When planning a visit to UNESCO World Heritage designated Lamu Island, many travelers don’t realize that there are two very different corners in which to base yourself — historic Old Town, and Shela, Lamu’s upscale expat island oasis.
Which one you pick will ultimately depend on you and what you’re hoping to get out of your visit to this ancient Swahili isle.
If you’re looking to connect with the local vibe and immerse yourself in the history of this atmospheric and captivating dot on the globe, Old Town Lamu’s your ticket.
On the other hand, if a beach holiday is what you’re after — with many of the comforts of home, with occasional trips to Old Town — you may want to consider booking a stay in Shela.
Shela Village: Upscale Oasis of Lamu Island
Shela Village vs. Lamu Town
While exploring the narrow and twisting alleyways of Lamu Town was great fun, I enjoyed occasionally venturing to other parts of Lamu Island over my week-long stay.
Two things that amazing Lamu Town lacks are waterfront restaurants and a beach — luckily, Shela Village, also on Lamu Island, has such things.
Just two miles separate Lamu and Shela, but in many ways, the two communities feel like worlds apart.
Lamu Town is a bustling Swahili trade settlement and UNESCO World Heritage site.
By some accounts, it’s gritty and showing its age. Dozens of buildings stand dilapidated largely due to the onerous building codes and covenants as a result of being a UNESCO site.
To renovate means keeping with original Swahili period construction methods which many Lamu residents simply can’t afford.
Shela, on the other hand, is a product of it’s prime location on a beautiful stretch of white sand beach and large expat community.
Because it’s not the center of trade and commerce in the area, it has a much more laid back feel.
Generally preferring to travel on a budget and base myself out of places like Lamu Town, I was surprised to feel a bit torn between the two. I really can’t decide where my loyalties lay: Lamu or Shela.
The good news is, the two places are a 45 minute walk (or five minute boat ride) apart, so no need to dwell on the decision too heavily.
Getting to Shela & Lamu Island
Lamu, being an island with no air strip, can only be accessed by boat, either from the air strip pier on Manda Island or, if arriving by bus or taxi, from the pier at Kikoni.
Shela Village can be reached by ferry service from Lamu Town, private hire boat service from Lamu-Manda air strip, or via two walking paths from Lamu Town.
The main walking route between the two communities traces the Corniche Path heading south out of Lamu Town along the water.
If you’re beach-bound, the “highway” path behind town is a more direct route. Head toward Mkomani Primary School and follow the walking path due south.
I’m not sure why, but I didn’t take any water with me the first time I set out for Shela from Lamu Town.
I guess I figured that two miles is two miles and I’d get a drink when I got there.
Problem is, the “highway” ended up being nothing more than a sandy path that wound its way around family compounds with no rhyme or reason. I found myself getting lost a fair amount.
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To make matters worse, it was an incredibly hot day and the inland path doesn’t afford much shade.
When I finally crested the last sand dune and spotted Shela Village, I felt like I had emerged from the Sahara in a 1960s epic, stumbling over myself down the dune towards the oasis…and water.
Suffice it to say, Stop Over Restaurant was a sight for sore eyes.
Stop Over Restaurant
Stop Over Restaurant is fantastic. Excellent East African/ Swahili food and a great ambience for a good price. Highly recommended! [find on map]
The view from my table at Stopover Restaurant in Shela.
Biryani and mango shake for lunch at Stopover Restaurant with a sea view on a picture-perfect day. Doesn’t get much better than that, folks.
Shela harbor is a great place on any given day to watch fishing dhows arrive and depart from the shore.
Wandering Around Shela
Shela’s got a bit more of an artsy bohemian vibe to it than Lamu Town. One of the top things to do in Shela is poke around the local art studios and shops.
Or, you can simply wander around this supremely photogenic village. You never know what you may encounter.
Walking Shela Beach at midday. Not a lot happening in these parts right now, but Shela’s pretty sleepy any time of day.
Shela’s got a nice little stretch of beach in the village, but if you’re looking for some serious beach time, make your way around the point for an unexpected seaside castle and one of the longest stretches of pristine coastline you may ever see!
After Nairobi, I was a bit reluctant to let my guard down coming to the Kenyan coast. But people on the whole here are incredibly friendly, and most genuinely wanted nothing from me but to talk.
This guy saw me with my camera and wanted a picture.
I readily agreed, but couldn’t help but wonder what he had up his sleeve. Did he want money? Did he want to show me his cousin’s shop? A boat ride, perhaps?
He didn’t even really speak English. He just wanted to pose in his customary Lamu wrap. I snapped a photo, he took one look, gave a big smile and thumbs up and walked away.
My treat — an iced coffee — at a little coffee shop which opened out to the sea in Shela.
Their names escape me now, but on the left is the captain and on the right is the first mate of one of a large dhow from Mozambique that had just recently been hauled out and completed overhauled.
My infatuation with all things sailing got me talking with them for a while, trying to figure out how I could steal away on a run down to Mombasa, but unfortunately it never panned out.
Nonetheless, they were two very interesting dudes.
On the way back to Lamu Town, I opted for the longer, but better marked (and shaded!), seafront path. Following the coastline, I relished the fact that there was zero chance of getting lost this time.
The views out over the water were worth the trip alone.
Over the next week on Lamu Island, I made several trips back to Shela and the beach.
I found Stopover to be an exceedingly nice place to work remotely from my laptop, and the beach was a nice diversion.
The weather for the most part was fantastic, though we did get a few showers here and there.
You can walk the beach past Shela for literally hours and not run into anything or anyone–the wide stretch of white sand seems to go on forever (at least ten miles!!!).
I never took the inland path again, opting for the path along the seafront every other trip out to Shela.
It’s very peaceful, though you do have to deal with the enclave of young Masai hawkers in full traditional garb (as they often are in Kenya), camped out a few hundred yards south of Lamu Town.
They’re a friendly enough bunch and have some very nice wares to hawk, but by week’s end I couldn’t be bothered.
Where to Stay in Shela
With affordable rates, a pool, and an amazing location right on the sea, Shella White House (from US$23) is our top budget pick in the village.
If you’re looking for something a bit more atmospheric with a lovely rooftop restaurant and terrace but set back from the sea, the slightly more upmarket Shella Royal House (from US$47) is an excellent pick as well.
Mid-Range — Our **Top Pick** in Shela
We think Jua House (from US$70) is the best place to stay in Shela Village. There may be more luxurious properties in town, but it’s hard to imagine any offer the value for the money that Jua House does.
Tastefully decorated heritage-style rooms with modern features and amenities set the stage, with friendly staff and excellent customer service that is hard to rival. The suite even offers a covered balcony with your very own hammock.
For those looking for all the comforts and amenities, Kijani Hotel (from US$102) is an excellent choice in a heritage-style property near the sea. The hotel features a pool, tropical garden, and sea view balcony in some of the rooms.
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A Word About Health & Safety in Kenya
If you're thinking of visiting Kenya, you'll want to make sure you have a good travel insurance policy.
The majority of travelers to Kenya don't encounter serious issues with health and security, but stuff happens. Personally, we've had plenty of things happen that made us relieved to be insured — severe weather, road accidents, broken bones, and other nasties.
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Have You Visited Shela on Lamu Island?
What did you think? Let us know in the comments below.