With its narrow, donkey-trodden alleyways, carved wooden doors, wailing muezzins and rolling sand dunes, Lamu island truly is a world apart from the likes of Malindi and Mombasa further down the coast.
The island’s charm has been tested numerous times, though, since it first established itself as a tourist destination in the 1960s. As celebrities and royals replaced the early shaggy hippies, and boutique hotels sprouted along Shela’s waterfront, the town quickly garnered a reputation as a sandbox of the rich and famous. Recent insecurity altered this trajectory somewhat, and it remains to be seen whether the prospect of the LAPSSET port 16km north of Lamu dampens the island’s unique appeal.
A silver lining of the recent downturn in Lamu’s economy, though, has been the expansion of the local tourism market – aided by the slashing of resident rates and the increase in flights from Nairobi. Lamu has also reinvented itself as the ‘Island of Festivals’, as the host of the Maulidi Festival (27-30 December) and the Lamu Cultural Festival, taking place this weekend (10-13 November). As you read this, Lamu locals race donkeys through the streets and dhows across the bay, dance, swim and display traditional crafts in celebration of their Swahili heritage.
Another notable event is the Lamu Yoga Festival, which is also illustrative of Lamu’s emergence as a key health and wellbeing destination in Kenya. Between 8-12 March 2017, 110 yoga classes, meditations and workshops will be held at unique venues in Shela, Lamu Town and Manda island. My girlfriend and I stayed at one of these venues last weekend – the enchanting Fatuma’s Tower, nestled into the dunes at the back of Shela.
Restored and converted into a guesthouse by Gillies and Fiammetta Turle in the late ‘90s, the tower building is over 300 years old, and is named after its previous owner Fatuma Abu Bakar – a mysterious Swahili noblewoman who lived in the tower with her five female slaves in the 19th century. With the abolition of slavery the house fell into disrepair, and was abandoned altogether by 1900.
‘When we bought the plot in 1998, this part of Shela had been completely neglected’, Gillies explained, drawing my attention to an old photo of the tower in his study, lost in the branches of a magnificent tamarind tree. ‘All that remained was the long drop toilet, with its wonderful carved coral cornice’.
Gillies and Fiammetta were careful to retain such original features, and revive the atmosphere of Fatuma’s fine Swahili house. As well as the original long drop toilet, preserved at the far end of the yoga studio, the tower still cradles the tamarind tree in the courtyard, and the garden is shaded by baobabs and a commanding acacia tortilis.
Gillies first arrived in Kenya in 1965, and ran an antique business for 30 years – reflected in the array of local fabrics and artefacts scattered across the garden, in the library and in the variety of rooms.
Each of the ten double rooms takes advantage of the unique characteristics of the tower and its environs, be it the garden, the history of the tower or the wonderful views of Shela. We were lucky enough to stay in the Acacia Suite at the very top of the tower, with its private balcony, swing bed and very welcome breeze.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are typically served either in the library or in the garden, in the shade of the acacia. As there is no set menu, guests can request their own meals or leave it up to the chef ‘Zero’, who specialises in Swahili and Italian cuisine, and buys fresh ingredients from local markets and fishermen.
The tower’s location at the back of Shela can be considered as an advantage, as the five-minute walk from the waterfront takes you through the village’s windy alleyways, where you jostle for space with donkeys, speeding children on bikes and hundreds of cats, and walk past ornate doors, colourful cafes and coral walls draped in bougainvillea.
There’s also a shortcut behind the guesthouse across the dunes to Shela beach – a usually deserted 12km sickle of white sand. The sea here is crystal clear, and because there is no reef it offers great conditions for body boarding.
There’s plenty to do beyond strolling on the beach too: taking a dip in the guesthouse’s plunge pool, sunset dhow trips along the bay, a drink at the floating bar, or at Peponi’s bar with its wealthy weather-beaten regulars in rumpled linen shirts, exploring the ruins of neighbouring Manda and Pate islands, and of course wandering through the bustling streets of Lamu Town.
The newly paved promenade leading into Lamu means it’s just a 40 minute walk from Shela, otherwise you can catch a local boat for Ksh. 150. It’s definitely worth devoting some time to the Lamu Museum, with excellent exhibitions of Swahili culture.