Our MD Alistair was invited to join one of our charity partners 'The Flipflopi Project' on a 10 day sailing expedition through the Lamu Archipelago of Kenya's north coast.
The Flipflopi Project is an initiative set out to combat ocean plastics in the waters off the East African coast as well as within its great lakes. As a result of this initiative there have been various plastic bag and single use plastic bans in east Africa. Whilst he was there Alistair took the time to check out Lamu and see the best spots to stay at and how the construction of the new Lamu Port would impact your stay - if at all.
A brief history of Lamu Island
Lamu Island is a port, a city, and an island just off the shore of Kenya, approximately 200 miles from Mombasa. Lamu was founded in the 12th Century and is one of the longest established, and best-preserved remaining settlements of the Swahili tradition in east Africa that remains today. The island has continually been inhabited for over seven hundred years. Once the most important trade centre in East Africa, Lamu has exercised an important religious and cultural influence on the entire region. A conservative and close-knit society, Lamu has retained its important status as a significant centre for education in Islamic and Swahili culture as illustrated by the annual Maulidi and cultural festivals.
The town is characterized by narrow streets and magnificent stone buildings with impressive, curved doors, influenced by unique fusion of Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Indian and European building styles. The buildings on the seafront with their arcades and open verandas are well preserved and carry a long history that represents the development of Swahili building technology, based on coral, lime and mangrove poles.
Lamu County is NOT Lamu Island
Lamu County, is a huge county on the mainland and mustn’t be confused with the Lamu Archipelago. For those seeking out a lovely holiday, Lamu County is not for you as it’s a large and relatively lawless county that borders the Somali Border, albeit a long way to the north. The ‘Lamu’ that we refer to is made up of Lamu and Manda Islands as well as a few other less visited ones. The fact that these two islands are not on the FCDO ‘do not travel to’ list is due to a variety of factors such as the settled community, the fact there is no means of land grabbing or cattle rustling and that the people (99% of which are devout Muslims) are friendly, relaxed and welcoming to westerners despite our strange lifestyles. You feel very safe here.
Most people have no idea that Lamu is an island and that the surrounding waterways are full of thriving mangrove, narrow channels ideal for exploring by kayak which open out into large shallow bays where the wind is constant, offering great sailing opportunities; be that in a dinghy, dhow or kite surf. The beaches are not the best Kenya has to offer but this country is blessed with splendid beaches of all shapes and sizes and the nice thing about Lamu beaches is that they tend to be less populated with beach boys selling their wares. Here you can walk out your front door at low tide and sometimes almost walk from one island to the next without seeing a soul, a few hours later the tide will be in and the water up to the front door – it’s a constantly changing landscape, almost always draped in a fine breeze that seizes the harshness of the heat from the day and fends the pesky and sometimes harmful mosquitoes. If you are looking for a traditional beach holiday with waves and bright white sand beaches then have a look at Diani which does offer this in spades, further south.
Shela & Lamu Town
Most guests tend to stay in Shela (an old hippy colony) which is still right on the Lamu Channel but at the southern tip and on the edge of a huge, long sweeping beach. It is the place where most Europeans have houses and where the best (few) hotels are, the most popular being Peponi. Lamu Town, about a 30-minute boat taxi north of Shela is larger, raw-er and where the local population abides. There are places to stay (Lamu House is a good example) but Shela has more of a holiday vibe, its rare not to see a full terrace from lunchtime onwards at Peponi with a healthy social crowd from all over the world.
Getting between Shela and Lamu is done by boat taxi. These are local boatmen who ferry you up and down the river adding to the feel of being somewhere very different. Just make sure you have the right money as they never have change! Both places offer a really interesting and safe place to get lost in the narrow passageways. This was what Stone Town was 50 years ago. Lamu is bigger than Shela, but both give you a good idea of what the other is like. The whole experience of Lamu Island is a buzz right from when you get picked up and sailed to your hotel by traditional dhow.
Peponi Hotel is the hub in Shela and has been a stalwart of Lamu for years. The hotel has a good number of rooms, an excellent restaurant with a terrace and a really cosy residents only pool area. Whilst you are not necessarily right on the beach (at high tide the water comes up to the wall) you are a stone’s throw from a great one round the corner. The place could do with a lick of paint, but this also adds to the ramshackle nature of what feels like a British outpost on the north Kenya coast and the nightly rate is not too bad either. It’s a firm favourite of the expat community and getting a room at Christmas is nigh on impossible as it’s a great party place.
