An Archipelago of Contrasts
Four major islands form the Lamu Archipelago, including the island name, Manda, Pate and Kiwayu Islands. Whereas the Lamu Island itself has a port, its potential has never borne the blunt of exploitation, until now, as the government seeks to make it the largest in the region by 2017.
While the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has labeled the town a World Heritage Site, the island is intractably the cradle of the infamous East and Central Africa slave trade that the British East Africa Protectorate abolished in 1907.
The beginnings of the island are as old as the Coast of Kenya. Lamu ranks as the earliest perpetual human abode, even dethroning Mombasa and Malindi, which did not enjoy a continuous stay of particularly the Swahili, who have abounded in Lamu for the last 700 years. In contrast, the lure of trade in cloves and rhino horns brought about explorers like Zheng He from China, whose cruise ship apparently went down just on the fringes of the archipelago.
Indeed, for its every historic side, Lamu has a flip façade that enriches its history like no other town in Kenya.
Bitter Sweet History
Lamu, like Malindi, began in the 1300s but has since exceptionally stood its ground as a town enjoying perpetual occupation by locals who love close-knit settlements. Legend has it that subsequent to the damage of the Far-East ship, the Oriental crew members settled in the islands and intermarried. Social studies today point to the existence of half-caste communities bearing Chinese blood in Lamu.
Arguably the bittersweet story of Lamu, depending on one’s viewpoint is the slave trade, which alongside Zanzibar, had headquarters here. Arabs would go to places like Malindi and wheedle locals with sweets for capturing purposes, a method that led to the appellation Watamu Island (Sweet people). The fact is that the business of human trade was lucrative but whether it left any standing influence, other than the classic Arab architecture, remains unknown.
The government seeks to make Lamu the greatest port in East Africa, besides being a mega town for transport to the arid North of the country. There are plans to widen the port and deepen the harbor, besides increasing berth numbers for upshot steaming in and taking sail of ships in comparison with the lower rate at the major harbor in Kilindini in the southern coast.
Because of the Damascus-like narrow alleyways that separate business quarters and administrative establishments, settlements and apartments, Lamu has what is arguably a real policy first in Kenya: cars are not eligible inside. Only travel by wheel scooters and beasts of burden is available here.
Another unique appendage to Lamu is its preeminent selection as a World Heritage Center by the UN body responsible for the indexing, given the archipelago’s amazing preservation of old-time norms and architecture.
Sights & Attractions
There are two appendages to the fact: cultural and landmark attractions.
What to see First: Material culture
This is the optimization of what Lamu is all about. Swahili classics everywhere you go, be it a door with intaglios, religious symbols or just cultural carvings. Foreign visitors like to visit carpentry spots where they can view marvelous artifacts, like in Skanda Woodcarving Workshop.
What to see next: Maulindi Festival
This is the celebration festival for the nativity of Muhammad, the father of Islam and attracts twenty thousand faithful, annually, from various countries around the Gulf region and the world. The fascinating thing is that it extends its duration to more than the Moslem calendar period for the same and thus its popularity here.
What to see first: Lamu Museum
If eager to find out what the lush but conflicting history of this jewel by the sea has in store, then visit Lamu Museum or one of the surrounding museums. Here one is bound to discern the iconic horn of the region and glean tangible facts about the slave trade.
What to see next: Lamu Fort
If the gory side of fortified towns is more apparent, then it is personified in Lamu Fort. The first Sultan never completed it before his demise, but 10s of years later, the barricade against political insurrection, on the oceanfront, reached the completion stage. It is as imposing now as it was in 1820.
What to see next: Riyadha Mosque
This is the iconic center of learning for Islamic learners through its Madrassa program that has continued to exist since the turn of the 20th century. It is the best such institution in the EAC bloc.
Finish with: Donkey Sanctuary
Incredible as it may seem to the modern traveler, the beast of burden is the ideal travel partner inside the streets. In the sanctuary one can find donkeys in parking. There are apparently from three thousand to four thousand of these animals in existence.
Lamu is a sober town whose major entertainment is ingrained into the Swahili culture. A major attraction, in this respect, is the religious Maulindi Festival that attracts Muslim tourists and locals alike. It goes for more than a month. There are also beaches to explore that aptly fall under the Hotels segment below.
Diamond Beach Hotel
Place Demographics: The Island of Manda is home to this African style jewel of the sea vaunting world-class resort facilities, featuring outdoor patios with thatch roofing.
Amenities: All patios overlook the oceanfront or the independent beach that provides privacy for couples or families. Private showers, solar energy lighting and exotic rooms are available. An external restaurant serves local and global menus, as well as, original coffee from the East African highlands. Blue Moon Bar is the place to relax in the cocktail hour.
Room Info: Ten rooms.
Accessibility: four kilometers from the Manda-Lamu air facility.
Bonus: A library to request for books. There are yoga and masseur experts in town and sea safaris on offer.
Place Demographics: In Lamu Island is Subira House, which bears Arabian architecture, with the distance from the Indian Ocean being some three hundred meters. The famous white sandy beaches of the northern coast are three kilometers away.
Amenities: Brilliant-looking rooms that exude Gulf culture, all with balconies. Wireless Internet on offer, as well as, a dining/buffet area. Alternatively, visitors can have meals at the hotel’s restaurant that placates gourmet adherents with local packed food and international cuisine.
Accessibility: A three-kilometer journey from the airport.
Room Info: Seven rooms available. These include Twin Room, Double Room Family Apartment and Suite with Sea View.
Bonus: Enjoy travel by boat from the hotel to the airport.
Other major Hotel: Kipungani Explorer, a really exotic venue to the southwest of Lamu, offering stunning sunsets and breathtaking tide watches on the ocean front and private beach.
Though Lamu has enjoyed tranquility for centuries, being primarily a hub for the Swahili and tourists, it has, however, suffered several terrorist threats in recent times. Al Shabaab militia had made the archipelago a no-go zone but now the situation is back to normal. The US government suspended its travel ban for its citizens in early 2012. With the ambitious infrastructure impetus by the government, the town is surely getting back to its feet again.
Welcome to Lamu, and see an exotic side of the world with a fleet of marvelous donkeys that remind one of more glorious versions of Don Quixote’s faithful Rozinante.