• Photo: Byelikova Oksana / Shutterstock

Lamu

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 2001, Lamu Old Town is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Some 260 km (162 miles) north of Mombasa—and just two degrees below the Equator—Lamu is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel that's fringed with thick mangroves protected from the sea by coral reefs and huge sand dunes. Winding narrow alleyways lead past the ornate carved doorways and coral walls of magnificent merchant houses to the bustling waterfront. Life goes on much as it did when Lamu was a thriving port town in the 8th century; there are no cars (all transport and heavy lifting is by donkey), and more than 1,000 years of East African, Omani, Yemeni, Indian, and Portuguese influences have resulted in a unique mix of cultures, reflected in the faces of its inhabitants as well as in its architecture and cuisine. A stronghold of Islam for many centuries, you'll see men in kofias (traditional caps that Muslims wear) and khanzus (white caftanlike robes) and women in bui-buis (black veils). Some merchant houses have been converted into gorgeous boutique hotels, and rooftop restaurants offer abundant, fresh seafood for very little.

The island is roughly divided into two parts: Lamu Town, in the south, and Shela, a smaller, quieter village in the north and next to the beach. Some visitors split their holiday between staying on both sides of the island, or you could opt to stay on Manda Island or in farther flung hotels on the far northern or southern edges. You can walk between Lamu Town and Shela in about 45 minutes; a popular option is to walk one way and take a boat back. The beach offers 13 km (8 miles) of unspoiled coastline.

It's very easy to relax into the pole-pole ("slowly" in Swahili) pace of life in Lamu, spending hours on the beach or on your hotel terrace reading a book and sipping a delicious fresh fruit juice. There’s also plenty for the energetic to do here—windsurfing, kayaking, fishing, and snorkeling. You can also take a dhow cruise to visit ruins on Pate and Manda islands.

Tourism hasn't made much of an impact on Lamu, and that's what makes it so special.

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