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Lamu, with 20,000 people, 6,000 donkeys, and 2 cars, seems like some kind of East African Venice. It's not just the absence of vehicular traffic, the narrow lanes, and the reliance on water to get around and get things done, but a kind of cultural autonomy that makes this place look and feel like it was made to be admired, studied, and loved.

Even if you're sequestered in total tranquillity on Kiwayu or on the far end of Manda (both of which are superb island destinations in their own right), arrange a day trip to Lamu town (the donkey-clogged lanes alone are worth a few hours of your time, preferably in the cooler morning or early evening). Life here revolves around the numerous mosques and along the seafront, tethered with weather-beaten dhows. Day begins with the first hour of daylight -- saa moja -- when you'll spot fishing dhows navigating through the gap in the reefs that leads to the open sea. Back in town, men go about their business (which is often doing very little at all) in cheerful kikois or full-length djellabas, while many women remain shrouded in black bui buis, their expressive eyes the only point of contact with passing strangers. And, as everywhere on the coast, the young men of today strut the waterfront in their boardshorts and oversized Manchester United shirts, and while they feign and mimic city-slicker attitudes, this is still a devout Muslim community with around 30 mosques and a faithful devotion to regular worship.

Here you'll hear the muezzin calling for prayers and the less melodic calls of hustlers urging you to use their guide services or to climb aboard their boat for the day. For guides, use the recommendations of your hotel (the men and boys who hang around the jetty are a serious nuisance), and then ask them to show you anything other than the museums and obvious "attractions." Lamu's pulse is best felt in the cool, labyrinthine streets, shaded by multistory Swahili houses, many of which are now enjoying a second life as the winter retreat for fashionable Europeans. Make an effort to chat with people in the streets or visit with the storekeepers; you'll soon get the knack for telling the hustlers from the genuine souls, and when you bump shoulders with ordinary people who have no interest in selling you a guided tour, you'll find the interaction refreshing and agreeable. Don't be afraid of trying out the local, seedy-looking eateries and juice shops -- the food may be served in grimy surrounds, but it's generally delicious, and the juices thirst-quenching. If you'd prefer to snack and dine in more salubrious surrounds, you can find respite from the heat (which can be furious as the day marches on, prompting the afternoon closure of most stores) on the balcony of Lamu House or in the garden courtyards at Whispers Café or Bustani.

Tiny as it is, Lamu town consists of more than 40 mitaa (or areas), the main focus of which is now the Usita wa Mui -- or main business street (Harambee St.) -- which separates the old stone town (the World Heritage-listed area) from the 19th-century seafront. A few laps along either of these vibrant, always-bustling stretches will key you in to the exotic scents and images that will burn into your memory. Whether you're watching the dhows being loaded and offloaded, seeing artisans chisel away at a chunk of wood, or simply observing as the children splash in the water or the donkeys huddle for shade beneath the boats marooned by low tide, there's always something extraordinary, yet simple, to see.

If you'd prefer a more formal introduction to Swahili culture, you could visit the Lamu Museum (no phone; Ksh500 adults, Ksh200 children; daily 8am-6pm), initially established as the residence of the last English governor. There's a collection of exhibits meant to reflect the history and cultural life of Lamu Island and the surrounding Swahili towns, and there's some focus given to the tribes of Kenya's northern coastal areas. Sadly, despite the beautifully restored facade, the museum conceals a lackluster exhibition space and in places looks as if it's been ransacked. Still, if you have the patience, you might pick up a few insights.

One good reason to be in Lamu is to get better acquainted with Swahili architecture. The historic houses are generally built according to the same traditional style -- typically, they're two- or three-storied, flat-roofed, oblong structures built around a small open courtyard -- with elements designed to defend against the elements (you'll notice how the rooms stay cool despite the temperatures outside). Rooms are usually long and narrow, which -- together with lots of small open windows -- helps with air circulation. Walls are coated in a lime paste known as neru made from coral, which also works as a natural coolant. You'll see these and other architectural quirks in a number of the restored houses now serving as guesthouses and hotels, but you'll also get a good look at such details at the Swahili House Museum (near Juma Mosque, Old Town; no phone; www.museums.or.ke; Ksh500; daily 8am-6pm), occupying a restored upper-class home dating from the 18th century. It's worth noting the wells or pools in the gardens and courtyards of the traditional houses; these are known as birika and were used to store water for bathing. Water was drawn from the pools using a coconut-shell ladle -- small fish are traditionally kept in the birika and help keep the water clean, while controlling mosquito numbers by feeding on any mosquito larvae. Inside you may notice that Swahili beds are quite high off the ground -- apparently servants and slaves would sleep under here.

