After a week jam-packed with activities in the bush, David and I were definitely looking forward to seeing what Lamu and Manda Islands had to offer. People sometimes get skittish about visiting Kenya’s coast because of news stories over the years, but Lamu Island was an exceptional highlight for us, and really felt like a world unto itself; our only wish was that we could spend more time relaxing there!
The town itself is an old Arab trade town with notable Eastern and African influences. You can feel the history of the island practically emanating from the labyrinthine streets, and abundance of private courtyards. While getting lost exploring on your own might sound dreamy, I recommend hiring a guide to show you the best of Lamu Town; there’s too much to see and learn about the rich heritage here that you would otherwise miss out on. Do note: women will need to keep shoulders and knees covered when out and about, so light scarves and skirts are a good choice.
A few miles from Lamu is Shela. With only 4,000 people living there, it’s significantly smaller than Lamu’s 20,000 population. Its size is part of its charm, though, and here you can really take advantage of exploring town solo. The expat community is thriving, which makes it easy for foreign travelers to feel at home. I loved stopping in at the cute shops dotting the town (you can even find yoga centers!) and getting to know Peponi, the heart of the island’s social scene. The bar and hotel have been a staple for decades, and make a perfect place to gather with friends in the town center and relax over some drinks in the sea-breeze
Exploring Lamu and Manda was so special partially because you can really tailor your experience however you like. If you want to explore town, there’s plenty to see and learn. If you want to comb the beaches, you have miles of sandy stretches at your fingertips. If you want to fall off the map and go Robinson-Crusoe style, it’s easy to accomplish.
One of my favorite memories from our stay was heading out on the water for a sunset dhow voyage, which lasted about two hours. It felt like being lost in time: watching the sails unfurl, skimming past mangrove trees, seeing locals make boats or race them in the waters. You can’t help but feel like Lamu, or Manda (the next island over) simply aren’t interested in “keeping up” with the world, or trying to compete. These islands are their own unique experience, and it’s much easier to avoid the tourist crowds you can encounter in more popular destinations like Zanzibar.
While I visit Kenya frequently, this trip was really special to slow down and enjoy the magic of the country again without trying to see and do everything. It can be hard, especially for clients who haven’t been to Africa before, to take more time to deeply experience just a few locations rather than hopping from one location to the next every day or two. Africa is about getting out of time, staying open to surprises and letting yourself feel playful again – it’s a reminder I need sometimes as much as anyone!