About a month ago I spent a lovely 5 days in the beautiful, enigmatic and secluded archipelago of Lamu. It’s taken me a whole month to write this post because I’ve been in denial that my vacation ended so damn quickly. Also, I had so many thoughts about the trip running through my head that I didn’t know how on earth I would wrangle them all together and put them down on paper! So let me break down this post into easily digestible chunks:
1.Experiencing Lamu and Its People
Neither I nor Mr. Big had been to Lamu before and we were beyond excited for this new traveling adventure. We had no idea what to expect but had one singular motive: to eat as much Swahili food as we possibly could! So naturally, we planned our visit around the one and only Lamu Food Festival (more on how this was almost an utter disappointment later..).
We arrived on a hot Wednesday afternoon and after a short boat ride from Lamu’s Manda Airport, we arrived on Shela Island where our hotel was located. Shela is one of the islands of Lamu with a population of no more than 2,000 people and is located about 3Kms from Lamu town.
The minute I stepped off of the boat and onto Shela Island, I felt like I had teleported into a different century. It was like I was standing right in the middle of an ancient, mystical era that I had only seen on the History channel and in Indiana Jones movies.
As our hotel guide escorted us to our hotel along the island’s narrow winding streets (there are no vehicles in Shela), I couldn’t help but marvel at the beautiful architecture. I literally had my mouth ajar in amazement during the 5 minute walk from the pier to our hotel.
It felt like the set of a movie about buried treasure and ancient tombs!
Grand, ornate Lamu doors like these punctuated every corner and literally took my breath away.
These hand carved doors supposedly cost hundreds of thousands of shillings. And I can totally see why! They are magnificent!
I wish I could say that it was a quiet, serene walk along the slender cobbled streets but it was far from it because we had to keep dodging donkeys. Yes, you read that right – DONKEYS! These things are the real kings of the streets in Lamu. One minute you’re walking peacefully along the street, the next you’re hugging the wall and praying that you don’t get trampled by a delinquent donkey!
I was surprised to discover that the people of Lamu seemed to be very private about their lives. While walking down their streets I couldn’t help but feel like a barely tolerated guest, if not an entirely unwanted one. And when I say people, I mean the men and boys because the women and girls were nowhere to be seen. I can genuinely count the number of times I saw a woman out and about on the streets of Shela during the 5 days we were there. I must say that it was a bit awkward wiggling our way through some narrow streets lined with men who would quiet down and stare as we passed.
The men of Shela were very forward, however, when it came to doing business and we had a hard time saying no to all of their attractive offers. We may have managed to turn down an early morning fishing tour and hawked fish samosas, but enthusiastically agreed when they offered us a dreamy dhow ride to watch the sunset.
“Sunset” as the locals called turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. It is a serene, almost spiritual, boat ride taken at dusk along calm waters between the islands of Lamu. I hazard to say that I’ve never been closer to meditation than I was watching the sun set while sailing along the Indian Ocean on that day.
It was simply divine!
I must confess that I feel like I have been dishonest with you, dear reader, because I once told you that the beaches of Watamu were my favorite. In my defense, I only said this because I was yet to experience the splendor of Lamu beaches.
I don’t know if it was the time of year we went or what but Lamu’s side of the ocean was warm, shallow and calm along the entire shoreline! No seaweed, no worrying about high tides, no sudden plunges into deep water, nothing! It was like a giant, warm ans shallow pool. We spent more time frolicking in the ocean this time around than on any other vacation thus far because it was absolutely spectacular!
The only thing I wish is that we could have had a culture guide during this trip because the culture in Lamu seems extremely fascinating from the outside looking in. I would have loved to learn more from someone who could penetrate the tourist-local unspoken divide that seems to exist there.
2. Our Hotel – Waridi House
Our hotel, Waridi House, like every other gem in Lamu, was discreetly tucked away along a nondescript narrow street. It’s presence surprised us on our first walk there from the shoreline…one minute we were admiring a beautiful door of a private residence, then we were hugging the wall to dodge a deranged donkey as it stumbled toward us, then the next thing we know, we were being told that we had arrived at our hotel!
Everything about Waridi House, from the building façade to the tiles on the floor and toilets in the bathroom, speaks to a quintessential old and exotic Lamu style.
I was surprised to find out that the hotel is only 8 years old because it is designed to look like it’s been there for hundreds of years!
