If you mention to anyone that you’re heading to Lamu, an island on Kenya’s Swahili coast, you’re bound to be asked one of two questions: “Isn’t that the chic resort where Sienna Miller, Princess Caroline of Hanover and the London art crowd like to go?” Or, “Isn’t that the grubby backpacker’s hangout where the streets are covered with donkey crud?” People might also inquire whether Lamu is a conservative Muslim enclave where alcohol and above-the-knee skirts are no-no’s, or if it’s a chilled-out party town.
The fact that these contradictory questions all elicit the same answer—“Yes”—goes a long way toward explaining Lamu’s appeal. With its rich and raffish history as an Arab trading post, its idyllic beaches and its downright bizarre mix of characters, the island may be Africa’s ultimate exotic hideout.
“Lamu has always been its own little world,” says Carolyn Roumeguère, a local jewelry designer whose pieces are worn by Nicole Kidman and Donna Karan. “And there have always been glamorous people coming here too. It’s just that nobody used to notice.”
What you think of the island will depend on which of its two neighboring villages you stay in—dusty, atmospheric Lamu town, or posh, serene Shela—and, more crucially, when you go. During the island’s brief high season at Christmastime, the place morphs into a sort of African St. Barths, packed with Hello! magazine regulars doing various things that couldn’t be featured in the party pages. For years, Prince Ernst of Hanover, who with his wife, Princess Caroline, owns a three-story house on Shela’s waterfront, threw a huge bash on the beach, flying in a sound system from Nairobi and a DJ from Europe. (The couple has stayed away in recent seasons, though Ernst is still involved in a lengthy court battle with a German hotelier, who claims he had to be hospitalized after the Prince assaulted him during a drunken argument in 2000.)
Every January, after the heavy-duty Euro crowd goes home, Lamu largely reverts to its centuries-old ways. Lamu town, the main settlement on the island and a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a kind of mini Zanzibar, with about 25,000 residents, 2,200 donkeys, 26 mosques and two cars. It’s the sort of place where Paul Bowles might have settled if he’d taken a wrong turn in Tangier. In the winding alleyways, fully veiled women scurry toward the outdoor market, their eyes darting beneath black bui-buis. Evidence of the town’s Indian, Persian, Omani and Portuguese influences is visible in the coral stone houses, with their carved teak and mahogany doors. Though there are a few interesting museums and one or two decent cafés, the main pastime for visitors is strolling around, watching the traditional dhow sailboats in the harbor while pretending not to notice the open sewer drains lining the streets.