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Lockdown in Lamu: why Londoners flocked to the Kenyan hotspot during the pandemic — and never came back

Hidden coves, boho boutiques and sunset parties at eco-lodges — it’s no wonder Kate Moss, Adwoa Aboah and the Obamas are fans of holidaying on this tranquil African archipelago. You’ll wish you were here, says Tibbs Jenkins

Paradise found: Lamu
Paradise found: Lamu / Shutterstock
06 April 2021

ove over St Barts. Now, it’s all about the pristine beaches and laid-back vibes of a tiny, secretive African archipelago — a place where the A-list can be ensconced away from the paparazzi’s prying eyes, and the main method of transport is a water taxi called Beyoncé.

Welcome to Lamu, multiple plane rides from Notting Hill (from Heathrow you’ll hop to Nairobi and then Mombasa on your way). The hyper-chilled destination is fast becoming the holiday of choice for London’s most stylish set — from Kate Moss and Adwoa Aboah confirming its credentials as the chicest fashion hideaway, to Marina Abramović and Tracey Emin basking in its artistic influences, to the Obamas jetting in away from prying eyes. The calming local Swahili watchword “pole, pole” (“slow down”) couldn’t be more now. Many, who made a dash for the island when travel was permitted, have stayed put. Locked down in Lamu: what could be better?

In true Bond fashion, only small planes will get you to Lamu’s miniscule airport. Perched by the sapphire-blue Indian Ocean, this detail is just one facet of the dreamlike, otherworldly charm of these tiny isles, and a marker of how wonderfully far away you’re getting, mentally and physically, from London. A taxi on landing? It’ll be a boat — a small wooden dhow, or, if you’re feeling splashy, a speedboat from a small wooden gangway. No wonder Lamu has been called the Venice of Africa.

Lamu has always been alluring for the rich and famous: Madonna hung out here in the Eighties, Prince Ernst of Hanover built himself a mansion in the Nineties, and Gillian Anderson married war correspondent and filmmaker Julian Ozanne on its shores in 2005.

Its seductiveness weathered a brief travel ban after a 2011 terror attack by Islamist group al-Shabab which led to the loss of some well-loved hotels and restaurants. Not, though, the legendary Peponi, a seafront hotel that has hosted the likes of Mick Jagger, Jude Law, Katie Grand and Moss. With its whitewashed buildings and riot of bougainvillea, its charm is undeniable and its restaurant, serving French, Italian, Indian and local food, excellent wine and cocktails, and perfectly cold Tusker beers, is famed. If St Tropez’s mecca is Club Cinquante-Cinq, this is Lamu’s hotspot. Except it’s chilled — “no news, no shoes”, as Kim Cattrall summarised.

People. Fashion. Power. Delivered weekly.

Barefoot or not, there is shopping to be done, be it for soft linen shirts, Kenyan kikoys or long, floaty dresses, all ideal for the heat (32C in February, the perfect time, and peaking at 37C around April) — even if some brands, such as Stardust by Anami and Janine, are international, popping up in boho hotspots like Goa. Lamu is where you’ll find the Aboah sisters, Adwoa and Kesewa, rummaging through boutiques nestled in the narrow streets of Shela village (the hottest being Aman, African Corner and Zinj Design). Their parents, fashion agent Camilla Lowther and location scout Charles Aboah, have a house there. As has Count Alessandro Mapelli-Mozzi, father of Princess Beatrice’s fiancé Edo — the Duchess of York has also kicked back here. Nicholas Logsdail, founder of the Lisson Gallery, has an 18th-century Gujarati townhouse in the world heritage site of Lamu Old Town, East Africa’s oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement, where you can lose yourself exploring.

The Obamas in Lamu / Michelle Obama/Instagram

In the Old Town, Logsdail has established The Factory, a sanctuary for artists — though personal invitations from the main man are a must. The vibe he’s created is more that of a refuge than somewhere artists take on official residencies. “Artists love Lamu,” he says. “No matter how famous, nobody knows who you are.”

It’s here that Marina Abramović filmed Confession, a short in which she stares a donkey in the eyes and shares with it her life story. Not an easy feat; she spent three days tracking down the right donkey (of which there are plenty here). As she says, “You have to have the right chemistry. Some donkeys you like, some you don’t.” Anish Kapoor has also been to stay, multiple times. As have artists Wael Shawky and Jorinde Voigt.

Madonna hung out there in the Eighties and Gillian Anderson married on the islands’ alluring shores.

Tracey Emin is a big fan of the archipelago too, though she opts to hang out further afield at Mike’s Camp, a rustic setup on Kiwayu Island, some 60km from Lamu town by boat. Other creatives, like British artist Hermione Gibbs, while away their time picnicking on remote beaches and taking sunset dhow trips — serenely sailing through the mangrove forests, sundowner in hand. Art is just one of the callings of Lamu’s visitors. Politicos are keen: the Obamas have visited multiple times. This trumps Boris and Carrie’s trip to middle-aged Mustique.

Then there’s the hip new wave of DJs, such as Shawna Hofman and Anant Sharma (techy by day, music maestro by night). The latter mesmerisingly mixes house and techno while playing his violin. They pick the location as a haven on which to unwind after the famed Kilifi New Year — Beneath the Baobabs, a three-day-long African alternative and electronic music festival on Kenya’s mainland (during normal non-covid times). That extravaganza is partly organised by Federico Pirzio-Biroli, the face behind Burning Man’s Ooligan Alley stage and the owner of a desirable and remote Swahili-style house on Lamu. DJs and festival-goers come to chill. The atmosphere is more North Ibiza than South, more tranquil times than techno tempos. But of course you’ll want to dance, so the in-folk take a boat to the Floating Bar — which is exactly what its name suggests — where they play Kenyan pop. Or you’ll find a DJ or two playing a sunset set at Diamond Beach Village, a charming family-owned eco-lodge, run purely on solar power, which serves delicious seafood and pizza. At its weekly movie night you’re likely to find the likes of star make-up artist Mary Greenwell (who also has a pad here) or Hunza G’s Georgiana Huddart, watching anything from classic flicks to documentaries.

Sienna Miller / SplashNews

Then there’s Kizingoni, an isolated beach 20 minutes from the airport where you can stay in cabanas and sip dawas (made of vodka, lime juice and honey) at the bar— the meaning of “dawa” is “medication”. Here you’ll feel perfectly cast away, doing morning yoga and staring out at the calm sea, or walking for what feels like miles along soft, white, undisturbed sand. Or take a boat out to swim with dolphins and snorkel off the nearby reef... the perfect place for high-profile folk to keep a low profile.

Because however much Lamu is a place to be seen, its appeal to fans is its ultra-laidback style — that and Peponi, which is why it’s imperative to have a final farewell lunch there, before, Bond-like, taking a speedboat to the airport. Sure, you may see Naomi Campbell, Robert De Niro or Sting, but that’s by the by. As Mary Greenwell put it: “Everyone is equal here; it’s not at all competitive. Everyone just becomes themselves.” No wonder all those in the know go.