I’m notoriously rubbish at buying gifts for my husband. As doe-eyed newlyweds, 11 years ago, my husband forced me to return the gift I painstakingly chose for him and buy something for myself instead. Some would say a noble gesture on behalf of my husband; I on the other hand was left ‘scarred’ and since, have never bought him a single thing – his birthday, our anniversaries, or any commercial holiday where gift buying is modus operandi.
You may be asking yourself, what does any of this has to do with our recent trip to Lamu? Well, you see, in those 11 years, the guilt of my indifference had been mounting and with Father’s Day coming up, my two boys and I decided to plan the ultimate getaway away from Nairobi, where the weather had turned bleaker than a bog-standard London day. We needed to remind ourselves that we live on the equator.
Off we set in search of much needed Vitamin D and landed on the shores of Manda. Much to the boys’ delight, a familiar Captain Bwana was at the airport to pick us up. The last time we were in Lamu, they had rode with Bwana in the Ras Kitau Bay, as he towed members of the gang who wanted to show off their water skiing skills.
I remember returning from that trip, my younger son had exclaimed that he might want to grow up to be a ‘Captain’ if his career in the English Premier League didn’t turn out as he has planned.
A quick 10 minute speedboat ride and we had arrived on the shores of the beach front palace that is The Majlis. Meaning a place of meeting in Arabic, the hotel was originally built as the holiday home of Italian businessman, Nanni Moccia. He traversed Africa and at some point, in the 70’s owned a textile manufacturing business in Ethiopia.
His heart chanced upon the untouched expanse of Manda and he subsequently bought a small plot of land along the bay where The Majlis now stands. The main house was completed in 2005 with the help of Malindi based Italian artist and designer, Armando Tanzini. The structures, inside and out, have clear Neoclassical and Swahili influences. Two additional villas and a rooftop bar and restaurant were completed in 2009 at which point, the family decided to convert the ‘family and friends’ home into a 27 room boutique hotel.
Inside, white terrazzo flows throughout the villas creating a blank canvas for weathered Afghan kilims and a treasure trove of furniture collected, commissioned, or made in the on-site wood workshop. Walls too are whitewashed and display an array of art and artifacts from Kenyan artists, Kivuthi Mbuno’s stunning primal depictions between man and animal to Kinuthia’s larger-than-life size portraitures. And photos, offering a glimpse into the Nanni’s life in Ethiopia during the 1970’s and that of his sons Federico and Stephano, who now run the hotel.
My voyeuristic tendencies forced me to linger for some time on these images capturing the elegance and beauty of the tribespeople of the Omo Valley, Ethiopia and the affection between Nanni, his sons and the tribespeople. In another context, what would appear haplessly cliche, shed light on how Nanni’s love affair with Africa began. Lip discs, vibrant stacks of necklaces, and the geometric pattern of the scarified chest of a warrior. This home had become a monument to a colourful history and passion for beauty. I couldn’t help but feel privileged to experience it. At some point, famous filmmaker and artist Julian Schnabel had stayed with the family and his paintings, crafted on old dhow sails, still colour the walls in the main house.
Contributing to the conversation about Majlis, my 9 year old son felt using the word “spacious” apt to describe almost everything on our arrival – the rooms, the corridors, the Lamu doors, the beach, the spaghetti a la pesto he had for lunch. Even the whole crab that my husband attempted to attack at lunch was “spacious”. A fight to the end, armed with a wholly inadequate claw cracker, he finally managed to get to the sweet succulent meat encased inside. He dipped it in lemon butter and claimed it was “the best crab” he’s ever had.
Under the makuti tiled roof of the main restaurant, Chef Kennedy Oniela, serves up the freshest fish and seafood handpicked every morning from Lamu’s fisherman. Crab, lobster, and oysters are brought in heaving gunny sacks and their own boat goes out every fortnight to bring in line caught yellowfin tuna, white and red snapper, sailfish, calamari and octopus. His favourite fish dish, he tells me, is the oven poached red snapper simmered with leek, celery, garlic and onion, which truly lives up to expectations.
The Nyanza native has 17 years of experience in working in Mombasa, Zanzibar, Watamu and Lamu, but what he loves most about The Majlis is, “The quiet to think about preparing dishes in the best possible way. In this hotel, despite having an a la carte menu, we can tailor dishes to our guests requests. If you want to have dinner on the beach, in your room, by the pool, or even among mangroves, it’s possible”.
At the heart of the hotel is a stand alone arabesque structure of antiqued cement flanking low lying acacias and a shaded swimming pool.
Enveloping Lamu beds and giant coffee tables of limed mvule offer respite and comfort for sundowners overlooking Shela where even the warm evening light settles for slumber. This is the epitome of what the Majlis symbolises. A social venue designed with relaxed state of mind but oozing character, style and warmth. Here, my husband and two boys settled in after an evening walk on the beach to play charades, have a glass of crisp Italian chardonnay and munch on fresh cassava crisps.
We consider ourselves to be veterans of holidays in Lamu, this being the tenth trip to the archipelago and invariably stay in Shela, Lamu town’s bourgeois suburb. We have come here to celebrate anniversaries, romantic weekends and hedonistic weekends but this has been the first time we’ve come to just celebrate family. Two days to linger, laugh hysterically and bake in the Lamu sun is a gift no one can or ever will want to return.