Picture Swahili culture, Moroccan architecture, the pink bougainvillea of Santorini and the warm waters of the Indian ocean, dropped just off the coast of Kenya. Lamu 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 that diffuse the sun to reflect a warm, coral glow throughout the town.
What to Expect
Warm water, 12 hour sunshine days, an extremely laid-back vibe, welcoming locals, all the fresh seafood you can eat and dreamy sunset dhow trips on liquid gold water. Life in Lamu so slow that visitors often feel like they’re moving in fast forward for the few few days of the visit. I’ve been to Lamu a couple of times, and it always takes me a little while to relax into the island pace.
Shela, which is where most of the nice restaurants, hotel bars and hotels, guest houses and villas are located is right on the water. Days are whiled away swimming, reading, napping, walking, eating and enjoying being on holiday. That’s really what a visit to Lamu is all about – slowing down.
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 providing 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.
Travel tip: The local currency is Kenya Shilling. Mpesa, the local mobile money network, is widely accepted and often preferred throughout Kenya. Visitors can register for Mpesa using their passport when they buy a Safaricom SIM card, and cash money can be loaded onto an Mpesa account at Mpesa agents, who can be found across the country. Paying for accommodation, transport, meals and everything else is super simple using the Safaricom app.
How to Get There
Flights from South Africa to Kenya land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. You can either connect to Manda Airport (Lamu) at JKIA, or spend a night or two exploring Nairobi, and depart to Manda Airport from the small domestic airport, Nairobi Wilson. 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. Most accommodation in Lamu offers free boat transfers from the Manda Airport to Shela, and you should arrange it ahead of your arrival.
You’ll need a yellow fever vaccination certificate upon arrival, or you can get your shot at the airport for $150 USD (cash only). South African travellers do not need a visa for stays up to 3 months and receive a passport stamp upon arrival. Make sure you get a local SIM card on arrival – airtime and data are both cheap and you’ll need your phone to research, navigate, find transport and make reservations.
Travel tip: For flights from Nairobi to Lamu, check Skyward Express. This is my preferred domestic airline, operating from Nairobi Wilson and offering the most affordable flights. Be sure to include a contactable telephone number in your booking details, as any flight changes are typically made via phone call.
When to Visit
While the island is beautiful year-round, with warm Indian ocean winters, it’s best to visit in the dry seasons, from July to October (cooler weather) and January to March (very hot weather). It’s important to note that most accommodation establishments are Swahili-style in architecture, and do not have AC, relying on open-plan buildings to provide airflow. The summer months can be very hot, even at night, so if you are sensitive to the heat, it’s important to look for accommodation with AC.
How Long Should You Spend on Lamu Island
It’s entirely possible to see all Lamu has to offer in a 4 day stay, but I would recommend at least a week. This way you’ll have enough time to visit Lamu old town, take a day trip to Manda Toto island, spend a day next to the pool at The Majlis, explore every side street and alleyway of Shela village and truly relax in between.
How to Get Around
In Shela, you’ll be on foot, as there are no cars or other means of transportation. To get from Shela to Manda, you will travel by boat, which you can find at the beach or jetty at any time. To get to Lamu old town, you will also travel by boat, which will typically wait for you as you explore.
Where to Stay on Lamu Island
If you’re visiting Lamu for a beach holiday, you are going to want to be based in Shela village. For a more cultural trip, you can base yourself in Lamu old town. There are various accommodation options available to suit most budgets, ranging from hostel-style rooms to 5 star resorts.
I have stayed at:
- Waridi House, which is tucked at the back of Shela and is excellent value for money (with an incredible chef!)
- Msafini Hotel, which is relatively basic but affordable with a huge swimming pool (breakfast is not great though)
- The Majlis Resort, which is a big splurge but extremely beautiful and luxurious
I can also recommend:
- Kijani House is in a prime location with an excellent in-house restaurant
- Peponi Hotel is world famous and has the best location on the island
- Diamond Beach Village on Manda is shabby-chic luxury with beach access and a great social atmosphere
- Banana House is great for yogis and offers large rooms and great food
- For group trips, East African Retreats lists some of the best private properties in Kenya
Top 5 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, past Peponi towards the Fort 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
- If you’re looking for the best rates, I recommend looking on Booking.com and reaching out to the property directly, as the rates can often vary depending on the time of year
- If mosquitoes and bugs love you, you will need to get to the Peponi gift shop as soon as you land and stock up on the Natural Lamu mosquito repellent balm or oil – it also works to fight the sand flies which are invisible to the eye but can cause major irritation to those who fall victim to them (especially on the Manda side)
Top 5 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 at your accommodation and at Peponi (where you will no doubt have many meals and drinks) 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.
If you’re looking for a local guide to help you book a dhow, find your way around Old Town, negotiate for the best rates on souvenirs, organise a day trip to Manda Toto, join you for beers at the floating bar or join you in a swim across the water from Shela to Manda or back again, my friend Zillah is your man. You can reach him on WhatsApp on +254 715 131 931