Shela dominates the southeast corner of Lamu Island and might just be the Kenya Coast beach destination of your dreams.
The vast majority of visitor to UNESCO World Heritage designated Lamu Island tend to overlook laid back Shela, which seems to suit this laid back and artsy little hamlet-by-the-sea.
If you’re planning a trip to the island, you may be wondering where to base yourself out of – Shela or Lamu Old Town. However, the answer might not be as straightforward as you may think.
Read on to find out which destination may be right for you, plus top places to stay in Shela Village, how to get there, what to see and do, and much more in our first-hand guide for visitors!
Heads Up! Be sure to check the latest Covid-19 requirements. Never leave without travel insurance. World Nomads offers good travel coverage for shorter trips and recreational activities; SafetyWing offers good health coverage at a lower cost for longer term travel.
Shela Lamu – Guide to an Unforgettable Island Getaway
Where to Stay in Shela Lamu
Mid-Range — Our **Top Pick** in Shela
We think Jua House 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 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.
With affordable rates, a pool, and an amazing location right on the sea, Shella White House 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 is an excellent pick as well.
Planning a Trip to the Kenya Coast?
With so much to see and so much distance to cover in Coastal Kenya, we found the logistics to be a bit daunting on our first visit.
In retrospect, we wish we had considered a package tour for part of our journey, particularly in and around Mombasa and Malindi. These are some of the adventures we’re eying for our next trip.
Shela Village vs. Lamu Old Town
While exploring the narrow and twisting alleyways of Lamu Town is great fun, it’s definitely worth it to venture outside the Old Town as well.
Two things that historic and atmospheric Old Town lacks are waterfront restaurants and a beach — Shela Village, on the other hand, has such things.
Just two miles separate Old Town and Shela, but in many ways, the two communities feel a world apart.
Old 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 Village, on the other hand, is a product of its prime location on a beautiful stretch of white sand beach and artsy expat community.
Because it’s not the center of trade and commerce in the area, it has a much more laid back feel.
Expect to find upmarket boutique accommodation and more luxury offerings in Shela, but fewer restaurants, historic sites, and people (both locals and visitors).
Which one you pick will ultimately depend on you and what you are hoping to get out of your visit to this ancient Swahili isle.
If you are looking to connect with the local vibe and immerse yourself in the rich history and intrigue of this far flung dot on the globe, staying in Old Town is your ticket.
On the other hand, if the ultimate Kenya Coast beach holiday is what you’re after — with many of the comforts of home and occasional trips to Old Town — you may want to consider staying in Shela instead.
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 on Lamu
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 Old Town, private hire boat service from Lamu-Manda air strip, or via two walking paths from Old Town.
The main walking route between the two communities traces the Corniche Path heading south out of Old Town along the water.
If you are 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 traversed Lamu from Old Town to Shela.
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.
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, Lamu Island.
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 Old 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?
Turns out, Kiudu (as his friends call him), just wanted to pose in his customary kanga. 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.
Captain Bongo and first mate Salim were keen to tell me all about the enormous Mozambican dhow they sail, which was recently hauled out for a complete refurb.
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 Old 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 Shela 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 Old 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.
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.
Be prepared, use common sense, and travel safe!
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Have You Visited Shela Lamu?
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