Waridi House only has 5 rooms. The bedrooms take up the top floors while on the ground floor, there is a small kitchen, dining area and a sanctuary-like courtyard with a small pool.
When I first walked into Waridi House, I felt a pang of sadness about not being able to enjoy the hotel because I expected that we were going to spend most of our time in Lamu Town, attending the food festival. Little did I know that the highlights of our food festival experience would happen right at our hotel!
3. The Not-So-Festival Lamu Food Festival
Our main motivation for going to Lamu was to attend the Lamu Food Festival. We had imagined walking down streets filled with food vendors selling spicy, delicious Swahili food. We had imagined being able to visit countless, neatly lined up food stalls out in the street, and sample endlessly and effortlessly from a wide array of vendors, all at one go. We had imagined… a street food festival.
What we got was quite different from what we had expected. There were no food stalls and no aroma filled streets in Lamu Town. In fact, the streets in Lamu Town showed little sign of the festivity that had brought us there.
After some inquiry, we were told that in actuality, the purpose of the food festival was to encourage tourists to visit different restaurants in Lamu town. It was more of a restaurant week than a street food festival.
Now, this would have been hugely disappointing and downright depressing if it wasn’t for the fact that we discovered mind-blowing, orgasmic and toe-curlingly delicious food right on Shela Island.
We would have returned to Nairobi miserable and bitter but instead, we returned satisfied and several kilograms heavier, all thanks to:
Chef Crispin at Waridi House
Chef Crispin has been the head chef at Waridi House since the hotel opened its doors in 2008. Chef Crispin is not just a chef at Waridi though, he is the host and heart of the hotel. I can honestly say that I have never in my entire life, tasted seafood cooked as perfectly as the one that Chef Crispin served us. Every day was another masterful delight! He started us off easy on day one with perfectly pan-fried white snapper, then stimulated our palates with tasty garlic butter jumbo prawns, before exciting us with ginger crab and finally bringing our experience to a climax on our last night with fresh, sweet grilled lobster. I would return to Lamu again and again, a million times over, to stay at Waridi House and experience Chef Crispin and his mastery of seafood. He even served us a complimentary bottle of wine with each serving of dinner!
Perched right along a busy section of Shela’s beach, Aunt Unnu’s is a cute little restaurant that feels welcoming and homey. It was our favorite pit stop after hours spent wading in the ocean and basking on the beach. Aunt Unnu’s bhajias are golden, crunchy and scrumptious. I think I ate my weight in potatoes at every sitting. Even her pilau was yummy enough to make me (a staunch pilau-hater) eat almost half of Mr. Big’s plate! There was not enough time to try out all of the items on her menu but if I could go back, I would love to try out her biryani dishes that I strongly suspect, are scrumptious.
One thing we like to do when we’re on vacation, is ask the locals for their recommendations on where to eat. On Shela Island, the name Stop Over kept popping up whenever we asked. We finally decided to try it out on our second-last day there and were not disappointed! We even let the waiter at Stop Over pick out our meal selections for us and again, no disappointments at all! He chose two curries – a fish curry and a chicken curry – that were both sweet, creamy and decadent. He also recommended that we wash our food down with fresh passion fruit juice that turned out to be heavenly!
As I said before, the men on the beaches of Shela are hungry for business. After being urged to buy one thing or another, it got a bit tiresome and we started to ignore them altogether. There was one man, however, who was very persistent and stood out from the crowd with his warmth and sincerity. That man was “Ali Sambusa”. The very first time we met Ali Sambusa he invited us to his home for one of his wife’s stellar meals. Every time he approached us on the beach, he reminded us of his offer, even offering to make and deliver food to our hotel if that was more convenient for us. So on our last day in Lamu, we decided to ring up Ali Sambusa and welcome him to our hotel to serve us his wife’s famous home snacks. We ordered samosas, bhajias and traditional Swahili chapatis which are stuffed with fried meat. Was that food good or what?! So good in fact, that we immediately bought extra portions and carried our grub back on the plane with us! (Sorry Kenya Airports Authority!).
In the end our Lamu trip turned out to be a success in spite of the not-so-festival Lamu Food Festival, and we had the natural splendor of Lamu, the wonderful Waridi House and the magnificently skilled chefs on Shela Island to thank for it!