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Message Icon Event: Lamu, Kenyas secret paradise island - Event Date: 12 Apr 2008 Post Reply Post New Topic
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Quote scubazine Replybullet Calendar Event: Lamu, Kenyas secret paradise island
    Posted: 14 Apr 2008 at 01:17

LAMU, Kenya (12 Apr 2008) — Breakfast at Peponi is a leisurely affair, served on the terrace overlooking the blue satin channel between Lamu and the neighbouring island of Manda.

Barefoot waiters clad in white, ankle-length kanzus glide soundlessly between the tables, bringing silver trays of tropical fruit and arabica coffee in brass pots shaped like witches' hats.

After the fruit come toast and bacon, eggs – any way you want them – and forest honey as sweet as sin, by which time you are ready to explore East Africa's most seductive holiday island.

Was there ever a more exotic landfall than Lamu? It lies off the northern coast of Kenya, two degrees south of the equator and 500 years from the rest of the world. Even its airstrip is on Manda, a boat ride away, adding to the heady sense of apartness; and when you walk out along the rickety jetty to be transported by dhow across the channel, the feeling of stepping back in time is complete.

A watch is the last thing you'll need on Lamu. Time here is measured not by the tyranny of clocks but by sun and tides, by the phases of the moon and the quavering voice of the muezzin ringing out from the pepper-pot minaret of the Friday Mosque.

Day begins at saa moja, the first hour of daylight, when the fishing dhows hoist their shark-fin sails and head out through the gap in the reefs that leads to the open sea, and ends with their return at dusk, laden with sailfish, snapper and lobster. In between times, if you feel energetic, you could stroll down the beach.

It runs unbroken for eight miles past sand hills and palm trees, its tide lines littered with nothing but cowries and sand dollars and the shells of ghost crabs. But such is the overwhelming mood of indolence that you are far more likely to kick back on a swing bed with a glass of fresh lime juice and wait for the urge to fade.

Lamu is Kenya's oldest living town, a Unesco World Heritage Site older than Islam. In its heyday it was one of the great trading posts of the Indian Ocean, a magnet for the ocean-going dhows of Arabia that would arrive every winter, running before the southbound monsoon, laden with cargoes of dates and carpets and brass-bound chests.

There they would wait until March, when the northbound kusi would set in, blowing them home with all the plunder of Africa – slaves and concubines, ivory, rhino horn, myrrh and turtle shells.

The glory days are long past. The dhow trade ended in the 1970s and Lamu sank into genteel decay until tourism prodded it back to life. The island has always attracted more than its share of drifters and dropouts, idealists and romantics seeking a refuge from the madness of the outside world, hence its raffish reputation.

Even so, it's hard to see why Lamu – a traffic-free mixture of Kathmandu street cred and St Trop glamour – should have evolved from a 1960s hippie hangout to a must-see bolt hole for the footloose rich. After all, this is still a devoutly Muslim island with a dress code that requires decorum and 30 mosques calling the faithful to prayer five times a day. Its young men may wear Man United T-shirts, but women remain shrouded in black buibuis that reveal no more than an flash of almond eyes.

LAMU TOWN is the island capital, but Shela is the place to stay, a waterfront village a mile down the coast, where the beach begins at the stone steps of Peponi and trade winds cool the sun's blowtorch heat. Peponi – its Swahili name means "Where the wind blows" – is simply the most romantic beach hotel in Africa.

In the mornings, bee-eaters call from the poolside baobabs and the air is scented with frangipani; in the evenings, when fruit bats flit through the lamplit dusk, you wrap yourself in your best kikoi and stroll down to the restaurant, to dine barefoot on the terrace, feasting on drunken prawns and tuna carpaccio while the moon beats a silver path across the water.

All 25 rooms face the sea. I stayed in room 17, with a swing bed on the rooftop terrace and geckos that flit like unspoken thoughts across its white walls. The number on the door said 71 but, in true Lamu fashion, nobody had bothered to fix it.

Shela itself is a surprising choice for the A list. Its shoulder-wide alleys are scattered with donkey droppings, but that hasn't stopped rich Brits and others from snapping up its crumbling coral houses. Princess Caroline of Monaco and her third husband, Prince Ernst August of Hanover, own three villas and a three-storey beach house here, but the Dhow House, owned by the London photographic agent Katy Barker, is top of the Lamu food chain.

It sleeps 12, has a staff of seven and costs £3,000 per day to rent. From its whitewashed tower, you look down through the coconut palms and tamarind trees to a yard where fishing dhows are still built with biblical tools – the adze and the bow drill – and no blueprint but the shipwright's keen eye, as they were in the age of Sinbad.

Behind the waterfront, tucked away in the dusty back alleys, are swanky boutiques that would not look out of place in London's West End. My Eye is an Aladdin's cave of ethnic beadwork, and Amani sells Anna Trzebinski's fashion accessories. Here you will also find Baitil Aman – the House of Peace – an 18th-century Swahili palace built for a bride and now lovingly restored as a simple guesthouse. Its eight self-contained rooms overlook a central courtyard and are lit by brass lanterns. Even if you don't stay here, you must treat yourself to a rooftop dinner, eating fish curry under the stars.

Curry is also on the menu at Kizingo, a few miles down the coast at the other end of the island. To get there, I went by speedboat, thumping down the mangrove channel between Lamu and the mainland. The place is the dream-come-true of Mary Jo and Louis Van Aardt, a Kenyan-born coffee-farming couple.

Four years ago they leased a slice of beachfront land from the local chief and, using only local materials (mangrove poles and makuti thatch), built the most laid-back lodge on the island. Here I met Dion, the Van Aardts' son, mixing sting ray cocktails at the bar before Sunday lunch. "It's curry today," he said. "We have curry every Sunday to remind us it's the weekend – otherwise we tend to lose track of time."

But be warned. Kizingo's insidious charm is addictive. A few days here, exploring the sand hills or perfecting the art of snoozing in a hammock, and you could end up beached on Lamu for good.

Edited by scubazine - 14 Apr 2008 at 01:21
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