Mark and I had the pleasure of visiting Lamu in May. It was an exciting trip with a lot of rewarding moments. We spent a total of five days there, our time spent between Shela, Manda Island and the Old Town. We spent most of our days relaxing and taking things ‘pole-pole‘ – a phrase we got used to hearing throughout our stay.
Our itinerary was very laid back, filled with long walks on the beach and an exploration of the blended cuisine inspired by Arab, Indian, Persian, European and Swahili influences. Nevertheless, we did get up to a few exciting activities that I’d say are worth including on your Lamu itinerary if you’re planning to visit.Of Donkeys & Dhows – A Lamu Tamu Experience and what you must not miss when you visit Lamu! Click To Tweet
This pseudo-travel guide will focus on our own experiences. I’ll highlight everything we got up to, where you can find really delicious food on the islands, where to stay, how to optimize for a great ‘Lamu-Tamu’ experience and more!
Where is Lamu Located?
Lamu Island is an island located just off the Kenyan coast. Founded in the 12th century, the island is Kenya’s oldest continually inhabited settlement. The island is characterized by donkeys and dhows – both of which form its transportation backbone.
Up until a few years ago, these were the only means of transportation within the towns and villages. These days, you’ll find several motorcycles ferrying passengers from Shela to the Old Town.
How to Get to Lamu from Nairobi
The recommended way to get to Lamu is by flying there. Many people do not advise a journey by road and there are direct flights from Nairobi and Mombasa to the island. For our trip, we flew with EastAfrican.com. (It appears this airline is not currently operating).
Our onward journey was a direct one-hour flight from the Wilson Airport in Nairobi to the Manda Airport, while our return flight was via Malindi.
When we arrived at Manda Airport, we were met by two people who helped us transfer our luggage to a waiting boat. The guest house we were staying at had organized this transfer for us. As Lamu is an island, the only way to get to the old town or Shela – where we stayed – is by boat.
The skipper was a young teen who seemed to be in a hurry to get back to the airport – perhaps to ferry more passengers to the island. I held on to Mark for dear life as the boat sped across the waters. Having survived that ride, I can say in hindsight that it was equal parts bumpy and exciting!
Where to Stay in Lamu
Our hosts were there to receive us as soon as the boat docked in Shela. Through very narrow alleyways, they led us to our accommodation for the next five nights – The Banana House and Wellness Centre.
My first impressions of the Banana House and Wellness Centre were excellent. We had booked to stay at one of the penthouses and I was left impressed by the open Swahili-style architecture. The penthouse was large and spacious and the views it offered were quite beautiful.
If you’re considering staying at this accommodation, here’s my subjective review of our stay…
Review of Banana House and Wellness Centre
- Spectacular sunrise and sunset views from the penthouse – this was my favourite thing about this accommodation. Waking up each morning to an unobstructed view of the sunrise felt very special…
- Beautiful Swahili-style architecture
- Very friendly and helpful staff
- On my birthday, the staff decorated the bed with a beautiful message
- Delicious samosas (we had most of our meals in restaurants outside Banana House, so I cannot comment much on their food. We had breakfast daily on the terrace and it was alright).
We visited Lamu in May – which is considered to be off-season and I want to believe most of the cons stated here are associated with the time of our visit…
- Hammering and chain-sawing next door made relaxing somewhat impossible – The staff offered us a bottle of wine for the inconvenience.
- Lots of lots of mosquitoes due to the rainy season – On our second night, we got bitten and feasted upon by mosquitoes. To be fair, other nights were much better, I guess on this particular night, I did not tuck the net in properly.
- Rats in the roof – Banana House maintains an open architecture (which I absolutely adored), so I believe this might be out of their control. We also had a bat fly into our fan and sadly, it dropped dead in the bathroom.
- Our first four nights were very quiet but the last night (which was a Friday night), brought with it more guests and more noise. Due to the open architecture, we could practically hear the loud conversations going on around us.
- Lastly, Yoga was a bit hectic – On our last day in Lamu, we signed up for yoga at the lodge. Banana House is said to be the premium spot for yoga in Lamu and I feel I got a taste of that. Our instructor was excellent, however, the whole experience turned out to be quite stressful for me due to the hammering next door and the presence of a lot of flies. Let me add here that I have an ‘irrational’ hatred of flies!