Another historic landmark -- quite imposing from the outside and something of a geographic and social landmark -- is Lamu Fort (admission Ksh200, or free with Lamu Museum ticket), built by the last sultan of Lamu between 1813 and 1821 after Lamu defeated Pate and Mombasa in the Battle of Shela. Sadly, as an attraction, it's a total letdown, used these days as a conference venue and municipal offices, with not a single jot of useful information or exhibition material to help you make sense of it as part of the town's history. Views of the town from the upper bulwarks are pretty good, but not necessarily worth the ticket fee. Frankly, there's a lot more going on in the square in front of the Fort. Here you'll usually spot men playing bao, said to be the oldest game in recorded history, while the market, tucked off to one side of the fort, is a good place to sample a bit of local color.

But Lamu is more than just an ancient, labyrinthine town of narrow streets packed with secrets. The islands of Lamu, Manda, and Pate are a mix of deep-blue channels and coral reef with protected bays and broad, sandy beaches with sand dunes and mangroves; there's plenty to explore once you get out of town. Lamu's most obvious beach is the unbroken 13km (8-mile) crescent-shaped stretch that runs southwest from the edge of Shela village to the steadily evolving collection of holiday villas around unspoiled Kipungani. Backed by sand hills and palm trees, it's a gloriously secluded place to unfurl your beach towel (bring lots of sunscreen), and you could spend hours simply gathering shells and watching crabs scuttle over the shore.

Shela village, at the foot of some high dunes, can be reached easily by a short boat trip or a pleasant 45-minute walk from Lamu town (it's 4km/2 1/2 miles away) and is another must-see. A bit of a hippie stronghold during the 1960s, it continues to serve as a popular retreat for foreigners who've invested in Lamu. While the beach is a big attraction, the village itself is also a more placid place than Lamu, and locals are even more willing to interact. There are also one or two prestigious-looking boutiques and galleries tucked between the renovated mansions. Now considered the wealthy neighbor to Lamu, it's ironic that Shela was originally established as a colony for the people who had fled Manda when their water supply dried up. Best known of the buildings here is Peponi Hotel, Shela's unchallenged landmark and society hub; the beautiful colonnaded villa on the edge of the water was built by the English governor in the 1930s. A sunset drink on the terrace is considered one of the quintessential Lamu experiences, although some find the busy bar a bit too much of a scene.

Immediately behind Peponi's is the Jumaa Mosque (or Friday Mosque), probably the most interesting and unusual-looking building in all of Lamu, especially loved by photographers because of its pepper-pot minaret.

No trip to Lamu would be complete without a full and proper dhow trip, preferably powered by wind rather than diesel, while a visit to the Takwa Ruins at the end of the mangrove-lined creek on Manda Island makes for an intriguing visit. For snorkeling, your best bet is a day trip to Manda Toto, a tiny island near the northern end of Manda (the season runs Dec-Apr, when the water clears up), and intrepid divers will potentially find enormous sharks if you're brave enough to drop in beyond the reef that protects the archipelago. You could combine any of these activities with dhow sailing, and if you have the time, you could also set off on a daytrip to Kipungani, a laid-back town with two eco-friendly resorts and a gorgeous beach on the southern end of Lamu Island.

Northernmost of the islands is Kiwayu, a narrow strip of beach rising to a high ridge with dense bush-covered dunes. The island, with just two small villages, shelters a beautiful bay and lies at the heart of a marine reserve with more great snorkeling.

And between Manda and Kiwayu lies the virtually unexplored island of Pate, where archaeologists have found evidence of mud mosques dating back to the 8th century at a place called Shanga, and you can visit the impressive Siyu Fort, built around the same time as the fortress in Lamu. If you want to visit this seldom-seen island, you'll need to organize a boat and a guide and go prepared for a full day's adventure.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.