TRAVEL UPDATE: Susannah is let loose in Lamu

Fishy smells, a medley of narrow streets with people and donkeys jostling for space and decaying buildings are hardly the ingredients of a desirable holiday destination but there’s something rather irresistible about Lamu, the trendy hang-out on Kenya’s north coast. I’ve always been drawn to it, seduced by that slightly shabby-chic charm, nurtured over centuries from its heyday as an Arab trading port to its current renown as a rather unexpected hideout for the rich and famous. Admittedly, there is more than just the town. This group of small islands, separated from the mainland by a narrow channel, has glorious white sandy beaches and enticing blue waters full of coral and tropical fish. A stay here is a beach holiday with a difference, a touch of culture combined with quiet retreat and watersports in wonderfully stylish hotels and low-key beach lodges.

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aerial view
donkey dhow mosque

Once the domain of hippy travellers, Lamu Town and its neighbouring village of Shela are now quite the chic retreat with the likes of Elle McPherson, Sienna Miller and Princess Caroline of Monaco holidaying here. You may not see them (except in the odd tattered photograph pinned proudly to a shop door) but smart bags, jewellery and stylish furnishings with costly price tags - as well as high gates hiding well-restored homes - point unmistakably at the presence of glamour. Lamu Town’s narrow winding streets are fun to explore for a morning, ideally with a guide who will divulge timely historical facts, and the intricately carved doorways and little shops reflect the town’s diverse mix of cultures and Swahili history. It can be a bit smelly, you may have to give way to the donkeys that definitely rule the streets here - and avoid their droppings! – but it gives you an insight into the real Lamu.

We spent our first night in Shela at the much-loved family-run Peponi Hotel, just a short dhow ride or stroll along the coast from Lamu Town. Shela is where affluent old Africa and Europe’s rich and famous come to holiday, and after dark Peponi’s bar fills with an eclectic mix of party people, often with a smattering of big game fisherman dropping in to toast and share tales of their day’s excitements. Now run by the second generation of the Korshen family, Peponi has simple, traditionally decorated rooms scattered around the garden, and a lovely little swimming pool. It doesn’t take long for Lamu’s slow pace of life to seep into your veins, and we found it all too easy to while away an afternoon with a cool drink watching the boats come in and the world go by from the hotel’s lovely sea-facing terrace. The food is fantastic, and we feasted decadently on mangrove crabs and oysters. Peponi is a good base to explore Lamu Town, and although hot, it is worth walking one way (taking a dhow the other), as it gives you a different perspective on local life as you pass fishermen repairing their boats, children running about and donkeys enjoying the warmth of the midday sun.

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dhow race

We then went in search of warm sand between our toes at Kizingo, a low key beach lodge reached by a short (and wonderful) speed boat ride through the mangroves. The Kenyan-born owners, Mary-Jo and Louis, who run it day-to-day with their son Dion, call it a ‘no news, no shoes’ kind of place, and if I hadn’t already lost any sense of stress or hectic first-world life, I would have here.. The desire to kick off your shoes burns within minutes of arrival, though, in our case, they were hastily replaced when the burning sensation transferred to our tender Scottish soles! Kizingo’s thatched bandas are simple, spacious and invite simple relaxation. After a day here, we’d unwound so much I felt we’d been there forever. The main bar and dining area is sociable, or you can find your own space stretched out on a day bed on your banda terrace. I love snorkelling, and this is a wonderful place to do it, with an immense underwater world of coral and tropical fish. Even my landlubber husband, who is prone to seasickness, found that once he was under water, he could enjoy this whole new colourful world. It was hugely exciting for me to be able to share this with him. The real highlight here, though, was swimming with dolphins with Louis, who seems to have a certain affinity with them and we got really close without feeling too intrusive. It was an amazing experience to be eye to eye with this grey mass before it darted away. At the end of a long day of sunshine, Louis mixed us fantastic cocktails from a long list of temptations before dinner. The bar is a typical beach bar with a great atmosphere. It’s very relaxed and a great place to chat to other guests or play a round of bao before and after dinner.

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Kizingo from the sea
on the water

For a more luxurious experience, there's Manda Bay. The lodge oozes class and comfort, and watersports, fresh seafood and a g&t under the stars are all part of the day. Its thatched bandas are huge and airy, and they each have their own deck looking out to sea (some are closer to the water than others). New children's rooms have just been built, which are smaller and in less prime locations, but are consequently less expensive making Manda Bay a more affordable family option. The lodge has its own excellent watersports centre offering a huge choice of activities including snorkelling, scuba-diving, deep-sea fishing and wakeboarding. Or, as we witnessed many guests doing, you can just chill out by the pool or on your terrace. In the evening we walked up on to a hilltop with some of the other guests, where huge cushions were laid out and a makeshift bar had been set up. The staff guided us around the night sky in incredible detail while we sipped our sundowners. Another beautiful luxury resort is The Majlis. This is a fairly new hotel with 25 elegant, airy rooms looking out to the sea, the beach, or to one of the two pools. There's a strong Swahili theme with hand carved wood detail and big stone archways. The food here, with its Italian influence, is sensational. As well as a white, sandy beach, there are plenty of watersports and activities to keep everyone happy including a children's club. The owners have children, so are very accommodating to young families, though it’s by no means exclusively a family-orientated hotel.

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Lamu is an ideal destination for those looking for some sun, sea and sand but who want to see a bit more of the life and culture that makes it what it is. With its rich and raffish history as an Arab trading post, diverse mix of people and its idyllic beaches, it is a brilliant and seductive mix. It’s a great combination with a safari as well as beach holiday in its own right, and there’s something for everyone with simple sand-between-the-toes experiences or more luxurious cocktails-on-the-beach style places.

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