When opportunity knocks, you have to decide whether to jump at the chance. This is exactly what I did a couple of months back when The Lamu Food festival was taking place and FlySax had an offer of flights for Ksh. 9,900 return. It was a chance to try a new destination, create new memories, experience a different culture and meet new friends. Did I mention that it was a food festival? As somebody who loves to eat good food this was going to be a dream trip where I would combine fun, travel and food. What more could a girl ask for?
I had never been to Lamu before so I went there with my heart wide open to soak in the experience and let my senses explore these islands I have had at top of my bucket list. The main tourist destinations are the main Lamu island, and Shela town on Manda Island, Kipungani and Kizingo island. Lamu has options for all types of traveller from budget to luxury, to self catering and also if you plan to stay a while you can hire a house.
The easiest way to get to Lamu is by air. There is an airstrip on Manda Island and there is a dhow that ferries passengers to either Lamu or Shela. If you have a pre-booked reservation many hotels will send a courtesy dhow or boat pick you up.
Lamu is magical and charming in its own way. It has long white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, rolling sandy dunes and lush mangrove forests. It is no wonder it has been a favourite place for both trade and leisure for a long time. It has a rich history and Lamu Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Lamu was an important trading, religious and cultural center in East Africa. It has been continuously been inhabited for over 700 years unlike some of the other Swahili settlements along the coast. The architecture has influences from Bantu, Arabic, Persian, Indian and European building styles.
The Lamu Food Festival is hosted by the Lamu government. It is a celebration of Swahili cuisine and culture. There was a lot on offer including sunset dhow rides, cooking lessons, musical performances, tours, hunger games (food related contests), a chance to practice yoga, exhibitions and a chance to explore Lamu’s historical sites. The county had partnered with some hotels to give discounts and we had a chance to sample some street food as we listened to taarab and traditional music. Lamu has a couple of festivals including the yoga festival, the Lamu cultural festival and the Kite festival.
There are many reasons to visit Lamu including the sandy white beaches, the amazing architecture, the fresh sea food, and a chance to take a tour of the historical sites and look at the amazing Lamu doors that have interesting designs. Lamu is not for those seeking a fast, busy holiday. Its best suited for the sun worshipper who wants to take things easy as they explore the beautiful islands, watch the magnificent sunrises and sunsets, and relax by the sea. For foodies the fresh seafood and sauces are bound to delight the tongue and leave one asking for a second or third helping.
Our flight arrived at 6 pm on Friday and we had a courtesy boat taxi ride from our hotel. On arrival we found that the hotel was not what we expected. Lesson number one is to be careful about booking accommodation online, the pictures and descriptions may not match what you get. We had to look for alternative accommodation and so we settled on Lamu Palace on the mainland.
The first order of business was to go exploring, buy some drinks and diras. We got a guide to take us around. There is only one wines and spirits and it is on the mainland so if you are planning to have drinks in your hotel that is the place to go. We also got to check out a couple of shops selling diras and I managed to get one that is now my favourite. Diras start from around Ksh. 350 on the cheaper end and around 1200 on the higher end depending on the material so be prepared for that. You can also buy material and have something made while you wait or you can come back later. We had a chance to sample some of the street food including viazi karais and samosas, buy some goodies at the only bakery in Lamu and have a delicious dinner of fish and chips at the seafront.
Lamu is a great place to get some exercise and lose some of those kgs one will put on eating viazi karai and fried sea food. Lamu has only four cars which is understandable as the streets are quite narrow, it actually it is a donkey town. So if you want to move around the islands you have to do it on foot, by boat or by taxi or climb on a donkey which has been the means of transport here for centuries and not much has changed in this regard. I tried it but I have to say I found the experience a bit uncomfortable because of the way one sits on the donkeys. It is worth a try though for the experience if you are not scared of getting on a donkey. We took boats or dhows to get around.
Things we did during the festival
Visiting Old Town
We visited Old Town Lamu which is built with coral stone, lime and mangrove poles with elaborately curved wooden doors that gives the houses a distinct look. The beautiful doors some with elaborate decorations were some of my favourite things to look at during our tour. An interesting thing about some houses is that they have shelves in the walls where they store knick knacks. We also got to pass by the oldest Mosque in Lamu.
There were opportunities for people to learn how to cook some of the delicious delicacies and get recipes as well. Swahili food is a fusion of different cultural cuisines and spices. It has influences of Arabic, Bantu, Indian and European cultures.
