In the labyrinthine lanes rising steeply behind the waterfront in Shela village, amid the mosques and private houses owned by wealthy Europeans, there are art galleries and tiny boutiques selling beads and boho jewelry, kikois, and fabrics. The finest of these is Aman, owned by the South African designer Sandy Bornman. Her delicately embroidered clothes, which are run up by local tailors in handloomed fabrics from India, are bought by the screenwriters, poets, architects, stylists, and musicians who blow through Shela.
“I am very happy here,” says Bornman, who visited on vacation more than 20 years ago and never left. “When I arrived as a single mother with two little girls, we were made to feel welcome and safe. The whole village took care of us from the start. The people here are kind, generous, and warm. We stick together but respect our differences. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
If Shela displays a curated, contemporary edge, Lamu Old Town has the unvarnished appeal of centuries-old traditions. Even today sailing dhows are built by hand without drawings or plans; the carved Swahili doors, the kiti cha jeuri chairs introduced in colonial times, and the spindle beds copied from Indian designs are all part and parcel of the cultural swirl of these islands.
Wandering around town one morning with Nassir Omar, a man of Yemeni and Omani origins, I stopped at carpenters’ workshops where timeworn chisels and techniques are passed down through generations. I met Mbarak O. Slim, who makes silver pendants and rings from luminous shards of antique Chinese pottery. Later, I was introduced to Isaiah Chepyator, an artist who creates colorful fish sculptures from old dhow wood decorated with beach detritus. Together we sat in the town square and talked about the 21st-century problem of plastic waste, watching feral felines said to be direct descendants of the sacred cats of Egyptian pharaohs.
One day I took a speedboat to Manda Bay. Rustic and romantic, the boutique lodge was built in the 1960s by Italian musician Bruno Brighetti. Then called the Blue Safari Club, it became known as the ultimate barefoot hideaway, equally popular with glossy Italian actors and intrepid aristocrats, and recorded for posterity by celebrity photographer Slim Aarons.
Brighetti sold the club to Fuzz Dyer and Andy Roberts, sons of prominent white Kenyan families, 18 years ago. The friends had overspent on a fancy deep-sea fishing boat and thought they’d better justify the cost by starting a business. They started viewing properties in the area, until it dawned on them that Brighetti already had the best location: Ras Kilindini, an iridescent peninsula with a calm swimming beach and no irritating sand flies or recorded cases of malaria. An offer was made, and Manda Bay was born.
Manda has always been a family place. The Dyers’ and Roberts’ four children were ages 8 and 10 when they all moved in. Caragh Roberts, now 26, remembers her childhood fondly. “We were never bored. We’d go digging for clams or harvesting oysters and eat them on the beach; we played football and volleyball, with the staff against guests.” There were some inevitable cutbacks during the tourism ban, but the place is back to looking a lot like its past self: an unapologetically old-school retreat with fishing, sailing, and good times at its heart. Even today, there’s still no glass in the windows of the bandas, which were built with mangrove poles and mats woven from palm leaves. The pure sea-salty breeze is the only air-conditioning needed, and geckos come and go as they please.
The fast boat from Manda Bay to enigmatic Pate Island skims across the glassy blue water at high tide, past fishermen free-diving for lobsters and along the island’s mangrove-forested southern coast. I had heard stories about Pate from Mia Miji, who, with his English wife, Kirsty Tatham Miji, hosts guests on the Tusitiri. Mia was born and raised on Lamu, but his mother’s family hailed from this outpost that outsiders seemed to know little about.