The Peponi at Lamu
Lamu, the only remaining truly Islamic town on the East Coast of Africa, a mere 50kms south of the Somali border.
Although most will arrive by air from Nairobi on one of the small domestic turboprop aircraft, landing on the adjacent Manda island. From here the only access to Lamu town itself is by water, providing a view of the salt and wind faded small buqalas and mosques of Lamu town, all peering out from behind a forest of dhow masts. As you approach Shella off to starboard, you realise that you are in for a very special experience, unspoilt by 21st century modernity.
A few years ago this small outpost was declared a UNESCO world heritage site and remains much the same as a century ago. Although rich in history as an Arab trading post, much of its modern day charm is that over the years it has attracted a bizarre mix of characters and individuals, and as such has become its own little unique world. At certain times of the year it caters to the European rich jet set and celebrities. But at the end of the day Lamu largely reverts to its own centuries-old ways, with the modern 21st Century not really impacting this little piece of Islam in East Africa.
Lamu Town itself is its own world, a little planet by itself. Time runs slower, the heat and humidity forces one to a slower pace. The winding alleyways that pass for streets are cool and quiet, so narrow that no car can operate on the island, but one needs to keep a sharp eye out for the ubiquitous donkey transport. The only motor vehicles in the ancient ‘city centre’ are a vintage Land Rover belonging to the District Commissioner and a tractor owned by Lamu Council.
It’s the Africa of a century ago, but with a very small mix of the 21st century thrown in, with its ancient limestone and coral built houses, with their thick carved and studded Arabic doors. The Persian and Omani influences are strong and everywhere.
People of all tribes and backgrounds can be seen in town; a tall, bare-breasted Maasi-woman may walk down the beach front, with all her traditional jewelry around her neck. Children peeking out from around corners; old men dozing in dark corners; bearded, black Arabs with their traditional long and flowing Kanzu robes and skull cap covered heads; Muslim women with only their eyes visible beneath their all-covering Abyia’s and the less conservative Swahili women with their colourful dresses and hands painted with intricate henna designs. The tantalizing smell and blue smoke drifting from meat kebabs cooking over open fires all add a special touch of the exotic to street life. And all set to the background soundtrack of Habari music – the unique mix of Arabic, Indian, Persian and African tongues that go to make up the Swahili language.
And five times a day, the faithful are summoned to prayer by the Adhan, the (or salat in Arabic) sung from the minarets of the 40 odd Mosques, the air vibrating and echoing from each of them in the small town calling believers to give thanks to Allah … this is one of the seminal experiences of life within a Muslim community:
“… Allah Akbar …” God is Great …
I bear witness that there is no God but Allah
I bear witness that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger
Come to prayer, come to prayer
Come to worship, come to worship,
Prayer is better than sleep, prayer is better than sleep
Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar
God is Great, God is Great
There is no God but Allah…”
The ambiance of the town is unique …
Most will stay at the Peponi (meaning “paradise” in Swahili) Hotel, out at Shella beach, a 12 kms stretch of sand, with the now abandoned Shella Castle guarding the point, slowing disappearing into the sand dunes. This is a true East African institution hotel and can only be reached by boat. It is still run by the original Danish/German family that started it as a collection of rest houses back in the 60’s for their friends and family to come and relax.
It is worth speaking about the then owner Lars Korschen,(now sadly deceased) son of the original founders. He was born in the family’s farm in Kenyan Aberdare’s mountain range just south of the Equator and was educated firstly in Nairobi and then later in England. He and his family were one of the original settlers. Lars would have been described as a true Kenyan Cowboy, the term used for white Kenyans.
When his father died unexpectedly, his mother summoned him from London where he had been studying at St Martin’s School of Art to come and help her run the hotel. Tall, elegant and unfailingly courteous, Lars was loved and trusted by both the guests and local population of Lamu. Year after year at the island’s New Year dhow race, it was he who fired the starting gun and handed out the prizes to the winners. Many of the staff have been in the employ of The Peponi for many years.
The hotels sea front location is amazing. Just sitting at the bar enjoying a heady Dawa (medicine in Swahili) a strong mix of Vodka, honey and muggled fresh limes, poured over ice, watching Lamu’s fishing and boating life unfold is relaxing and mesmerising.
