Over in Shela, meanwhile, even the donkeys seem more relaxed and well groomed; you’ll see them nibbling on the bougainvillea blossoms that shopkeepers leave at their doorsteps. At Fatuma’s Tower, a British expat named Gillies offers yoga classes in the restored home of a Swahili noblewoman, and at a shop called Aman, the merch includes $800 pashminas embellished with ostrich and flamingo feathers. In the past decade, dozens of wealthy foreigners have restored Shela’s old villas or built new ones with swimming pools and fire pits. (Virtually all the houses can be rented by the week; see “Lamu 411.”) Most of these home owners come to town only a few times a year, and their absence is a mixed blessing: The village can seem eerily abandoned, but it offers a welcome break from the clamor of London or even that of Lamu town. At the edge of the village, past a starkly contemporary hilltop villa built by American Psycho producer Chris Hanley (locals call it Hollywood Heights), is a truly magnificent, dune-backed beach that rarely draws more than a handful of people. It stretches westward for eight miles.
What Shela and Lamu town have in common is a cosmopolitan, seen-it-all attitude that is like catnip to free spirits and well-to-do misfits. American writer-filmmaker John Heminway (No Man’s Land), a longtime Lamu regular, says that has been true since European runaways began trickling in a half century ago. “The first arrivals were real eccentrics who wanted to escape something—maybe their families, maybe society, maybe the law,” he explains. Heminway made a documentary about one such figure, Latham Leslie-Moore, who was believed to be an illegitimate son of Edward VII. In the Fifties Leslie-Moore converted to Islam and appointed himself sultan of his own nation-state on an island off the coast of Tanzania; forced out, he retreated to Lamu, where his servants carried him around town in a sedan chair. As for the later waves of Lamu pilgrims—artists, socialites, ordinary tourists—each crowd “feels like they discovered the place,” says Heminway. “But what is amazing is that over all this time, the bones of the society that made Lamu attractive to these people are still intact.”
One constant since the late Sixties has been Shela’s main hotel and social hub, Peponi. The word means “paradise” in Swahili, and you might not find that name much of a stretch if you spend an afternoon eating mangrove crab on the port-side patio. After dark, the crowd at the adjacent outdoor bar (one of the few places on the island where alcohol is served) is about as motley as you could find anywhere. On any given night you might see sunbaked upper-class Englishmen going native in traditional cotton kikoyi sarongs (some more convincingly than others); bejeweled fortyish Italian women unwinding after an afternoon on water skis; Sting or Ethan Hawke or Kate Moss; and one or two Masai warriors–cum–souvenir salesmen, wearing their homemade bracelets and other merchandise around their wrists and necks. (“I don’t need a store—I am the store!” one joked to me. “And I’m always open, 24-7.”) One section of the bar is known semi-facetiously as “bad boys corner,” where friendly young dhow sailors schmooze for boating clients and/or meal tickets. (Don’t be surprised if the Rasta-haired crewman on your sailboat has an iPhone that’s newer than yours—courtesy of his “girlfriend” in Stockholm.)