Considering its remoteness -- and the relative lack of infrastructure -- Lamu has a disproportionate number of places to stay. Lamu town itself can be noisy, but based here for a few days, you get a real feel for the rhythm of the town. Shela, a smaller village that's a half-hour walk (or 10-min. boat ride) from Lamu, has a wider range of accommodations and, being the A-list choice, has many great villas over and above the three pretty hotels worth considering. Then, if you want to be far away from any potential crowds, there are plenty of no-news, no-shoes places to stay, where you'll have instant access to multiple deserted stretches of strand.
Cats, chickens, and donkeys. Bui bui-clad women marching through extremely narrow lanes; men congregating to discuss the latest gossip, plying samosas and selling boat trips, or skulking in grass hats and boardshorts tucked beneath their kikois. Along the seafront, provisions are constantly being loaded and offloaded from heavily laden boats, and passengers are constantly assembling around the jetty. If you want to get caught up in, or simply observe, the constant ebb and flow of Lamu's distinctive way of life, then spend a couple of nights here before moving on to one of the relaxed and tranquil islands where your chances of interacting with locals will be limited to dealing with staff who are paid to fuss over you.
For those in the know, this has long been an increasingly gentrified pocket of island life with millionaires and aristocrats renovating houses for personal use, hotels, and guesthouses, the first and most famous of which is Peponi's, which still draws a crowd to its sociable bar.
An Unforgettable Dawn -- During your stay at Manda Bay, be sure to schedule at least one early-morning scenic flight, checking out Manda's coral reefs, the Takwa ruins, and Lamu town from the sky before spotting game on the mainland and flying above the villages of the Orma people who graze their cattle along the banks of the Tana River. Having flown over the Tana River Delta's enormous dunes, potentially spotting crocodiles at close quarters, you'll be back in time for a fabulous breakfast.
On the far southern end side of Lamu island, Kipungani has long been considered the remote and thoroughly unspoiled half-sister to Lamu and Shela. There's some skillful development going on here, however, with plush villas and beautiful private homes. The first hotel, Kipungani Explorer (www.heritage-eastafrica.com), is still here and remains a pleasant, still-remote getaway with 16 luxurious-yet-rustic thatch-roofed beach huts that open to ocean-facing verandas. Featuring locally made furniture, with lots of mkeka matting, shells, and driftwood branches for decor, they're very comfortable and retain an intimate relationship with their natural surrounds. Nightly rates run $588 to $721 double, including all meals. But for real tranquillity, you need to get in on the class-act villa action offered by Kizingoni Beach, or experience true barefoot beachcombing at Kizingo.
The island of Kiwayu lies within the Kiunga Marine National Reserve, established in part to protect the dugong -- the seal-like creature once thought to be the mermaid of ancient legend -- and brimming with amazing coral and brilliant tropical fish. It's a thoroughly peaceful and remote corner of Kenya and looks and feels undiscovered, although there are regular flights to its makeshift airstrip just behind the stylish Kiwayu Safari Village (reviewed below), which is actually on the mainland, facing the northern end of Kiwayu from across the channel. On the island are two small villages, and for the rest it's rugged bush, an endless untamed beach, wonderful surf, and the eco-friendly Munira Island Camp, spread across the top of the dunes and providing a genuine barefoot castaway experience. Superbly isolated, it can take up to 3 days by dhow to get from Lamu to Kiwayu (although it's a 15-min. flight). Once you're here, there are awesome waves for bodysurfing, and then you can explore some wonderful coves and bays along the mainland shore, either heading out on foot or hopping aboard one of the boats (there are motorized and wind-powered cruisers). Reef fishing (Nov to mid-Apr), deep-sea fishing (mid-Oct to mid-Apr), and creek fishing are all possible; you can take a boat to Lamu (or fly there for around $900 round trip), water-ski or windsurf, explore the mangroves in a motorized canoe, enjoy sundowners on a working dhow, or head up the coast for a private picnic or to discover uninhabited islands.
Baobabs of Kitangani -- Tucked into a tranquil patch of Kiwayu Island, the Baobabs of Kitangani is a private idyll offering the ultimate luxury castaway experience, with exclusivity, awesome views, and enough romantic thrill to kick-start a few epic novels. Consisting of two thatch-covered, treehouse-style, open-to-the-elements areas -- one for sleeping and one for lazing -- this is a chance to hole up beneath the stars and lose yourself in a prolonged moment. A night under these baobabs doesn't come cheap (rates per couple start at $1,065 low season, $1,600 high season Oct-Feb), but everything -- from luscious linens to superb private dining and your very own askari -- is laid on, and you can explore the island or drape yourself over a pile of cushions and do nothing but stare back toward the mainland, watching as dhows cruise through the channel. Bookings are through Kiwayu Safari Village, which gives you an idea just how fabulous the food will be.
Lamu's Magical Villas
If you'd like to join the ranks of the high-profile jet-setters who station themselves in Lamu for prolonged doses of sun, sand, and respite from the paparazzi, then consider renting a villa rather than checking into a hotel. That way, you'll have a better shot at blending in with the locals -- in theory, at least.
