Lamu has it all: stunning seafront hotels, untouched beaches, palm trees, traditional dhows, friendly people, exotic birds and more. We revisit this Kenyan favourite through the iconic Peponi Hotel.
Photographs: Brian Siambi
Back home to roost
Ever since I first set foot on the pristine shores of Lamu in 2016, it has become my favourite place in Kenya. So much so, in fact, that I have returned at least twice every year since then. For someone who grew up in Kenya, and a keen traveler at that, one might wonder why it took so long to visit. While this storied archipelago has long been a playground for royals and Hollywood’s elite, particularly in the 80s, it hadn’t been marketed much to domestic travelers until recently. Most of us didn’t think there was much to see beyond Malindi. Add in the steep cost of flights to the island coupled with the rough and unsafe roads, and you can see why the average Kenyan traveler
would never have ventured out.
I actually first learned about Lamu via Instagram, which is as millennial as it gets. It was a place of many firsts. I went on my first ever dhow cruise here, an activity that has become a must-do on every subsequent trip. It was here that I first dabbled in yoga which I became really good at before quitting altogether. In lamu I made a lot of friends, which speaks to the kind of community here; from store keepers and yoga teachers to fishermen and homeowners, and more. Lamu to me is the kind of place that you can arrive in as a solo traveler, stay a week and leave knowing pretty much everyone in town.
Another year, I decided to stay for a month at the remote Mike’s Camp in Kiwayu, at first to help with digital marketing but soon, because there was not much to do, learning how to cook with the chef, whipping up cocktails behind the bar and going deep sea fishing with some long-staying Swedish guests. I wasn’t very good at this gig towards the end and started to crave some semblance of civilisation. When I met Isabelle, the French owner of the famed Forodhani House, who popped around the camp for lunch and invited me to spend a couple of days with her, her husband Anwar and some friends at their house in Shella, I happily obliged. That very night they threw an epic party complete with traditional drummers and a flame thrower, attended by locals and tourists alike. I continued to mingle with all sorts of people at the vibrant Peponi Hotel, the only place in town which served cocktails at the time; excellent ones at that. My annual trips to Lamu have taken me all over, from Majlis Hotel to Kizingoni Beach, but while I’ve had many a merry social outing at Peponi Hotel, possibly the most iconic place to stay in Shella, I had never ventured beyond its bar and restaurant. Don’t judge me…if you visit, you would understand why.
A hotel called Peponi
The three of us, Brian (Nomad’s photographer), Peter (videographer) and myself arrive at Manda Airport and find the boat captain from Peponi Hotel waiting. He helps us carry our luggage to his boat, we hop on and immediately set off for the hotel. A sense of nostalgia washes over me, and this quickly gives way to exhilaration. I cannot articulate the kind of joy that being on this island always brings me. As we advance upon the Swahili-meets-southern-Europe whitewashed seafront buildings of Shella, I spot some all-too-familiar places. We get off at a jetty, navigate some narrow alleyways above which bright red bougainvillea flowers bloom, and before I know it, I am having a complementary old pal cocktail served to me at Peponi. As far as check in counters go, this is pretty darn sweet; we’re taken through the usual stuff while sitting on a balcony looking out onto a sea dotted with boats and dhows, a stark contrast from the gloomy traffic of Nairobi only some two hours earlier.
The boys get a two-bedroom apartment next to the pool. I am shown up to my own room, accessed via a staircase next to the kitchen area, a well-positioned casual-chic rooftop pad which sits right above the restaurant and comes with an impressive spacious balcony outfitted with two sunbathers, a swinging daybed and a pair of comfortable Swahili ‘proud
chairs’, all looking out onto the sea. Every morning I wake up to catch the sunrise from this balcony. The views here could help a journo get through writer’s block, a singer compose their best work, and the works, and I’m not just being dramatic. Windows directly in front of the double bed also open out onto the sea, and through this opening, trade winds do the cooling. On another side, the window opens out to the garden, a rainbow of colours with white, red and orange flowers, towering green palm trees, boats bobbing on the water with the dance of the waves, the bird or two that flutter past every so often, and different shades of blue from the sky and the sea. In the evenings, this place comes alive as people from around Shella gather to mingle and drink, and I always find myself torn between being a silent merry observer or going downstairs to join in the fun. When I do join, I meet an Ethiopian couple, a Ghanaian writer, a local dhow captain, a Google Exec…all sorts, I tell you. I get a door key for my room, which I don’t even use for the
duration of our stay.
I meet Carol Korschen who currently runs the hotel at breakfast the next morning. I am tucking into a cheese omelette with toast and fresh passion juice while checking something on my phone when she appears, takes the phone from my hand and instructs me to take a moment to enjoy the meal and the view. Neither is lost on me. She is very hands on, and I often see her bustling through the restaurant, chatting up guests, exchanging a smile here and giving a recommendation there. After breakfast I ask her about the black canon facing the water out in the garden, one of several along the main wall of this hotel, the kind you’re likely to see at Fort Jesus. She tells me that the main house was built in the 30s as a fort to protect Lamu town. Shella village itself was actually in the present-day Takwa Ruins. There were a lot of territorial battles in the coast.
“My parents-in-law had their farm in Rumuruti compulsory purchased from them in 1966 and had gone to Malindi to have a last holiday before leaving the country,” she says. “There they learnt about this amazing house in Lamu that would make an amazing hotel. They flew here for a day, and three days later, they owned it.”