A good (and quieter) alternative a 3-minute walk away is Kijani House with its lovely roof top restaurant and excellent fish curries. Whilst it doesn’t have the prestige of Peponi you can get a table or a room and can quite easily pop along to the social hub at your leisure. In order to make the most out of coming to Lamu Island I would suggest that staying in Shela or Lamu is a must and then move further afield to get a more relaxed beach offering at either Manda Bay or The Majlis close by, or Mike’s Camp, further north on Kiwayu Island. Having said that, Peponi does sit at one end of kilometres of beach which is Shela Beach and sand dunes…so if its sand you crave, there is plenty of it.
Manda Bay Hotel or The Majlis Resort
So, do you go to Manda Bay or The Majlis for your ‘beach experience’? The Majlis is a stunning hotel sat across the channel from Peponi and is accessible to Shela by a short boat taxi ride, so its accessible day and night. In other words, you can access the best bits of Shela and Peponi without staying and having a more classic beach experience here whilst dipping your toe in Shela. The vibe is very much beach resort with 4 blocks of rooms, 2 pools and a plethora of bars (pool, beach, main, restaurant etc) so its easy to kick back enjoy the beach and still have access to Shela or Lamu Town (should you want it). Just bear in mind that if you are desperate for that perfect beach this is still not quite it. The Majlis looks out over Lamu Channel so no waves to speak of, there is still an amount of boat traffic and due to the currents, there is a fairly substantial sea wall in front of the property, so you are still not wandering down into the water.
If you are planning a Kenya honeymoon, these two would both be wonderful choices.
The rooms at The Majlis are large and cater for the first world with air conditioning and enormous comfy beds. The hotel feels very lux but with a very chilled out stylish vibe and there is plenty of space to lounge either on the beach or by one of the pools. Whilst there is a shortage of water everywhere you are not rationed at bath time and will be very comfortable here, this is less of the case at Manda which is more barefoot and not suitable for those who like windows and controlled temperatures. The food at The Majlis has been questioned by some of the most recent people who have stayed but I don’t believe that this is the norm. The hotel is owned by Italians and generally the food is very good.
Top Tip - If its sunsets you are after this place is a must. The hotel sits opposite Shela and the sand dunes so watching the sun go down over the sand dunes is bliss. Its the only place in Shela you will get this.
Food at Manda Bay is a highlight. Of this there is no doubt. Whether it’s the prawn souffle or the fish soup you are going to be wowed. Dinner is generally served on the beach, weather (wind) permitting so immediately you can guess that this is more of a beach stay. The hotel is situated on the north of Manda Island and has a beautiful position, which recently has been a little scarred by the Lamu Port (more on this later) but the rooms look out towards Manda Toto Island and the mangroves of the archipelago.
The rooms are standalone bandas, located with relative privacy on the beach front or seaview category but less so the garden category. All rooms are built to cater for the simpler tastes. This is not to mean they are less luxurious, the theme throughout is barefoot luxury but for some the lack of windows may be an issue. For me this added to the allure. A proper beach front banda which makes you feel at one with your surroundings. There is no water on the island and whilst you are never rationed, there are reminders about the place. A small price to pay for being in such a stunning location and actually a good reminder that water is scarce, we shouldn’t waste it.
Tides at Manda, as with everywhere else in Lamu, offer a huge variance between low and high. At high tide the water comes up to the rooms and at low tide you can almost walk across the Manda Toto, the neighbouring island. This personifies the Lamu archipelago as the waters are very shallow and currents are strong everywhere. The low tide does offer fabulous huge beaches great for walking and playing on – anyone played beach croquet before? The bottom is sand, so it makes for a very pleasant surface to walk on and no smelly low tide aromas.
Water sports are a large part of life here and range from paddleboarding into the Mangroves to sailing the laser or wind surfers. The winds are constant, and the shallow water makes for many hours honing your skills, always watched over by the skilled crew at the hotel. Fishing is also a big draw here and many enthusiasts will tell you how good it is.
The Lamu Port: Is this a problem?
