Imagine the oldest living Swahili settlement in the world! A UNESCO World Heritage site filled with donkeys, ancient sailing dhows, and narrow alleyways leading through the village. There are no cars, no pollution, no traffic, just nature. Time is standing still – just what you need to slow down, relax, and reflect. It’s simply the ideal place for travelers looking for an authentic, immersive, and off-the-beaten-path experience. Shela, which is a small village about 2 miles from Lamu Town, is the perfect place to settle into. Miles of untouched beach, quaint yoga studios, adorable shops selling locally made items and the slow and steady breeze from the Indian Ocean at your doorstep! The inhabitants of Shela Village are welcoming, friendly, and ready to open up their home to you.
Experience the Indian Ocean in a unique way
A popular activity of tourists, expats, and locals alike is sailing on one of the many beautiful dhows. A crowd favorite remains Hippo Dhow which comprises of Captain Yusuf and his crew. These guys grew up on the sea and know it as well as the land they walk on. Usually, guests wake at dawn to the sounds of roosters, cats, and donkeys starting their day. After breakfast, they board the dhow and prepare to sail through spectacular scenery throughout the archipelago. Sail through the mangroves to the coral formations that make up Manda Toto and snorkel among the brightly colored fish and swaying sea grass.
Another day, you can stop in the small village of Matandoni to see how traditional baskets and mats are made and later make your way to the deserted beaches of Kipungani for a feast of seafood, salad, chapatti, and local fruits.
Catching the high tide the following morning allows for a magical sail to the UNESCO World Heritage Takwa Ruins, just before the water recedes and life within the mangroves crawls up on shore. Lastly to round up your day, sail to Lamu Town and go on a walking tour with local guide, Abdullah Bob, which is definitely a highlight of any trip to the island. Abdullah Bob is full of history, knowledge, and stories to make you fully appreciate the moments you’re experiencing at this magical place.
Learn about the local culture
When you’re not sailing, immerse yourself into the community in one of several ways:
- Sign up for a Swahili Cooking Class with the Shela Women’s Association and learn how to make mouth-watering dishes such as samosa, bhajia, and pilau.
- Volunteer with LAMCOT (Lamu Marine Conservation Trust Office) to clean up the beach in Shela or join a turtle hatching expedition in Manda.
- Take a leisurely walk to the dhow building area of Shela and hang out with the carpenters and captains to learn about building and sailing these traditional vessels.
- Spend the day with the local Safari Doctors Veterinarian Team learning about the efforts being taken to protect the islands donkeys, cats, dogs, and livestock.
- And of course, many families here are happy to open their doors and welcome you into their homes to share a meal and get to know you. The options are endless!
When should I go?
Lamu is a great year-round destination. With only two months of rainy season (May and June), the islands are pleasant for most of the year. The season kicks off in July when Peponi Hotel reopens after the long rains, and begins serving their famed Old Pal’s and cappuccinos again. Experience some nice breezes in August and September and notice how lots of tourists starting to arrive during this time. The dhows will also take to the water again after months of renovations and maintenance.
The Lamu Cultural Festival is a highlight of November with Swahili music, poetry, and henna contests. High season reaches its peak in December and January when guests flock from all over the world to spend Christmas, New Year’s and Maulid on the islands. Private homes, guesthouses, and hotels sell out almost a year in advance for these months. The season wraps up with the popular Lamu Yoga Festival in March and families arriving for Easter in April.
Catch a flight from Nairobi, Malindi, or Mombasa and make your way to the islands of the Lamu Archipelago today. It will soon become your second home!
Kelly Campbell is the co-founder of The Village Experience, Executive Director of The Village Cooperative, and Vice Board Chair of Safari Doctors. Kelly calls Lamu, Kenya home when she is not traveling between Morocco, Egypt, India, Nepal, Thailand, Bali, Guatemala, and more leading socially responsible tourism programs, working on community development programs, and supporting artisan groups around the world.