Locked in Time on the Swahili Coast
Not quite undiscovered, but still relatively unspoiled, the tiny island of Lamu in Kenya’s oldest living city and a fascinating place in which to explore the country’s ancient Swahili and Islamic cultures. There is just one car on the island – its streets are too narrow to accommodate any conveyance other than donkeys.
You are in the Indian Ocean, but much is redolent of the Middle East – this was once Africa’s link with Arabia. Like Mombasa and Malindi, farther south, Lamu is one of a string of port towns founded by Arab traders in ivory, spices, and slaves. The men still wear full-length white robes and caps; the women are draped in the Islamic black purdah; and travel is by dhow, the traditional wooden sailing vessels that ply the waters off the coast.
You can rent one of these boats (be sure to negotiate) for a romantic day trip around the Lamu archipelago, with a fresh grilled-fish lunch thrown in. Most of the hippies have gone, replaced by younger European backpackers and a growing mix of the curious and the beautiful. The latter invariably check into the charming Peponi Hotel, located on a 12-mile strip of virgin beach.
Full of international eccentrics, villagers, and Nairobi ex-pats, the hotel’s public bar hums with life and color. There is deep-sea fishing and windsurfing, but you can also just relax in one of the whitewashed, open-terraced beach bungalows, which are separated from each other by flame trees and tangles of bougainvillea. The breezy rooms exude a faint colonial feel; there are revolving fans, mosquito netting, and colorful Zimbabwe-print throw pillows on the traditional Lamu-legged wooden beds.
The Danish family that has owned and run Peponi for thirty years has created a special, intimate hotel known as much for the spontaneity of the staff’s smiles as the sophistication of its simple, market-fresh menu that hints of Swahili influence. The trade winds rustle the palm trees and carry the call from the minaret of the town’s 19th-century mosque.