With the Lamu archipelago once again considered safe to visit, Simon Marsh took his family to find out what it has to offer
or several years the coastal area of Kenya, from Malindi up to the border with Somalia, was considered off limits to international tourists. Various embassies and high commissions had designated it too dangerous to travel to, due to a terrorism threat. This had included the Lamu archipelago, a favourite vacation spot for European sunseekers, where a mixture of Swahili architecture juxtaposes with a bohemian vibe.
But that is now in the past: these days it is generally considered safe, which meant it was time for our first family visit. We were eager to see what we would find.
Lamu airport is situated on Manda Island, across the channel from the town of Lamu itself. Manda does not have its own water supply and is sparsely populated. Going (almost) anywhere requires a short walk down to the jetty, ably assisted by agile porters with handcarts.
Our first stop was on the opposite side of the island to the airport. A half-hour speedboat transfer was deemed the practical method to get our group to the sandy beach of Manda Bay Lodge.
There are mangroves galore along the shore of the island, and every so often a mangrove-lined channel disappears inland, leaving the mind to wonder as to where it may lead. A fish eagle purveyed our passing from his bird’s eye perch, with nothing more than idle curiosity.
The lodge was established, and is still owned and operated, by the indomitable Fuzz Dyer, who has spent his lifetime in conservation and hospitality.
The pace of life here is utterly relaxed. The rustic rooms are made from wood and thatch, though perfectly equipped for the environment: large open windows keep the place cool, supplemented by an electric fan for stiller nights; all beds are equipped with a net to keep away nocturnal dive-bombers.
There is a big water sports focus at Manda Bay, from paddle boarding to kayaking around the peninsular, windsurfing, sailing a laser dinghy or heading out to the deep water on the hunt for fish. For children and parents alike, the opportunity exists to be dragged behind the speedboat on the aptly named ‘Screamer’. While bruises are not guaranteed, there is a fair chance they will come as an added extra.
At most safari lodges in Kenya you expect a move towards an early night, but here sunset is where the action starts. Children are catered for while their parents enjoy a sundowner, either at the bar overlooking the ocean or before a beach bonfire, with the extravagant spectacle of the red sun setting on the horizon.
In comparison to Manda, Lamu Island is considerably more densely populated. The journey between the two is once again a speedboat ride through mangrove-lined channels to the old city and its bustling quay.
The city is renowned for its wooden furniture, and artisans are at work apparently everywhere you look, hidden only by the occasional donkey meandering the streets laden with goods – or, seemingly, just out for a casual stroll.
We were met by Mohamed, a local tour guide who took us on a walk through the narrow maze of streets and alleys, pointing out various features along the way.
Starved of the tourist dollar for so long, it’s been a hard time for the region and there are stacks of vendors ready to offer their wares at a discount. There’s even a certain Dickensian air to it, together with a sense of being a historical melting pot.
But just a few minutes along the shore we could be in a different world. This is Shela, the upmarket suburb of Lamu Island which is dominated by the famous Peponi Hotel. The feeling is instantly more Mediterranean; we were greeted by a range of boutique shops selling high-end collectibles and clothing.
It is a matter of local pride that many international celebrities allegedly keep their holiday homes here – the difference between the two villages is palpable.
Thinking we’d explored enough for one day, we headed back to Manda – only to spot what appeared to be a floating shack in the middle of the channel.
But this was no shack. It was much better than that. It was a floating bar!
We had to stop for a drink, and as we did so a DJ team came to practice a set for one of the many forthcoming festivals in Lamu. Relaxing in the early afternoon sun, it was a fun way to enjoy a beer.
There is a big emphasis on fishing in this part of the Indian Ocean, and at Manda the pre-dinner nibbles tend to be sashimi, depending on the success of the budding fishermen and women who have ventured out to sea that day. It is perfectly lazy for us tourists: while the staff prepare and launch bait lines for us, we can sit back, contemplate the contents of the cool box and admire the scenery.
Although we were told the fish go to sleep when the sun goes down, the spot felt too perfect to give up our ‘fishing’. The drinks were cold, the sunset was spectacular and all the cares of the world were a long way from here.
With both land and water-based experiences and beautiful scenery, Manda Island really is hard to top as a holiday destination.
Simon travelled with East Africa Safari Ventures