Try some Swahili food
Traditional cooks and street food vendors set up points along the seafront where one could buy some food. Although it was a food festival it felt more like a restaurant week as I expected that both during the day and night there would be vendors to buy food from on the streets but it turned out most of the discounts were on meals in hotels so it was more of a restaurant festival then a food festival. I suggest that in the future during the day and probably during the night they should have specific hours where one can go and get food on the streets. This was my one disappointment about the festival that it wasn’t what we expected. There is a restaurant where we had some of our meals at the seafront. I got my first taste of cold ukwaju juice and I have to say it was a great experience to try something and fall in love with it.
The cuisine of Lamu has been influenced by different cultures. Some of the popular dishes include curries, biryanis, coconut rice and snacks like viazi karai with ukwaju sauce, sasomas and kebabs. The food is flavoured with spices like pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and also fresh coconut milk is used in different foods to give them a distinct flavour.
One interesting thing about Lamu is that the place where the boats buy fuel is out in the sea, so you could say they have a floating petrol station. Our first night we took a dhow to Diamond Beach Club where visitors from Nairobi had gathered to have a few drinks and hang out. The strange thing is because the dhow couldn’t go up to the beach we had to remove our shoes, jump off the dhow, and walk to the beach with our clothes getting wet in the process. But it was an interesting experience. It was fun to catch up around the bonfire as we danced part of the night away.
Fresh Seafood market
On Saturday we had breakfast at the hotel, then left for our second hotel. After settling in we went on a tour of old town, and passed by the oldest mosque in Lamu. We also managed to visit the fish market where we got to choose the meal for our dhow cruise. If you would like to get some fresh sea food, then that is the place to go.
At the exhibitions there was a chance to see what Lamu has to offer. We were very fascinated by some of the sea food that we saw there that was quite big.
After our tour of old Town, we went to a jewelry shop where we shopped for some silver jewelry. The good thing is that if you buy something that’s too big you can have it resized. I got to have a ring that had refused to come out removed which was a relief because I thought I would need to have it cut off.
Body art has been around for hundreds of years and women have used it as a beauty aid for a long time. I am a sucker for henna designs so we made sure we had time to get some designs done. You can ask around and you will not miss somebody to do it.
At around 5 we went on a dhow cruise around some of the islands looking at the beautiful houses. We had a chance to swim and play in the warm blue waters. On our way back we had a delicious meal although we were disappointed because we had told the captain that we wanted to fish and he did not make that happen. We also wanted to watch the food being cooked. Because we did not take the dhow cruise that was part of the Lamu food festival package we latter found out that we had been conned. Paying more for less then we should have gotten. My advice is take the festival package if there is one. If you aren’t there during the festival, ask your hotel to get you a dhow. We later found out from our hotel owner that the guys we had picked for our dhow cruise were on drugs (I think he meant bhangi – well I hope) so I guess we can count ourselves lucky that we were not robbed or abandoned during our cruise.
The Dhow cruise take you beyond Lamu town, into the surrounding islands, where one can see ancient ruins and you can see from a distance the exclusive resorts on some of the islands.
Cultural dances and night fishing
During the night there were activities taking place in Lamu Town including cultural dances and we also got to sample part of the night life at the only bar in Lamu Town. When we returned to our hotel we found a night fisherman fishing with a rod on the seafront. It was interesting because we got to chat with him as he showed us how he goes about it.
Fish for breakfast
In the morning we decided that we wanted fish for breakfast. It was quite early so we went to the seafront to get some but nothing like what we wanted was available. So we got into a boat and went looking for a fisherman to sell us some of his catch. After a few unsuccessful attempts we got a fisherman to sell us his catch. Our guide and boatman cleaned the fish for us but we still had a problem. Who to cook for us the fish. Luckily the Moonhouse was hosting one of the food cooking classes and the chef agreed to make the fish for us. The way he marinated that fish and fried it I can’t explain. I can just say it is the best fish I have had this year – delicious.
Swimming at The Moon House
We decided to relax on Sunday and we went swimming at The Moon Houses. It was a great chance to unwind before my friends had to go get their flights to Nairobi. I spent the whole afternoon and part of the evening swimming, reading and sleeping in the day beds next to the pool.
Since I had a great experience buying fish and having it cooked I decided to try that again. Later on I hang out with my friend Anne, as we caught up and had some more fried fish. Later on we had a pool party and guys stayed at the pool listening to music, swimming, and talking late into the night.
Monday it was time to go home. Monday was as Mondays go, time to get back to boring Monday stuff like going home. All my other friends were leaving on morning flights and so I decided to go wait at the airport with them. Bad decision. I should have stayed and relaxed on Shela. It was boring at the airport but one lucky thing I discovered a great kibanda where I got some cold ukwaju juice and some viazi karai. So if you are ever stuck at the Lamu airport do check out the kibanda.