Manda Bay must have cursed the day the county gave planning to a large port to be built opposite the hotel on the mainland. This happened over 10 years ago and since then construction has started and 2 or 3 berths are active. This is the new question surrounding whether a visit to Lamu is worthwhile and in particular Manda Bay Hotel. The reality is this: the port is in its infancy and is situated across about 5 miles of water from the hotel; yes, its visible from the pool area and the rooms; it is an eyesore as otherwise the views would be of untouched mangrove and pretty much nothing else; is it an issue? Currently I would say no. There is limited traffic as there are only 2 or 3 berths operating. I saw only one containership in the far distance slowly makings its way out to the open sea whilst I was there. There is limited light pollution in the evenings but nothing outrageous. It felt like a small thorn in what would have otherwise been a perfect setting.
The picture below was taken by the author with zoom on full from a boat 2/3 of the way between Manda Bay and The Port. The photo below of the pool and the swing also show the port but you can barely see it.
Will the port become an issue?
This is the great debate. The port is planned to be enormous, if it is built to plan then it would be an issue. More than just a thorn, but remember this is Africa and lots of things get approval and are started until someone else comes to power after which things stop or indeed the projects run out of funding. Additionally, and quite importantly, in this case the infrastructure on the mainland is not built to cope with a serious amount of goods and the terrain and its residents not particularly hospitable to large quantities of expensive freight moving through it.
Having spent some time at Manda Bay and also sailing the bay opposite the port I wouldn’t have any issues with what’s already there and the distance from the hotel – this will not impact your holiday, fact. However, I think it’s important to get up to date information, of which there is not much online, as to what stage the construction is at because if the building goes through a growth spurt it could change the aesthetics of the place. Personally, I don’t see this happening in the next couple of years and there is still room for additional berths to be added without changing or compromising the experience.
Whilst the FCDO advice does not advise against travel to Lamu and Manda Islands there is a whole archipelago out there just waiting to be explored. Kiwayu Island is a huge long thin island about a 2-hour speedboat ride north of Lamu and offers a beautiful and remote experience with calm waters and mangroves on one side and a wild, raw, deserted and perfectly clean beach on the other. A perfect get away here is Mike’s Camp, with beautifully specious bandas all with incredible views and amazing food making the trip well worthwhile. I visited in Feb 22 and the place was looking marvellous, Mike was on superb hosting duties and there were only a few others about. Some of the people I spoke to were sailing all the way back in a dhow – something to be jealous of, but it makes absolute sense depending on the time of year as the winds are constant you can almost set your watch to them.
A dhow safari
Lamu’s history and the archipelago has the traditional dhow entwinned in it. This is the type of boat that Arab traders first arrived in and the tradition has been passed down from generation to generation. All boats are hand built and make for beautiful lazy sailing boats. Getting on board one is an absolute must, whether its for an hour or so up and down the Lamu Channel or indeed going that bit further and maybe heading out into the archipelago for a night or 2. The facilities are basic but the places to camp (either on the beach or moored up in a bay) are deserted and beautiful. An experience of a lifetime.
If it was me, I would be coming to Lamu for at least a week if not longer and spending my first 2 days at Peponi Hotel enjoying the fabulous people watching and taking in Shela and Lamu Town. I would then jump aboard a speed boat to take me up to Mike’s Camp for a couple of nights before sailing back down to Manda Bay with an overnight stop at the bottom of Kiwayu Island. From here we would carry on sailing into Manda Bay where I would insist on at least 3 nights but more like 5. This could be bolted on to any safari in Kenya very easily or indeed as a stand-alone trip. Either way it would make up a seriously fun and interesting trip off the beaten track away from the tourist trail as well as a good mixture of comfort and adventure.
The Flipflopi Project
The last thing to mention about Lamu is The Flipflopi Project. This is our supported charity for East Africa. The project was created in 2015 and is focussed on ocean plastics. The Flipflopi boat is completely unique in that it is built from 100% recycled plastic and the workshop is just north of Lamu Town. Its well worth a visit and if you are lucky, you might even be able to have sometime on the boat. The work that this team is doing in studying the effects of micro and macro plastics in the water and mangroves as well as involving and educating the local communities in and around the Lamu Archipelago (not to mention Lake Victoria and the rest of the Kenya coast) is nothing short of incredible and I have no doubt that one of the reasons that East Africa’s laws on plastic have become so stringent is influenced by this team and what they do.