COVID-19 NOTICE: Right now, we are all taking life day-by-day. Travel plans have to be cancelled and loved ones have to be separated by closed borders and travel bans. We don’t know what the next 6 months will look like. To keep my days in social distancing ticking over, I want to keep doing what I’ve always done. Keep sharing nice things I’ve seen and nice places I’ve been, and keep your and my travel dreams alive. Because one day, when we’re ready to poke our heads out of our front doors again, when planes are back in the sky and the travel bans are lifted, we will see more of the world together.
I don’t know about you, but until about 6 weeks ago I had literally never heard of Lamu Island. Now that I’ve been there, the best way I can explain it is like a beautiful mix of East African culture, Moroccan architecture and the blue waters and pink bougainvillea of Santorini, dropped just off the coast of Kenya. The island, which was granted World Heritage status in 2001, is one of the oldest and best-preserved examples of Swahili architecture in Africa, with maze-like alleys and hidden interior courtyards behind tall coral stone walls.
What to expect
Warm water, an extremely laid-back vibe, kind locals, lots of fresh seafood and sunset dhow trips. Life in Lamu is very slow. In fact, it kind of feels like you’re moving in fast forward for the first couple of days you’re there. It took me a little while to just, relax into it. There are a few nice restaurants, one or two hotel bars and a lot of nice hotels and guest houses, but you can expect to spend your days mostly just swimming, reading, napping, walking, eating and enjoying being on holiday.
Home Video: Lamu Yoga Festival
There are only 3 cars on Lamu Island and they can’t drive very far, because there’s hardly enough room for 2 people to walk next to each other in some of the little alleyways. There are also the estimated 5000 donkeys which kinda get in their way. The donkeys provide transport for humans and goods, and you’ll often see them being dragged into the shallows for a cool down and a wash. Local fishermen bring fish to the island every day, and you can ask your accommodation to prepare it for lunch or dinner. Or, if you’re staying in self-catering, you can have a local cook come in to whip it up into a delicious curry or grill it over the fire – Swahili style.
How to get there
From South Africa, you can fly into either Jomo Kenyatta International, or Wilson Airport. Flights to Manda Airport depart several times a day from Nairobi Wilson and are pretty affordable, depending on when you’re travelling and how far in advance you book. If you’re flying from South Africa and spending a couple of days in Nairobi before Lamu, it’s easier to fly out of Nairobi Wilson Airport, which is in the city, than JKA, which can be quite a journey if the traffic is against you. Most accommodation in Lamu offers free boat transfers from the Manda Airport to Shela, and you should arrange it ahead of your arrival.
Where to stay
Shela Village, which overlooks the most spectacular beaches on the island and has developed a strong tourism industry, is a maze of narrow corridors, coral stone walls, elaborately carved wooden doors, hidden courtyards, donkeys and cats.
It’s not uncommon to find yourself somehow on a different route on every walk to or from the beach. The friendly locals are accustomed to finding visitors wandering around looking lost, and are always willing to give directions – sometimes even dropping what they’re doing to walk you to your front door.
There are lots of accommodation options for every budget, but I stayed at Waridi House, a beautiful little 6 bedroom boutique hotel with a plunge pool. It’s built in the traditional open-plan Swahili style and the en-suite rooms have balconies with hammock beds and mosquito nets for when the heat becomes overwhelming.
If you’re looking for somewhere special to splurge, you won’t be disappointed in the high-end Peponi Hotel, which is located right on the water. For groups of family or friends travelling together, there are some stunning homes available on Airbnb.
What to expect
Lamu Yoga Festival
It’s the beautiful seaside village of Shela which plays host to the Lamu Yoga Festival. The festival celebrated its 7th iteration this year, drawing 35 yoga teachers and 400 yoga enthusiasts from around the world to the island’s shores. With 175 yoga classes and workshops on offer during the 5 day wellness celebration, the festival truly offers something for everyone – whether you’re yet to attempt your first downward dog, or you’ve had a daily practice for the past 20 years.
