Natural Beauty: Lamu Archipelago Kenya
The main town on the island of the same name just off Kenya’s northeastern coast, tranquil Lamu was founded in the 14th century, making it the country’s oldest living town and the best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Lamu Museum (with its prized siwa horns) and the two-centuries-old Lamu Fort are two of the main attractions. The restored Swahili House Museum is small but quite interesting. About a 30-minute walk north of town, white sandy Shela Beach is one of the island’s best.
Lamu Island is the best known of a number of islands in the Lamu archipelago off the coast of northern Kenya. Lamu is Kenya’s oldest living settlement, having been a trading post between Arabia and India since the 1500s, buying and selling spices, mangrove poles, ivory and slaves until the slave trade was abolished in 1907.
Other islands in the Lamu archipelago lying just off Kenya’s far north coast is a string of beautiful Indian Ocean islands – Manda, Pate, Kiwayu and Manda Toto. Surrounded by a rich marine life, many of these islands have Swahili ruins dating back to the 14th century, as well as some remote and exclusive ‘Robinson Crusoe’ style hideaway beach-lodges.
An area of archaeological and historical interest as well as great natural beauty, these islands are well worth visiting for a more tranquil and away-from-the-crowds Kenya beach holiday, especially when compared to the busier and more developed central and southern parts of the coast.
Lamu Archipelago is now home to some lavishly luxurious accommodation in stunning settings. Popular as a post-safari add-on, activities include snorkelling and scuba diving (best between November and March when the water is clearest), historical walking tours, dhow sailing trips, sea kayaking and diving with dolphins.
Flying is the best way to reach the archipelago and the airport is located on Manda Island from where you will be transferred to your hotel or lodge by boat.
Lamu Island, a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2001 and a centre of Swahili and Islamic culture for over 700 years, is the most popular and most developed of the islands and its hotels have gained a well-deserved reputation for delivering a superb ‘barefoot luxury’ experience. Expect great beaches, dazzling coral reefs, a wealth of activities, great cuisine and friendly, discreet service while on a Lamu holiday.
Lamu Old Town is worth exploring – either on your own or as part of an organised tour – and there are plenty of opportunities to pick up traditional clothing, silver jewellery and leatherwear. Note that Islamic Lamu Island is conservative and visitors would do well to respect local customs and adhere to recommended dress codes while away from the beaches.
Less developed Manda Island offers a more exclusive feel just across the narrow channel from Lamu Island. It’s virtually uninhabited but besides the archipelago’s airport, the island is home to several archeologically important sites including the ruined towns of Takwa and Manda. Excavations at the sites have revealed their historical legacy, finding Chinese porcelain and Islamic pottery.
Remote Kiwayu Island is set in the north of the archipelago and has the finest beaches in the island chain. As part of the Kiunga Marine Reserve, Kiwayu offers some of Kenya’s best diving and snorkelling off some very impressive coral reefs.