Just a one-hour flight from Nairobi, Kenya, Lamu Island (specifically, its Shela village) is attracting a portion of the art-world elite and global “affluencers” seeking to continue life—and culture—uninterrupted during the pandemic.
Zero masks are worn indoors and outdoors, a quarantine is not required upon entry, and there are no coronavirus I.C.U.’s on the island. The only thing you need to do to get to Lamu is show proof of a negative test, a policy that, incredibly, has kept it almost entirely coronavirus-free.
Obviously, it’s gorgeous—white beaches, crystalline waters, palm trees, and so on. The island lies on the edge of the continent, not far from Somalia, with the occasional Somali-pirate abduction threat. The relative risk just adds to the charm.
It’s also pretty conservative—local women wear hijabs or burkas at all times and rarely venture into the sea, and the muezzin prays every sunrise at full volume. There are no roads or cars, just donkeys. Most houses have no glass windows, only holes in the walls and mosquito nets. Twenty years ago there were elephants here.
None of that seems to bother the hundreds of posh visitors that have flocked there since the start of the pandemic, some permanently, to swim and snorkel in the day and to launch and attend art exhibitions, film screenings, and raves into the night. The few who are trying to keep day jobs working remotely from Lamu are quickly making the island a poster child for (pre-scandal) WeWork.
Visitors feed local donkeys carrots with great enthusiasm, some, such as Lola Bute, daughter of Cardiff Castle’s Marquess of Bute, constantly posting their Marrakech-style poses on Instagram—without tagging the location. (Plausible deniability.) There’s a certain fear of getting caught here, especially if you’re from Europe and your compatriots are weeks into their third lockdown. Sourdough, anyone?
Among those who own houses on the island are Nicholas Logsdail, O.B.E., owner of Lisson Gallery, and Chris Hanley, who produced Buffalo ’66 in 1998. Princess Caroline of Monaco built the renowned Beach House in Shela and restored three villas. Heiress Jemima Goldsmith and ex-husband Imran Khan, the current Pakistani prime minister, send their sons here. And Marina Abramović filmed Confession, a performance video where she tells a donkey her deepest secrets, on a beach near Shela.
The place usually peaks on New Year’s Eve, but this year the actor Dominic West waited until February to arrive with his wife, Catherine FitzGerald. They reportedly chose Lamu to re-start their marriage after West’s affair with Lily James.
There are no roads or cars, just donkeys. Most houses have no glass windows, only holes in the walls and mosquito nets. Twenty years ago there were elephants here.
That month, on the island’s Diamond Beach village, photographer Guillaume Bonn, who popularized the term “Mosquito Coast” in his 2015 New Yorker article, screened a documentary on Peter Beard, who died in 2020. The event was packed and included both pre- and post-screening parties.
And while all of the world’s major art fairs—Basel, Frieze, Venice, TEFAF, the Armory—either shut down or went virtual, a new, totally in-person art fair called Lamu Conceptual launched on February 19. The following week, British artist Vanessa Garwood unveiled a big portrait show with a painting of Kenyan humanitarian worker Umra Omar.
Omar is running to become the next governor of Lamu County. She loves mingling with visitors and is a big fan of the organic farm Natural Lamu. Their soap bars are superior to Le Labo’s.
The epicenter of all social life here is the Peponi Hotel. It’s the new Chateau Marmont, but with tasty fish and margaritas, dhow-boat races and dolphin activities, noisy toasts, and Swahili coffeepots. It’s buzzing every night and very hard to get a room there. The hotel is so big it has two permanent employees at the airport to help arriving guests into a boat that takes them straight to Shela Beach. It’s a lot like Venice, except Lamu’s water taxis don’t cost $120 per journey.
Most importantly, do not travel to the island of Zanzibar. Even though it’s just 40 minutes away by plane, as soon as your passport gets stamped in Tanzania, other countries (including the U.K.) will force you to spend $2,000 on a hotel quarantine upon arrival, and it won’t be the Peponi.
Nimrod Kamer is a London-based writer and editor and the author of The Social Climber’s Handbook: A Shameless Guide