Sunset Sail Around Lamu Island

It has been a lot easier, of late, to justify our trips out of Nairobi. The days have been cold, and the politics has been draining. So when the election was first re-scheduled around the long Mashujaa Day weekend, my girlfriend and I seized the opportunity and booked a trip to Lamu.

Few places in Kenya slow down the pace of life as effectively as Lamu. Shela, in particular, lulls you into a slow rhythm, where the days are long and lazy, and punctuated only by the call to prayer, or the distant bray of a donkey. It was the perfect distraction, then, from the restlessness of the city.

We opted to stay, once again, at Fatuma’s Tower, nestled into the dunes in a quiet corner of Shela. We first stayed here in November last year, and couldn’t think of a more suitable place to unwind. You’re spoilt for choice for accommodation in Shela – particularly in the low season, or during elections when everyone goes into hiding – but Fatuma’s Tower stands out to us for a variety of reasons.

Its history is fascinating: 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 by 1900.

Gillies and Fiammetta Turle bought the plot almost a century later, and carefully restored what was left of the tower. They’ve done well to revive the atmosphere of the original Swahili house, and have added their own personal touches with antiques they’ve collected over the years.

The tower’s location, by the dunes, also affords the luxury of space, which is often sacrificed by the waterfront for a sea view. Its cottages are spread out across a mature garden of baobabs, acacias and a magnificent tamarind tree that grew in the ruins of the original tower.

The prices are reasonable too. The entire Baobab Cottage, for example, which is elegantly furnished and offers great views across Shela towards the bay, was recently listed on Airbnb from just $80 per night. For more information about Fatuma’s Tower, visit www.fatumastower.com, and for rate enquiries email bookings@fatumastower.com.

When we weren’t lounging on our balcony, or reading by the plunge pool, we explored the island. This was best done, we found, in one of the many dhows that drift around the archipelago.

Our host from Fatuma’s Tower, Osman, had arranged a sunset cruise for us weeks before we arrived, and the crew of the Monangu Dhow met us at Shela’s main jetty. Captain Adam and his crew, Ahmed and Mandela, welcomed us on board, and unfurled the dhow’s large lateen sail. They made sure that the dhow was as comfortable as possible, with cushions all over the deck and a bed on its bow. We were joined, too, by Sem and Diana, managers at the Distant Relatives eco-lodge and backpackers further down the coast in Kilifi.

After a quick stop at the Floating Bar to top up our drinks, we sailed round Crab Island in the heart of the channel. We then drifted past the mangroves on the shores of Manda Island, spying all sorts of creatures in the tangle of roots. At one point, a gap in the mangroves revealed Manda Maweni, where coral blocks are mined for the many hotels and guesthouses. As the sun slowly began to sink behind the mainland, we sailed back towards Shela for dinner at the Peponi Hotel.

There are plenty of options for dhow trips around the archipelago – our route across the Lamu harbour and up the Takwa ‘river’ is one of the shortest (and cheapest). Those with more time on their hands can spend a full day exploring the ruins on Lamu’s neighbouring islands, go snorkelling, fishing, have a barbeque and even camp on a remote beach. The possibilities are endless. Get in touch with the Monangu Dhow crew through their Facebook page, and you can follow their adventures on Instagram too.

Our dinner at Peponi was definitely a highlight of the trip. There aren’t many restaurants in Shela, aside from those in the hotels, and these are typically quite pricey. Few more so than Peponi, but the food is exquisite. Gabie and I both had pasta dishes, which we’ll likely spend the next few years trying to replicate. The cocktails are good too, and should help numb the pain when it’s time to pay the bill.

We really enjoyed our meals at Fatuma’s Tower as well, prepared by chef Ziro. We were served breakfasts of freshly baked bread, eggs, fruit and coffee on our balcony every morning, and avocado salads for lunch in the garden. I’m not usually a big fan of seafood, but I’d swim from Manda to Shela for Ziro’s grilled red snapper.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation