The Old Town on the island of Lamu is often hailed by those who visit Kenya as the most compelling part of their holiday. It is only a small outcrop northeast of Mombasa, but it oozes charm and the old-world feel of a different era.
Lamu is the oldest continually inhabited settlement in Kenya, and indeed East Africa, with the first arrivals dating back to the 12th century. You can feel the history in the air as you navigate the narrow labyrinthine streets that the town is famous for, and its significance has been recognised by UNESCO, which awarded it World Heritage Site status in 2001. The settlement has a rich trading history mirrored in the buildings, which are made of coral stone and mangrove timber and feature intricately carved doors and shady hidden courtyards. Arabic, European and Indian influences abound and come together in an intriguing architectural mix.
The scenic approach
The most dramatic way to see Lamu for the first time is from the water: as you approach the island among the Dhows – the long, thin traditional sailing vessels that zip around these waters carrying goods – Lamu Old Town emerges almost mystically on the horizon. You can make the crossing from Mokowe on the mainland on board the ferry, or you can hire a speedboat to arrive in style.
Stepping back in time
Lamu feels almost untouched from medieval times and it is a pleasure to stroll among the narrow streets and witness life unchanged in centuries. This primarily Muslim population typically wear traditional dress as they go about their daily lives in the streets, most likely followed in tow by a donkey. The winding pathways are incredibly narrow and create an almost labyrinthine criss-cross of alleys, so donkeys rather than cars are the primary form of transport on the island. The fact that there are some 3000 on Lamu shows you just how important they are, so it is worth a visit to the Donkey Sanctuary, where they have been looking after donkeys for over 25 years.
One of the most enjoyable ways you can spend your time on Lamu is simply sitting back and basking in the pleasure of the island’s slower pace of life and shining sun. There are beautiful white sandy beaches where you can relax and enjoy the breeze sweeping in from the ocean, or you can take a seat in one of the quaint local cafes and have an Arabic coffee.
With Dhows on the water and donkeys in the streets, Lamu offers a haven of tranquility which is the perfect escape from modern life. Swap your phone and laptop for a few days of serene contemplation mixed in with strolls around the bewitching alleys and you are sure to have a fantastic time.
Easily accessible from mainland Kenya, it is a lesser known location but one that can take your personalised Africa holiday to another level. Don’t forget to pack to your camera: this is one of the most picturesque towns in Africa!