Other things to do in Lamu
Walk along deserted beaches. On Shela you can walk along the deserted beaches. Make sure you carry your costume so that you can take a dip on the warm waters.
The Lamu Conservation Trust is a great place to see some wildlife.
Visit Manda’s bay floating bar where one can get a drink, or go fishing. My friends went there for a drink and also for a chance to jump off the boat into the water. I didn’t get to go there (lost opportunity) but it is on my list of things to do on my next trip.
Rent a beautiful Swahili townhouse. Most of the townhouses are owned by foreigners and have been turned into guesthouses either public or private. These houses have been restored to their original beauty.
Visit the ruins of Takwa. On Manda Island there are coral stone ruins that once were Kenya’s coast largest settlements. The town was abandoned in the 17th century. The reason is unclear but it is probable that it was because of lack of fresh water on the island.
Attend a Swahili wedding in the evening. When you are in Lamu if you are able please make sure you attend one. We went to one when they were waiting for the bride but we didn’t stay for it thinking that we would get a chance to come back later but we didn’t.
Some of the interesting places for historical buffs is the Lamu Fort and Musuem. We didn’t go there but it is definitely on my list for places to check out next time.
Like wandering nomads, we stayed at different hotels. We had booked a boutique hotel on a travel website only to find that the place was not as good as the pictures, so we decided to seek alternative accommodation. The first night we stayed at the Lamu Palace Hotel which resembles a palace with its large open spaces and tall pillars forming arches. The Hotel is located on the seafront which made it the perfect place to watch the sunrise or sunset on the day beds. The hotel is one of the best hotels in Lamu and comes equipped with all the comforts a guest might need. The rooms were furnished and decorated in antique Lamu style. I would recommend it if you are planning to stay in Lamu mainland and you are willing to spend some money. It is a higher end hotel and this is why you are able to get value for money.
On the second day we headed over to Bahari hotel which is a boutique hotel with five double en-suite bedrooms located on the Shela Ocean front. It is a great place to stay if you are looking for reasonable accommodation and great food. It is located on the seafront and the terrace downstairs was a great place to look out into at the sea. If you are up for a walk, then you can be able to go walkabout to find the beach on the other side of the island. Bahari started out as a small restaurant in 1989 but has been extended with five double ensuite bedrooms.
My friends left on Sunday and I hotel hopped and went to stay the Moon House which is just next to Bahari Hotel. The Moonhouses have different residences and you can choose which one you would like to stay at. They have some exclusive rooms including one called Betty’s suite which has its own swimming pool. The Moonhouse has a pool where we had a pool party on our last night there and it was a chance to relax and catch up as we were all leaving in the next day. It has day beds where one can sit and charge phones etc.
The bedroom had a double bed and shuttered doors that opened up to a balcony. The bedroom had an ensuite bathroom with an interesting toilet that was made of stone and just had a wooden part for the toilet seat and top.
It was quite expensive getting to Lamu Town from Shela. It costs around Ksh. 200 per person one way from the Shela jetty. Considering we had to do a bit of back and forth we found this to be a very high cost only for us to find out on Sunday that you can get a cheaper ride if you get one of the boats going somewhere else to pick people. Lamu County was providing transport for some guests at the festival but we were not included in these calculations so this was one of our biggest costs moving between islands.
Lamu town has street lighting so we were able to walk around during the evening and so we were able to be out pretty late to enjoy the festivities. I think they do need to clean up the water where the boats dock as I found it to be quite dirty with many plastic bottles littering it.
When we arrived there we decided to do DIY instead of taking the packages that were on offer. I had already paid for mine but decided to forgo it. I tried to get my money back but was unable to. In hindsight though I think we should have gone with the packages offered. It would have been cheaper in the long run but we wanted to try something different.
For the ladies especially please make sure you are appropriately dressed. You might be on holiday but please remember that Lamu is predominantly muslim and so you need to respect the religion and culture of the area.
It was my first visit to Lamu but not my last. Lamu is a great place to spend a couple of days. It is a place where one can reflect, take it easy and spend a few days just lazying around and rejuvenating the mind and body. The Lamu sunset and sunrises are beautiful and I just loved to watch the sun coming up or doing down over the water. The Lamu Cultural Festival is coming up in a few weeks and that gives you a chance to experience Lamu at its best. So book your tickets now and enjoy your holiday.
Potentash Founder. A creative writer. The Managing Editor at Potentash. Passionate about telling African stories and stories about the inclusion of minorities. Find me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We're all stories, in the end.” ― Steven Moffat