The Sum Up…
Most visitors who visit Lamu opt to stay in Shela. I also recommend staying here over the Old Town, although the two are not far apart. Shela is far quieter, more serene and cleaner than the places we wandered around in Lamu Town. And of course, the beautiful long stretch of beach makes it even more appealing to travellers.
Many beautiful houses in Shela are tailored to cater to large groups. This is reflected in their pricing – where they charge for the entire house, rather than per guest. Hence, it makes more sense to share these costs with friends. Regardless, you’ll also find accommodation options whether you’re travelling solo or as a couple.
Some of the rental properties that have come on my radar include the Forodhani House, Jaha House (and their other properties) and The Moon Houses. Then, there’s also the Majlis Resort on Manda Island, if you’re willing to splurge. You can look them up on Booking.com and Airbnb or contact them via their websites.
What to Do in Lamu: Five Things You Should Not Miss
As I mentioned previously, we were in Lamu for 5 days but I think you can fit everything in this itinerary into 3 days. I would say though that 5 days allowed us to truly relax and enjoy being there. We were not rushed to do anything and were not disappointed when it rained for some time during our stay. So, I would certainly recommend a longer stay if you can afford the time.
Having said that, here are some activities I think you simply must not miss when in Lamu…
1. Take a Moonlight Dhow Sailing Trip
If you asked me for one activity that you should absolutely not miss when in Lamu, this would be it. There is just a different kind of bliss that comes with sailing on a traditional dhow across the Lamu Archipelago.
My first dhow sailing experience was in Watamu. That outing turned out to be one of the best experiences we had there, so I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to miss doing in Lamu.
We organized our Trip with Jawad and his crew, who came highly recommended by our friends. We opted to do the Moonlight Cruise and it was such a pleasant experience. Our cruise began at about 5 pm, just before sunset and ended at about 9 pm, after watching a full moon rise.
While onboard, Jawad and his crew made a most delicious dinner of fresh fish, chapati, salad and fruits. It was Mark’s favourite meal of the trip and my second favourite (my meals at the Majlis take first place). The entire experience was wonderful and I cannot recommend it enough.
Of course, if you are aquaphobic, you might want to skip this sailing trip but since you’re already in Lamu (where almost every transfer is done by boat), I assume you’ve conquered that fear to a certain extent. You’ll be in good hands with Jawad. Here’s his number to organize your trip: +254 797 937 411
2. Get Lost in the Maze of Lamu Old Town
On our second day in Lamu, we decided to check out the Old Town. Our goal was to simply walk around and check out the sites and sounds of the town. We decided not to hire a local to take us around, although this is highly recommended if you want to learn about the history of this place.
We walked along the shores from Shela to Lamu Town and it took about 45 minutes to get there. This walk is only possible during low tide. When the tides are high, pedestrians can only walk back using the backroads but I think it’s better to just hop on a motorboat or Dhow back to the village.
Visiting Lamu Town was quite the experience. Compared to the laid back sleepy vibe that Shela village presented, Lamu Town was bursting with life and looked every bit its age. There were fishermen unloading their daily catch onshore and restaurateurs waiting to have the first pick; school children walking to and from school; donkeys wandering around the town unmanned and several young men attempting to convince us to come on tour with them.
We walked around for some time, had lunch at the Bush Gardens restaurant and popped into some of the shops in the town. After exploring for a bit, we were very happy to duck into the Lamu Palace Hotel’s restaurant to have some drinks before heading back to Shela.
If you plan to visit the old town, it’s best to go early as it tends to get very hot and humid at midday. It’s also worth knowing that lots of donkeys mean lots of donkey poop and flies. And unlike Shela, this is cleaned up less frequently.
We did not visit the Lamu Museum and the Lamu Fort but I think they are worth including in your itinerary. There’s also a cafe called Whispers Cafe in the Old Town that comes very highly recommended. It was closed during our visit but look out for it when you go.
3. Visit Manda Island & Spend a Day at the Majlis Resort
Our third day in Lamu was spent at the Majlis Resort on Manda Island. This was truly the place to be, we loved it so much that we returned again to spend more time here on day 5 of our trip. Manda Island is accessible via a 5-minute boat ride from Shela.
