Whatever you do in Lamu, be sure to spend at least a day cruising around the nearby islands on a dhow. After dropping anchor, the crew will grill some snapper while you snorkel or swim, and they’ll serve it later with fresh mango and lime. The dhows are built the same way as in the days when they transported spices along the coast, though their names have changed: I spotted one Beyoncé, and word has it that there’s an Obama under construction. As you head back to Shela, you’ll sail past a cluster of palms sheltering Manda Bay resort, where honeymooners as well as Paul Allen and Jerry Hall camp in $1,200-a-night banda huts.
Authenticity junkies who don’t mind being awakened by braying donkeys might prefer to sleep right in Lamu town, at a place like Baytil Ajaib, a gorgeously restored 17th-century Swahili town house with four suites set off from a central courtyard. Co-owner Malik Weaver (né Paul Weaver, a former banker from Detroit) spent 10 years reconstructing the building’s mwangati beams and intricate plasterwork. Perhaps Weaver’s boldest move was hiring a Masai man, Wilson Sakimba, to be the hotel’s chef—virtually unheard of in Kenya. The Masai don’t eat fish or chicken, which means Sakimba won’t always taste the dishes he prepares. His lobster tagliatelle, in any case, is delicious.
Like most year-rounders, Weaver raises an eyebrow at what he calls the “fabettes”—the celebs and fashionable types who have been flocking to Lamu in growing numbers—though he notes that they haven’t managed to change the place very much. Sandy Bornman, the stylish South African blond who owns the boutique Aman, points out that Lamu’s nightlife options are still far too limited to compete with Saint-Tropez. “Here, you can either have a drink at Peponi, or you can have a drink at Peponi,” she says. One season, a group of blinged-out Russians gave Shela a try, but they never returned. “I guess there weren’t enough discos here, or hookers,” Bornman says.
Even those who come to Lamu for its raucous holiday scene tend to slip away at some point, heading off to one of several pricey hideaways that evoke Gilligan’s Island, albeit with better food. British artist Tracey Emin favors Kiwayu Safari Village, which is reached either by plane or by an alarmingly bumpy, 40-mile speedboat ride through the mangrove channels along the Kenya mainland, north toward the Somali border. The lodge’s 18 open-air, thatch-roofed bandas overlook a pristine beach that’s part of a marine reserve, with a game reserve right next to it, so it’s here that you’ll likely have that requisite East Africa experience: a wildlife encounter inside your hotel room. No sooner had the steward dropped off my suitcase than a monkey hopped through the window to inspect it.