Lamu, Kenya’s oldest living town, is a part of the Lamu Archipelago and in spite of its age has retained all the charm and character built up over centuries with its mishmash of cultures, conquest amidst the ravaging beauty of nature’s splendours.
Lamu Old Town, the principal inhabited part of the island, is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, retaining its traditional functions. Built in coral stone and mangrove timber, the town is characterized by the simplicity of structural forms enriched by such features as inner courtyards, verandas, and elaborately carved wooden doors.
The isolated island, with streets so narrow such that donkeys provide almost the only mode of transport makes the town quite unique.
Over a thousand years of East African, Omani, Yemeni, Indian, Portuguese and Victorian British influences have all left their mark on Lamu Island, in the architecture, the language and the very essence of the place.
The island has a long history and by the 1500s it was a thriving port, exporting timber, ivory, amber, spices and slaves. When the Portuguese arrived, it surrendered without a murmur and in the mid-1800s it became a subject of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, which nominally controlled the whole coastal strip until Kenya’s independence in 1963
In bustling Lamu, winding alleys lead past the intricate carved doorways of white stone houses, some of which are truly majestic and still home to the very wealthy.
And, because the alleys are too narrow to be negotiated by cars, the modern world has had little visible impact on this historic town, hence maintaining its old natural splendour. There are some 2000-3000 working donkeys on the island used for navigation henceforth.
The Museum and the Old Fort are some of the major attractions apart from the kanga’s and kikoys, leather work, carved wooden furniture, and the silver jewellery.
Dhow sailing trips to the Takwa and Manda Ruins on Manda Island can go along snorkelling between when the water clears and the wind drops, swimming with dolphins.
Lamu was declared a UNESCO heritage centre in 2001, one of the reasons being the architecture and urban structure of Lamu graphically demonstrate the cultural influences that have come together there over several hundred years from Europe, Arabia, and India, utilizing traditional Swahili techniques to produce a distinct culture.
Flying is the best way to reach Lamu. The airport is located on the neighbouring Manda Island from where you will be collected by your hotel or lodge and transferred by boat across the channel to Lamu town or to the famous Shela Village, home to the most spectacular beaches on Lamu island, with its almost pure white sand, traditional dhows, and clean appearance. Shela is a 10-minute boat ride from Lamu and is more beautiful, smaller, quieter and more elegant than Lamu.