Town
- The best time to visit Lamu is July-August or November to March.
- Lamu is a Muslim Island. Visitors should be respectful of local culture, dress modestly and avoid eating in public during Ramadan.
Lots of people compare Lamu Island to Zanzibar. Have you been? What do you think?