May 9, 2023
3 Min. Read

LAMU: ZANZIBAR’S SMALL, CHIC SISTER

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SMALL, CHIC SISTER Where the rich and beautiful holiday

No mass tourism, no cars – that’s the most visible difference between Zanzibar and Lamu, both ancient Swahili settlements along the East African coast. We Texplored what the hidden beauty offers today.

light effects. A group of jolly visitors is boarding a dhow taxi to commute from Shela, the village of western palatial residences, to the island’s main settlement Lamu Town – a UNESCO heritage site, as Stone Town in Zanzibar. For many regulars it’s Lamu revisit- ed. The archipelago off the Kenyan coast, about 180km north of Mombasa, has been on the travel trail much longer than Zanzibar. “By the late 60s and early 70s Lamu became famous for its reputation as an exotic, remote and self-contained society. It became Kenya’s Kathmandu”, says Carol Korschen, owner of the legendary Peponi Hotel in Shela, “it was the end of the African Hippie trail and a stop-over on the way to India”. We are sitting on her iconic hotel’s terrace, situated at the beginning of 12 kilometres of sand dunes and beach. The beach area used to be totally uninhabited; nowadays more and more buildings in dune pockets are endangering the water supply of the island’s fragile eco-system.

Classy and casual

Opened in 1967 by the Korschen family from Denmark, Peponi is an institution. With 28 rooms and a top restaurant if offers a mature mix of classy and casual only to be found in safari-savvy Kenya. Guests and village inhabitants, foreign and local, mingle on the terrace. Whether you’d need a room, a guide or a party invitation, you’ll find it here. Lamu has the bohemian vibe of Spanish island Ibiza in its early, quieter days; it’s a close-knit society of cosmopolitan locals and visitors dealing with each other on eye level. When one of the two Korschen daughters married just before Corona hit, a “Mama Mia”- like Swahili wedding for 1800 guests was celebrated under the stars.

There’s lot’s to do and see in Lamu although the island is less than 13 by six kilometres large. The Omani-built Lamu Fort and a beautiful museum exhibit modern and traditional artefacts. Abdullahi Sultan guides us on a tour through the alleyways of Lamu Town, inhabited by about 20,000 people, and explains that the labyrinthine streets are built upward along a slope, letting the rains wash the city clean.

As if remotely controlled, around 3000 Donkeys haul tomatoes, coconuts and baskets of building materials from the port to town. We doze off in the shade of Makuti thatched roof terraces of proud city palaces. The grand mansions made of coral stone allow the wind to circulate pleasantly, testifying to high architectural art. Lamu flourished under 200 years of Omani rule until the end of the 19th century, just like Zanzibar. Typical vidaka lime stone carvings and neeru walls are trademarks of richly decorated palaces. The sheer beauty has attracted foreign investors and celebrities among them the Peugeot family, London photo agent Katy Barker and German Prince Ernst August of Hanover. The holiday spot, close to Somalia, has never developed mass tourism – it’s just too hard to get there. From a small airport located on neighbouring Manda island, one of 65 islets forming the archipelago, new arrivals are brought over by boat.

Resilient diversity

Residents and regular visitors say, they feel safe on Lamu despite earlier local Islamist insurgencies in the area. Herbert Menzel, a relative newcomer and well-known German entrepreneur from Hamburg, has built and restored four houses in Lamu since 2006. „I simply fell in love with the atmosphere and the aesthetics of Swahili design“, says the art expert who has enriched Lamu with a bi-annual „Hat Festival“ and a hand-illustrated map of Shela and its 90, mostly western holiday homes and boutiques – a help- ful orientation for a small, but rapidly growing cosmos.

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