Lying just off Kenya’s far north coast is a string of beautiful Indian Ocean islands – Lamu, Manda, Pate, Kiwayu and Manda Toto – known collectively as the Lamu Archipelago. An area of archaeological and historical interest as well as great natural beauty, these islands are worth visiting for a tranquil Kenya beach holiday, as compared to the busier and more developed central and southern parts of the Kenyan coast.
Flying is the best way to reach the archipelago and the airport is located on Manda Island from where you will be transferred to your hotel or lodge by boat. The island is linked by ferry to Mokowe on the mainland and to Manda Island. Due to the narrowness of the streets, vehicles are prohibited. However, the city is easily explored by foot or bicycle, or, as many locals prefer, by donkey.
The archipelago is a chain of islands separated from the mainland by a narrow channel bordered with dense mangrove forest and protected from the Indian Ocean by coral reefs and large dunes. The streets of Lamu town are narrow, cool and quiet. They are surprisingly intimate spaces enclosed by massive stone buildings whose thick coral rag walls give the town its distinct color and texture.
Shela Village is two miles from Lamu Town. The village according to tradition was settled by people from nearby Manda Island. In 1813 the famous Battle of Shela took place. This was an attempt by Pate Island, allied to Mazrui Clan from Oman, to subjugate Lamu. The attempt failed totally and the defeat of Pate at Shela signaled the rise of Lamu as the leading power in the archipelago.
Shela prospered between 1829 to 1857, when 5 of its 6 mosques were constructed. It is particularly known for the Shiathna-Asheri Mosque. The Island’s prosperity declined after 1873 when the British forced the closure of the slave markets.
In December 2001, Lamu Town became a world heritage site in order to protect the oldest inhabited Swahili settlement. Moreover, Lamu is a centre of Swahili and Islamic culture for over 700 years.
Lamu, Kenya’s oldest living town, was one of the original Swahili settlements along coastal East Africa. There are some other accounts that mention Chinese ships of Zheng He’s fleet sinking near Lamu Island in Kenya in 1415.
Manda Island is home to several archeological important sites including the ruined towns of Takwa and Manda. Excavations at the sites have revealed their historical legacy, finding Chinese porcelain and Islamic pottery.
The Lamu Archipelago is now home to luxurious accommodation in stunning settings. It has become popular as a post-safari destination. It combines very well with a safari to Masai Mara National Reserve or Tsavo National Park or even Amboseli National Park. The main activities include snorkeling and scuba diving, historical walking tours, dhow sailing trips, sea kayaking and diving with dolphins. Expect great beaches, dazzling coral reefs, a wealth of activities, great cuisine and friendly service while on a Lamu holiday.
There are several museums; the main one is the Lamu Museum, home to the island’s ceremonial horn called siwa. The other museums are dedicated to Swahili culture and to the local postal service.
Tourism has greatly contributed to the local economy in recent times. In 1986 Michael W. Smith wrote a song about the island, which was included in his album The Big Picture.
Lamu Old Town is worth visiting and you will have opportunities to buy traditional clothing, silver jewelry and leatherwear. Lamu was on the main Arabian trading routes, consequently, the population is largely Muslim. It is recommended that visitors respect local customs and adhere to recommended dress codes while away from the beaches.