With the biggest range of rental houses, Lamu Homes (www.lamuhomes.com) is possibly the first place you should look to get a good idea of the types of villas available -- the variety and level of comfort are quite extraordinary.
Built in the Balinese style, with foldaway wooden screen doors, appropriately named Manda Dream (tel. 073/567-1732; www.mandadream.com) is a superb choice, with two gorgeous houses right at the edge of the beach on Manda Island. Blue Empire House has three double bedrooms and goes for 300€ per day on a self-catering basis (or 600€ with all meals and drinks); neighboring Equator House has four bedrooms (400€-800€ per night), which can also be rented individually (150€-250€ per room). There's a private boat launch and the services of a full, well-trained staff.
Also on Manda is La Marelle House (firstname.lastname@example.org), right on the beach. Built in the colonial style, with verandas, an internal patio garden, arched French doors and windows, wooden floors, and a spacious interior, it overlooks a lawn shaded by acacias and gigantic baobabs. It, too, has a full staff, as well as a boat with a captain who will transport you to Shela and Lamu, or take you to a pretty nearby beach -- a great spot for snorkeling. The self-catering rates are about 600€ a night for high season, including the boat, and 500€ a night in the off season.
Shela House Management (tel. 042/463-3419 or 020/240-5808; www.shelahouse.com) has four gorgeous homes for rent in Shela village. Each is a beautiful restoration of an old house, now exquisitely transformed and immaculately decorated in a cool, upbeat revival of Swahili style. Facing the water directly, the sexy Beach House is the most expensive (700€-2,000€) of the four but is the most popular, thanks to its dramatically gorgeous infinity pool, a surreal spectacle against the backdrop of dhows drifting by. Views are epic, whether from one of your terraces or from your bedroom. The other three houses may not share the same majestic position, but they're equally beautiful, with cool interiors, alfresco terraces, comfortable barazas, and a keen sense of barefoot, laid-back glamour that fuels the desire for a lazy holiday. If you want something a little more affordable, the other villas run 225€ to 450€ and 350€ to 1,000€, respectively. The houses are all done in simple, elegant Swahili style, with appropriate furniture and bright, eye-catching fabrics to set off the white adobe walls; a CD player is the only possible intrusion. You'll probably spend much of your waking time on the rooftop terrace or trying to pick up tips in the kitchen from your cook, who bakes fresh bread and whips up fabulous Swahili and international meals. If you want three meals a day included in the price, it's 50€ per person extra. As with most of Lamu's villas, there's a 3-night minimum stay in the low season and 7-night minimum in summer (and 14 nights over Christmas/New Year's). Remember that while beer and soft drinks are readily available in Lamu, you might want to bring your own wine and spirits, as local suppliers may not necessarily have what you're looking for.
Another option in Shela is bougainvillea-bedecked Kisimani House (www.kisimanihouse.com), a restored property that was first built for the caliph of Zanzibar in the 18th century. Comfortably sleeping eight people in four double bedrooms, it's another glorious villa with carved zidaka niches and a wonderful courtyard garden. The house goes for 200€ to 800€ per day, excluding meals (add 60€ per person for full board).
On the southernmost tip of Lamu Island, separated from Shela by a fantastic 12km (7 1/2-mile) stretch of beach, seven gorgeous, innovatively designed houses -- part of Leslie Duckworth's Kizingoni Beach(www.kizingonibeach.com) -- are spread across 10 hectares (25 acres) of perfectly wild, pristine coastal land near the unspoiled village of Kipungani. Designed to take maximum advantage of the setting sun, with impeccable views framed by cocopalms and bush, each house is set within its own large forested grounds and is completely independent and self-sufficient. With imaginative design and hints of architectural innovation, the houses blend colonial Arab Swahili style with high-end materials sourced from exotic locations. There's no air-conditioning, but there are plenty of fans and the design ensures great circulation of natural air. You'll have your own big freshwater swimming pool, with outdoor showers and a day bed suspended beneath the veranda. Each house also has its own 23m (75-ft.) speedboat and skipper, and you have a choice of full-size or small dhows for excursions, too. Rates run 2,600€ to 10,800€ per week for up to 8 people; add 65€ per person, per day for full board, including drinks (your live-in cook makes everything from ice cream to international cuisine).
For more intimately proportioned, modestly sized houses, www.lamuholiday.com (tel. 072/304-3754) is a good option. This new company had just two available houses at press time, with a third scheduled to launch by 2010. The houses are new constructions but follow Swahili architectural rules to some extent and combine the convenience of Western influences on the design, too. Four-story Bembea House (145€-395€ per night for up to four people) is next to the dunes on the edge of Shela village, close to Peponi Hotel and its famous bar. Done out in natural textures and fabrics, its bedrooms feature four-poster Lamu beds; the dining and living rooms are above these, on the third floor, where there's a small library and sound system. And, of course, you'll find great views from the rooftop terrace, its barazas ideal for daytime sunbathing, nighttime stargazing, or luxuriating in the spell of a silvery moon.
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.