Its unique blend of Arab and Swahili culture, with its architecture, views, beach, blue sea and dhows. This setting is reinforced by the simple, but elegant rooms, cool and dark, with large doors open to catch the afternoon sea breeze, gently moving the mosquito net covered four-poster beds. There are no phones or TV’s in the rooms, the owner Lars preferring to adhere to the philosophy of a life relaxed and unpretentious, “No news, no shoes” as one famous guest described it. The whole atmosphere has been designed with an artist’s eye that is sympathetic to Swahili culture – and perhaps a time past, when life was easier, simpler, less demanding. A morning stroll along the long stretch of soft sand that is Shella beach has been described by one guest as to what a walk on the Promenade d’ Anglais in Nice must have been like in the days before the First World War. It is here that the daily after-work volley ball matches are played. Life at The Peponi is designed to be truly simple yet luxurious, leaving behind the worries and stress of the 21st century. Although holding no stars, it is recognised as one of the great small hotels of the world, much of its success replying on privacy and discretion. This small jewel has an atmosphere that is unique in The Indian Ocean.
Shortly after arriving at The Peponi, Lars, persuaded his nephew Ray to leave a highly successful restaurant business in Copenhagen to work at Peponi, where he completely rebuilt and modernised the kitchens. By the time he finished, Peponi was being spoken of as having one of the best restaurants in Kenya, as well as one of the leading small hotels of the world.
Of an evening at the outdoor bar, where sampling one of its famous ‘Old Pal’ cocktails is obligatory. All and sundry come to socialize and gossip, a true collection of misfits from a Graham Greene novel as you’ll find anywhere, seem to appear as if by magic. Some dressed in just a shirt and local kikoi (an elegant garment comparable to a sarong and made from the finest Kenyan cotton) The local souvenir salesmen, a celebrity or two, and of course the inevitable Englishmen or Scotsman gone local, who has been here forever and has forgotten the land (and quite probably the reasons) that they escaped from all those years ago. He will quite likely have a well dressed local Masai or Swahili woman of indeterminable age as his companion.
You may also see a celebrity or two, Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall have been past guests. On one occasion Yehudi Menuhin agreed to play for his fellow guests after dinner.
A beautifully carved wooden notice in the bar declares “No Mobiles’, whilst somewhat disconcertingly a notice in reception informs guests that AK47’s are banned from display in all public rooms !
These characters remind one of The Happy Valley set of the 1930’s/early 40’s in what seems far-off Nairobi, or White Mischief crowd as they became known, led by the notorious Lord Delamere. Notorious for having supposedly murdered his wife’s lover, Lod Errol – he was famously acquitted ! There are in fact, still bars in well known Nairobi hotels bearing the names of both White Mischief and Lord Delamere. But the amazing thing is that even over all this time and strange influences, the things that made Lamu attractive to these people, still remains much the same as it was when they arrived all those years back.
These things collectively epitomize this part of the East African coast so well and is therefore not just another hotel, but rather an experience from a different time with characters to match. One can almost imagine Meryl Streep and Robert Redford of ‘Out of Africa’ fame, lounging on the terrace in hammocks listening to Mozart or Chopin on a wind-up gramophone. Or Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman smoking in the bar to the strains of “As Time Goes By” from ‘Casablanca’. One could imagine that it’s the sort of place that Rick from that same film, might have settled had he taken a wrong turn from Casablanca. It is that evocative – the experience is almost visceral, as indeed is so much of this coast.
Peponi’s reputation rests partly on privacy and discretion. Urban ledgend has it that on one occasion, hearing that a planeload of paparazzi was on its way to plague a well-known celebrity guest, Lars calmly redirected the visitors to another part of the coast, as inaccessible as it was inhospitable. They returned to Nairobi with empty cameras.
For entertainment, explore the ramparts of Lamu fort or stroll the dark alleyways of Lamu town, where shopping is done in old school style, shop by small shop and ingredient by ingredient. Stop at each and take fresh mint tea with the friendly shop keepers. Of an evening the old men sit under the shade of trees, sipping tea and in the age-old Arab tradition, telling the tales of their forefathers, passing down their history to the younger generation.
The blinding whitewashed houses in the midday sun, demanding a return to the Peponi for lunch, as like or not from the freshly caught seafood of the day, followed by an afternoon nap.
Allow a full day to spend cruising on a local hand carved dhow with its unique lateen sail, the nearby islands that go to make up the archipelago of that part of the coast, dropping anchor in a secluded cove to swim and snorkel – perhaps with the dolphins. The crew will happily grill freshly caught fish and serve it with lime, tamarind and other spices that define Swahili cooking.
And the food – the amazing Swahili food, one of my favourites, blending as it does the flavors of coconut, garlic, ginger, tamarind and limes with the freshly caught seafood of the day. The humidity; the heat; the aroma of the town all epitomising the very essence of the tropics.
The Peponi, is a true retreat from the hustle and bustle of 21st century life … it alone of all the hotels that I have stayed in around the world, stands out.
I once spent an all-too-short long weekend there and fell in love … so when one goes, one should pick ones travel companion well – as a stay at The Peponi in Lamu is not to be wasted.
The author can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org