Travel to Lamu Island – Old Town, Dhows & Beaches
Lamu is the largest town on Lamu Island. The island, just off Kenya’s far north coast, is a place of great natural beauty, with long deserted beaches framed by rolling sand dunes and the deep blue waters of the Indian Ocean.
Lamu is a place like no other, a peaceful tropical island where life is lived at it’s own relaxed rhythm, but a place whose history is as mysterious and fascinating as the winding streets of it’s medieval stone town. Tiny villages nestle among coconut and mango plantations and lateen sailed dhows ply the waters. But Lamu’s real attraction is its fabulous Old Town.
The town of Lamu began life as a 14th century Swahili settlement, but the island has seen many visitors and influences, including Portuguese explorers, Turkish traders and the Omani Arabs. All left their mark, but Lamu developed its own particular culture, which has ultimately endured.
Lamu’s narrow streets remain unchanged, and in the markets and squares around the fort life moves at the same pace as it always has. There are no vehicles on this island, and the donkey and the dhow remain the dominant form of transport.
Dhow safaris can take you beyond Lamu into the surrounding archipelago, where isolated villages, ancient ruins and a few luxurious and exclusive resorts lie hidden among the islands of Manda, Siyu, Pate and Kiwayu.
It should be remembered though that while tolerant, Lamu is proud and protective of its Swahili cultural traditions. Visitors to the island should keep this in mind and dress and behave in a way appropriate to an Islamic community.
There is an excellent Museum in Lamu town with good exhibits on Swahili culture in general and Lamu culture in particular. The staff are very helpful and have a wealth of local information.
The labyrinth streets of Lamu town itself are a historical attraction in themselves. These narrow streets are all built upwards along a gentle slope, letting the rains wash the town clean. The Old Town was recently declared a World Heritage site, and exploring the town on foot is a wonderful way to soak up the atmosphere of the living, breathing history of Lamu.
At the centre of town is the impressive Sultan’s Fort, built by the Omanis in 1808. The Fort has been through various changes over the years, including conversion into a prison. It is now a museum and its forecourt is home to Lamu’s largest open market.
Lamu is a very relaxed and relaxing place, and its easy going lifestyle has long attracted those seeking an alternative and exotic lifestyle. This started in 1894 with the arrival of the ‘Freelanders’, a group of idealistic British and European intellectuals who planned to use the island as base for a utopian commune to be finally located near Mount Kenya. Their plans fell apart almost immediately, and some never left Lamu. This was repeated in the 1970’s, when Lamu became a popular haunt for easy going hippy travellers.
Lamu is well known for its local Henna artists, who paint the hands of feet of local women with elaborate traditional designs for special ceremonies or just for decorative purposes. This is considered a fine art and attractively painted hands and feet are a great mark of beauty.
Lamu is famous for its woodcarvers, whose specialities include the famous carved Lamu doors, furniture, signboards and Swahili boxes, intricately carved and inlaid with brass, copper or marble work. These vary in size from small jewelery boxes to huge chests. Similarly styled candle holders and other wooden objects are often also sold.
The waters of Lamu are plied by great numbers of traditional lateen sailed dhows. These craft are an integral part of life on the island. A day spent at sea on a Lamu dhow safari is a wonderful experience and a fantastic way to explore the area. The calm waters around Lamu are perfect for sailing, and the neighbouring islands are well worth visiting for their small fishing villages, ancient ruins and deserted beaches. After a day on the water, you sail back to Lamu town as the setting sun turns the ocean to gold.
The palm forests and wetland areas of the island are excellent spots for finding coastal waterfowl and other birds.
On the stretches of beach around the shore, populations of crabs can be seen, often swarming the sand in large number. On the arid mainland opposite Lamu, there is a surprising abundance of wildlife in the Dodori Reserve, including buffalo, lion and leopard. The mangrove channels here are also good for birding and spotting the occasional crocodile.
Lamu is an ideal island for walking. The rolling sand dunes behind the beaches at Shela are well worth exploring. A lengthy hike along the beach from Shela to Kipungani on the opposite side of the island is very enjoyable. The beaches are completely deserted, and there are plenty of sea birds and massive groups of crabs to see on the way.
The obvious culinary attraction in Lamu is seafood, and there is plenty available, with excellent fish, crabs, lobster, oysters and more. There is also an abundance of fresh tropical fruits and vegetables.
Many local restaurants serve Swahili Cuisine, a traditional blend of Arabic and African cooking styles. Swahili specialities are mild curries made from a thick coconut sauce, and seafood cooked with cloves and cinnamon. Lamu is also well known for its locally produced yoghurt.
There are no vehicles on Lamu. The winding streets of the towns are best explored on foot. Shela village and the beaches are also accessible by foot. Alternatively dhows regularly carry paying passengers back and forth from Lamu town to Shela. To access the surrounding islands of Manda, Pate or Siyu, either take an organised dhow safari or for the adventurous traveller, just hitch a ride on a passing dhow and explore. It is also possible to hire donkeys to ride around the island.
- Explore the mysterious and fascinating streets of Lamu’s medieval stone town – a World Heritage Site.
- Unwind on this peaceful tropical island where life is lived at its own relaxed rhythm and vehicles are not allowed.
- Sail on a Dhow – a wonderful experience and a fantastic way to explore the area.