If you’re picturing a group of wild yogis engaged in an ecstatic dance ritual under the palm trees, you’ve got the right idea. But the festival certainly isn’t exclusively reserved for quite such esoteric practises. I found the atmosphere welcoming and encouraging. A buffet of yogic practices ranging from the ever-popular Bikram Yoga, to Shamanic Workshops and Quantum Healing sessions.
You could, for instance, start your morning with a sunrise Vinyasa Flow on the beach, enjoy a mid-morning guided meditation, stop by an Ayurvedic Yoga class before lunch and end the day with a sound healing journey. If you’d prefer to attend just one class a day between ocean dips and afternoon naps – that’s fine too. And if you’re interested in dipping your toe into a class you’ve never even heard of before, all you need to do is show up at the class. As they say, it’s called yoga practice, not yoga perfect.
Giving back to the local community
The festival is organized in partnership with the Lamu County Government, and strives to serve as a shining example of sustainable wellbeing tourism. Over the past 7 years, the event has grown from just 180 to 400 delegates from Kenya and beyond, offering not only the opportunity to connect with like-minded yogis from around the world, but a chance to learn about Swahili culture and support the local industry and the charities with which the Lamu Yoga Festival is aligned.
Safari Doctors offers improved access to healthcare for remote and marginalised communities in Lamu County; Anidan provides primary care for young children in Kenya; Bright Girls Secondary School has been working to provide secondary education to girls in Shela Village since 2010, working to combat high early dropout rates; and the Lamu Community Yoga project offers free yoga classes as well as yoga teacher training to the local community.
My days on the island were spent trying classes I’d never been to before, indulging in fresh seafood, enjoying a beer on the terrace of the famous Peponi Hotel and getting lost in the quiet streets of Shela village. I got a tan. I met people from Finland, Germany, Nairobi and the Central African Republic. I stayed in the warm water until my lips went numb from the salt. And I left feeling a little closer to the true meaning of yoga, “the extremely subtle science of bringing balance to between mind and body”. I’ve already booked out time for next year’s festival.
My Top Tips for visiting Lamu Island
- Lamu is a conservative Muslim island, so be mindful of exposing your shoulders and knees when walking through the village. Swimming further up the beach from the village is also encouraged
- Booking accommodation with a swimming pool will be a lifesaver in the heat! Otherwise the Shamba Community Pool is a little oasis where you can cool down for just 50KES (about R8)
- Alcohol is expensive on the island, and only sold in restaurants and at hotels. So if you’re stopping over in Nairobi on the way, it’s advisable to stock up on your favourite liquor
- Your yoga festival tickets includes most classes, but some more specialised practices such as aerial yoga and SUP yoga carry an extra cost of 500KES (around R78)
Five things to do on Lamu Island
- A sunset dhow trip is a must! The going rate is about 5000 Kenya Shillings (about R780) for the whole boat. Ask for Omar Abdallah Salim – he doesn’t have a phone, but everyone knows him
- Swimming across the water from Shela to Diamond Beach on Manda Island (+-1km) is a great way for competent swimmers to enjoy the clear, warm water. For 500KES (about R78) a local captain will advise you how the current and tide will affect your swim and follow you as a support boat while you cross
- For 500KES, day visitors can enjoy the luxe life at the five-star Majlis Resort, across the water from Shela on Manda Island. That fee will grant you access to the hotel’s two gorgeous swimming pools and a sun lounger for the day
- Visit Lamu Town for a half-day tour with a local guide. It’s a 45 minute walk (which can only be completed at low tide) or a 1000KES (about R160) boat trip from Shela jetty. Local tour guides will find you as soon as you arrive in town, and for about 1000KES they will show you around the maze-like streets and give you more insight into the island’s rich history and culture
- Ask any captain at Shela jetty to get you to the Floating Bar and he’ll know what you’re talking about. It’s picture-perfect, and you can have a rum and pineapple juice and jump right from the bar into the water.