We spent our time at Majlis, relaxing and frolicking in the pool. I also booked a facial here for my day at the spa. Apart from its beautiful and serene environment, the thing I loved the most was dining at the restaurant. The food was great – I still dream about the delicious crab claws I had – and the views from the restaurant deck were divine.
Majlis allows day visitors to the resort and charges a small fee to use the pools in the facility. When we went, the cost of the day pass was only 500 Ksh per person. I believe it’s about 1,000 Ksh these days.
Although we didn’t visit, Diamond Beach Village, also on Manda Island, seems to be a favourite destination among travellers. If you have the time, it might be worth checking out.
4. Explore the Lamu Cuisine
A Lamu-Tamu experience is not complete without exploring some of the food options available on the island. I’ve never had seafood as good as the ones I had in Lamu. Everything tasted so fresh and delicious. Many accommodation options have an in-house restaurant but I will suggest skipping the full board option to enjoy a variety of meals available.
Here are the places we ate at during our stay…
Where to Eat in Lamu
- Sea Souq – I had a delicious dish of coconut rice and shrimp curry here. Mark had the Swahili Pizza and didn’t enjoy it. So I guess it’s pretty hit or miss. I was also a bit put off by the occasional strong smell of donkey poop around us but I cannot deny that my meal was among the best I had in Lamu. It was also a great spot to interact with Shela residents.
- Kijani – We had the spicy crab curry here and absolutely loved it. The service was a bit slow and the mojito was subpar but overall, I enjoyed the ambience and our meal.
- Bush Gardens – We ate here when we visited Lamu Town. The meal was alright. By the way, if you order the lobster, be aware that there is such a thing as the ‘Lamu Lobster’ and it might look different from what you had in mind. Mark had to find out the hard way! Haha
- Majlis Resort: I had my best meals of the trip at the Majlis. I also had my birthday dinner here. Mark surprised me with a cake and very enthusiastic singing & dancing from the entire staff! What fun!
- Dhow Sailing Trip: Jawad and his crew made dinner right on the boat! The portions were abundant and the meal was very delightful.
- Banana House: On our second night here, we pre-ordered a Swahili dinner and it was great.
- I’ve read that the Peponi hotel is one of the best places to eat in Lamu. It was closed during our visit.
5. Explore Shela & its Environs
I thoroughly enjoyed walking through Shela and I think you might too. Walking on the beach, checking out the Shela Dunes, popping into the shops and wandering through the narrow streets are great ways to spend your mornings or evenings in the village. It is certainly worth including in your itinerary.
And finally, what’s a beach holiday without a little self-care?…
6. Allocate Time for Self Care
My final day at Lamu was all about self-care. We began the morning with yoga at the accommodation, then I proceeded to have one of the best massages of my life! After that, it was sleep, eat and repeat until it was time for my facial and dinner at the Majlis. And with that, our trip came to an end…
The Sum Up & A Few More Notes…
Visiting Lamu was a great experience overall. I’m happy I get to check it off my Kenyan travel living list. Getting to see and experience the beautiful merging of age-old traditions and culture – seen in Lamu’s architecture, in the white plastered walls of Shela and the old town, in the maze that serve as the city streets, in the dhows that lined the shores and the donkeys that roamed the streets – is something I will always cherish.
Best Time to Visit Lamu
Lamu is considered an all-year-round destination but in April and May, the tendency for it to rain is quite high. It rained twice while we were there but that did not affect any of our activities. Also, based on what we were told, these months are categorized as Lamu’s low season and residents use the time to complete pending constructions and renovations.
The drier months – January & February and July to September, as well as December – are considered peak seasons in Lamu.
What to Wear in Lamu
Finally, Lamu is a predominantly Muslim island. Visitors are expected to dress conservatively. Ladies, items of clothing that cover your shoulders and knees are recommended when walking around the village or town. A scarf is nice to have at all times, just in case you need it.
This guide went way longer than I planned! And to think that I struggled at first to put my experience into words! Haha. Anyway, I wanted this piece to be as objective as possible, so I have spared nothing. I hope it inspires you to visit Lamu because truly, there’s no place quite like it. I also hope it gives you a sense of what to expect and activities to indulge in.
Many travellers who visit Kenya say it was the highlight of their trip, so it is something special…
Have you been to Lamu? Tell me about your experience. If you haven’t, is it on your radar? Let me know in the comment section below!