I don’t put that much value on bucket lists, but there’s definitely a real sense of competitive travel out there. Everyone wants to have been there first, ventured where no one else has gone, et cetera. You must have seen the entire world, no? What is the most exotic, the most remote, the most unfamiliar place you’ve encountered?
A Well-Traveled But Always Curious Global Nomad
What perfect timing. I just returned this week from Lamu, an archipelago of small islands—the largest are Lamu, Manda, and Pate—off the coast of Kenya in the Indian Ocean. They are exotic, remote, and unfamiliar, to be sure, but also dreamy, seductively mysterious, and not for just anyone. Meaning that they are not easy to get to, and they come, as does all of Kenya, with a travel advisory from the U.S. State Department. But for the adventurous among us who are always searching for someplace that doesn’t feel generic, without hustle, bustle, or name-brand hotels, Lamu is paradise. The sexy Peponi Hotel in Shela—with its chic little shops and a bar that makes a fantastic Aperol spritz—is where you’ll want to stay. The rooms are located right on the water, flanked by an exquisite garden and pool. It has the sophistication of Rick’s Café, with the magical realism of Life of Pi, complete with 28 beautifully simple rooms. My favorite is No. 21 on the second floor, with a bedroom, living room, and rooftop terrace overlooking the Indian Ocean, a long stretch of white-sand beach below, wooden sailboats in the distance. And for only $450 a night during the high season.
But hold on. I’m getting ahead of the story. I had wanted to come to Lamu since I saw a picture of the medieval Arab trading port of Lamu Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in a yellowed copy of Life years ago. As fate would have it—but rarely does—my old friend Anna Trzbenski, a designer and artist from Nairobi, rang me in mid-June to say her mother, Dodo Cunningham-Reid, had offered us her house in Manda for two weeks. Could I come? Three weeks later, my carry-on packed with only T-shirts, shorts, swimsuit, flip-flops, toothbrush, a sweater for evening, and a 50-milliliter bottle of Tom Ford’s Neroli Portofino, I boarded Kenya Airways Flight 3 at 12:55 p.m. out of J.F.K. Anna, who is now 54, has been coming to Lamu, along with other sophisticated Kenyans and Europeans, since she was seven years old. Who wouldn’t? Matonga House is magnificent—Swahili modernism crossed with Palm Springs glamour, right on the beach and very occasionally available for rent. (Contact Air Mail for further inquiries.) “Lamu really hasn’t changed, although there are now motorbikes allowed in Lamu Town, along with the donkeys,” says Anna. “But there’s still a magic that reminds me of Jackie O in Greece or the days when those great travelers of the 19th century first discovered Tuscany after a gray British winter.”
So, who comes now? I remind Anna that my own trip was rather punishing—a 15-hour flight to Nairobi from New York, a 3-hour layover, another 2-hour flight to Manda, and finally a 20-minute boat ride. “You mean in addition to people like you and me?” she jokes. She has three compelling examples: Anderson Cooper, the royal family of Monaco, and Madame Peugeot, the grande dame of the automotive dynasty. But that’s only the high-gloss. Cathryn Collins, a New York fashion designer and occasional documentary-film maker, describes Lamu as “a place I felt safe and welcome last November for two weeks on my own. I like to think it’s for those happy with, say, a book, a paintbrush, a pen, or a camera. Where endless beaches and ocean co-exist with a more or less uninterrupted and very distinct ancient culture. It is for those who love to trail their hand in the water from a wooden boat for as long as they wish.” It’s also, I think, the perfect ending to a safari. Will Jones, an Africa specialist who runs Journeys by Design, agrees that, after the heat and dust of the bush and 10 days of wakeup calls before daybreak, Lamu is an ideal place to unwind. The busiest time of year there is summer—September through May—with peak season being December and January. This is when the murky winter waters of the Indian Ocean are at their most beautiful—turquoise and sparkling. A perfect time for snorkeling, sailing in an old wooden dhow, or hiring a driver and motorboating for a couple of hours to even more remote places, like Mike’s Camp on Kiwayu Island, which consists of seven tented rooms built atop a mountain overlooking sand dunes and ocean. Here I came as close to the thatched-roof primitivism of Robinson Crusoe, albeit with a chilled Bombay gin and tonic at end of day, as any modern nomad will ever get. And for only $200 a night, including a wonderful breakfast and dinner, it’s one of the great steals in travel.
Richard David Story is a veteran travel writer and editor based in New York