Peponi opened on 20th March 1967 with four rooms, one of which now serves as the hotel shop. When her father-in-law later passed away, Carol’s husband Lars took over the management of the hotel and gradually started purchasing surrounding property to expand, and when he later married Carol, they would organically continue to expand to 28 rooms, all with sea views and unique layouts, as well as a pool which is only open to hotel guests. With Lars passing away in 2014, Carol has continued to run this fashionable hotel. Her two daughters can sometimes be seen doing the rounds whenever they are in Lamu. She credits a particular safari company for putting Lamu on the international map in the 70s and 80s, and while it is whispered that several renowned celebrities have stayed at Peponi through the years, she is tight lipped about their names.
Personalised service is one of the key attractions at Peponi with some guests having been returning for years, and this is evident in the restaurant which serves up an eclectic mix of seafood, pasta, meat and Swahili dishes. Even vegans are considered. Our dinners are often three or four courses of delicious concoctions in handsome portions. My favourite is the Swahili dinner, an experience in itself. We’re served at a private section of the restaurant with traditional Swahili-style seating in form of big red pillows on the floor, with a large sinia (tray) on the table as the centerpiece. Dining in this culture is often very communal. Then, out flows an array of food; pojo (green grams in coconut milk), mbaazi (pigeon peas in coconut milk), chapati, chicken and fish curries and kachumbari, and by the time we are done, we would have all moved to Lamu in an instant had someone asked.
The next day we decide to explore. “People always say there isn’t much to do in Lamu, but I can keep you very busy,” says Carol, as she takes out a pen and draws us an itinerary based on our interests. By the time she’s done, I have no doubt.
We take a speedboat through the mangroves and dock at the base of a gigantic sand dune. A ten minute walk leads us through a glade of shrubs past an old well where cattle still come to graze, and a simple Oromo homestead where some kids are playing a game of sticks and stones in the evening shade. Our group then walks out to a completely deserted golden stretch of beach begging for a barefoot excursion, with water too angry for even the most daring of swimmers. Another time, perhaps, as we’re here to see endangered green turtles hatching. This initiative to improve their chances of survival is by the Lamu Marine Conservation Trust, supported by the Tusk Trust.
Sea turtles are such fascinating creatures as they will leave the water and come to the beach to lay eggs in the same spot where they were hatched. Wearing gloves, the guide begins to dig out the sand covering the nest, and shortly after, black, tiny turtles scurry out of the hole and start to flap their little flippers in the direction of the sea, as though they can instinctively smell the water. After surviving natural predators like crabs, this is often a race to outrun birds
and other hunters. After about three decades, the females of this generation will return to this very beach in Lamu to lay their eggs.
The birds that look like flowers in a tree
On our way back from watching the turtles, we hear the call of carmine bee-eaters and follow the sound to a mangrove with the old town in the background. When these little birds perch on the stems of the mangrove’s leaves, they look like bright flame-red flowers in full bloom, and might even pass for fruits. Their song is interrupted only by the nearby Floating Bar which is playing a familiar hip hop tune. The birds, said to “go to work during the day” and return to roost in the evening much like humans, however seem unperturbed by Jay Z. With the sun now setting behind the old town like an orange stroke of paint added to an already perfect painting, even those not often won over by birds and sunsets would admit that this is indeed a beautiful sight.
Fun fact: When hunting bees, these birds will return to their perch and smash the insects into the branch, rubbing the abdomen to remove the venomous stinger before eating it. Just like the wildebeest migration in the Mara, they also follow the same annual migration route and keen birders often go to Botswana and other parts of southern Africa just to see them.
Sunset dhow cruise
This will simply never get old. A fleet of about seven boats gently gliding along. Breeze brushing against your skin. An old white sailing canvas unravelled somewhere mid-water to show the dhowowner’s art. Ours shows a young boy kicking along a football, and Peter, a passionate fan of the sport, is visibly pleased. The canvas on the dhow across from us simply asks, “Will you marry me?” You cruise along the sea, sipping a glass of merlot and being momentarily lulled out of your worries by soothing Taarab music, or whatever you can master on your Bluetooth speaker. You lie back on the pillows and look up at the sky as it changes from the most vibrant of orange to a pitch black, and suddenly it is time to get off the boat at the Shella jetty.
WHERE WE ATE
Diamond Beach Village
This castaway-chic property has affordable to mid-range accommodation, with plenty of lounging areas and hammocks. The prices are a big draw for backpacker types, and they are known for their variety of delicious pizzas from a wood-fired oven, movie nights every Friday and the occasional full moon party. They are moving away from frying food so expect dishes like the very healthy baked vegetables with fresh red snapper fillet
and blanched spinach.
Kijani Hotel Lamu
Kijani, meaning ‘green’ in Swahili is as a tropical oasis of indigenous plants and trees, nestled among swaying palms and makuti roofs. Family-owned, it came highly recommended for lunch, and Trisala who currently runs it with her boyfriend has done a fantastic job of revamping the menu with the chef. The spacious open-air restaurant overlooks the beach and on hot afternoons, the breeze here provides relief. The menu is very eclectic and covers various types of cuisine, with the seafood and pastas being a must-have. For dessert, you must try the moltenlava chocolate cake which takes a while but is absolutely worth the wait.
Get to know: Maskani Youth Initiative
We head off on a walking tour of Shela, teaming up with Maskani Youth Initiative on the invitation of their passionate and animated founder, Hakim. If you’d like to get a glimpse of Lamu beyond the incredible seafront houses and the golden beach, this is recommended. Maskani translates to a shared hang-out space. The compto eat but any has a Dada Swahili Cafe where people come in often end up staying to chat about the projects the company is involved in. I have come to find that the difference in the price of a piece of art in Shella sometimes just lies in the shop in which it is sold and not necessarily the talent, and Maskani is keen to give more local artists a chance to fetch fair prices for
their work. There is an office space, a library that welcomes book donations, and more. They are involved in so many projects, including an anti-jigger campaign that has already done tangible work in the past year alone, and a beach clean up initiative that’s keen to keep Lamu kempt.