260km (161 miles) N of Mombasa
Sometimes compared with an earlier, more intimate, less-developed Zanzibar, Lamu (to the north of Malindi) is an old Arabic trading town on an island of the same name. Mentioned in a Greek seafarer's manual as early as the 2nd century A.D., the Lamu Archipelago, incorporating the island of Kiwayu some 60km (37 miles) from the Somali border, is sufficiently far north along the Kenyan Coast to have avoided mainstream tourism. Still, Lamu is hardly a travel secret. Princess Caroline of Monaco and Prince Ernst of Hanover "discovered" this place many years ago and still spend time each winter in their restored house in fashionable Shela, Lamu's second village and a fine place to explore once you've had your fill of the main town, which is busier and comparatively crowded. While Caroline and Ernst are hardly the only savvy Europeans who've invested in the restoration of old Arab houses here, development has been slow, and in many ways the relative isolation has drawn a more elite crowd -- certainly more discerning than those who swarm into the resorts along Mombasa's north coast. For many years, Lamu has offered a hideaway for aristocrats and celebs. They've established summer retreats in restored Arabic mansions, retaining the medina-style architecture and injecting them with a posh, contemporary sensibility. While the local population has tried to avoid outside influence, it's hard to say that Lamu is not affected by the arrival of foreign money and the slow gentrification that's happened along many of its narrow lanes.
Kenya's oldest living town -- claimed by some to predate Islam -- Lamu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In its heyday it was a major Indian Ocean trading post and an important stop-off for Arabia's ocean-going dhows blown in by the southbound monsoon in winter. Arriving laden with exotic goods from the Middle East, they would wait for the northbound kusi winds, which would send them home, laden with ivory and rhino horn, concubines, and slaves. The golden days of the dhow trade routes are long gone, and Lamu's slippage into relative obscurity has spared it from modernization seen in busier ports such as Mombasa. Having sunk into genteel decay, the towns of Lamu and Shela became hippie magnets in the 1960s, and the archipelago has since unexpectedly evolved into a bolt-hole hideaway for the privileged set, with tourism steadily prodding it back to life. Its discreet popularity seems in some ways inexplicable -- Lamu town and Shela village are dusty, labyrinthine muddles where losing your way between the crumbling, towering coral houses is a whole lot simpler than avoiding the splattered donkey droppings, and the shoulder-width laneways are as atmospheric as they can be disconcerting. Yet the sense of stepping back in time, and of being in a place that's a true cultural anomaly with a unique and auspicious identity, is very real indeed. And once you step beyond the confines of the meager settlements -- high up on the dunes, on a vast palm-backed beach on the islands of Manda or Kiwayu, or on the southern tip of Lamu at Kipungani -- the sense of being on an island paradise, where the rhythm of life is determined by the tides and the phases of the moon, is very real, too.
If ever there was a place for a prolonged, hassle-free holiday with as little as possible to do -- yet with plenty of options (from kitesurfing to low-flying air safaris) to make you feel alive -- then this is it. And the time to visit is now. If ever there was a scheme set to challenge Lamu's languid cultural soul, it's the much-anticipated heavy-duty port planned on the mainland facing the far northern end of Manda Island. Although work on the port is yet to begin, many believe it will spell the end of Lamu's romantic entanglement with timelessness.