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Lamu Island

Lamu Island itself is a beautiful place of rolling dunes and endless beaches, where tiny villages nestle among coconut and mango plantations and lateen sailed dhows ply the waters. This is indeed a place like no other, a peaceful tropical island where life is lived at its own relaxed rhythm, but a place whose history is as mysterious and fascinating as the winding streets of its medieval stone town.

Lamu’s narrow streets remain unchanged, and in the markets and squares around the fort life moves at the same pace as it always has. There are no vehicles on this island, and the donkey and the dhow remain the dominant form of transport. The town of Lamu began life as a 14th century Swahili settlement, but the island has seen many visitors and influences, including Portuguese explorers, Turkish traders and the Omani Arabs. All left their mark, but Lamu developed its own finicky culture, which has ultimately endured.

This 14th century trading port has remained unchanged for centuries, and has a long and colourful history as a centre of Swahili culture. Most of the streets of Lamu are alleyways no more than eight feet wide, making them accessible only on foot or by donkey, and the historic seafront is a harbour for the trading dhows that still ply the waters of the East African coast.

For the traveller, Lamu is a hypnotically exotic experience, made even more enjoyable by the relaxed and welcoming attitudes of the locals. Life slows down, and long days are spent strolling along the waterfront, exploring the town or relaxing on the beaches. A short walk along the seafront from Lamu brings the visitor to the small village of Shela where there are several important historic homes and up market hotels and guesthouses with easy access to the nearby 6 km beach. The village of Matandoni on the north-west coast of Lamu Island is renowned as a centre for dhow building.

Dhow safaris can take you beyond Lamu into the surrounding archipelago, where isolated villages, ancient ruins and a few luxurious and exclusive resorts lie hidden among the islands of Manda, Siyu, Pate and Kiwayu. This idyllic island speaks to the heart and soul, and a trip to Lamu is a romantic experience that can become a life long affair. To visit Lamu is to enter another world, and the visitor finds themselves becoming a part of this world.

Lamu is best accessed by air. There are scheduled flights daily from Nairobi, Mombasa, Diani Beach and Malindi. The island is serviced by an airstrip on neighbouring Manda Island. The strip can also be used by private charters. A dhow ferries arriving passengers to either Lamu town or Shela. Many yachts also come to Lamu, often sheltering in the channel near Shela. There are no vehicles on Lamu. The winding streets of the towns are best explored on foot. Shela village and the beaches are also accessible by foot. Alternatively dhows regularly carry paying passengers back and forth from Lamu town to Shela. To access the surrounding islands of Manda, Pate or Siyu, either take an organized Dhow Safari or for the adventurous traveller, just hitch a ride on a passing dhow and explore. It is also possible to hire donkeys to ride around the island.

Offshore of Lamu is the island of Manda where there are the ruins of the town of Takwa which was deserted in the 17th century. Further afield on Pate Island are the crumbling Nabahani ruins which have merged with the more recent town of Pate. The Nabahani were a group of dispossessed Arabs who settled into existing Swahili settlements some time in the 13th century. Also on Pate are the ruins and monuments of the Swahili towns of Shanga and Faza, and the imposing fort at Siyu. But Lamu’s real attraction is its Old town.
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