Kenya on the world’s leisure map
Swimming with dolphins in Lamu
Kenya Keeps it wild and wonderful
Aaaaaah! So refreshing
Lullaby to Lamu
Kenya's secret paradise island
The sands of effortless time
A land you'll never forget
Kizingo - A star is born
Good clean fun…
Kizingo deserves to succeed
Sailing for your supper
Relaxed and lovely island
Little is known about the one kilometre-long and 30 metres wide paradise that keeps royals, renowned actors and actresses periodically jetting into Kenya for holidays.
Yet much can be said about Kenya’s all-inclusive, exclusive private island resorts that are only accessible by boat or ferry.
Kizingo resort owner on the same island, is a happy woman, delighted to own a piece of jewel in Lamu. “We are very happy in Lamu,” says the owner. “It is a small island with hardly any crime where the people are gentle and welcoming to visitors.”
It is the personalised service in these service establishments that makes the island resorts unmatched. And the owners want to keep them that way. “We are very happy to stay small and personal,” says the Kizingo resort owner.
“Many tour operators book clients to Zanzibar or Seychelles because, according to them, the Kenyan coast doesn’t have many luxury hotels and they complain that the beaches are crowded with beach boys.
"Realising Lamu’s exclusivity, many have shifted a lot of business from foreign clientele to Lamu, which is still basically an undisturbed destination.”
“There are few tourists, no cars, no traffic, only boats and donkeys. In addition, you get the cultural element. Staying in a beautiful island with nothing around it, can get boring while in Lamu, you have so many options: cultural visits, fishing, water sports, or you can simply lie back and relax if you wish.”
We stayed at a laid-back beach paradise called Kizingo. The family who run it monitor the pods of dolphins that frequent the channel and take guests out in the hope of seeing them. We were extremely lucky, not just seeing them but spending 45 minutes swimming with them. An unforgettable wildlife encounter.
"... At the other end of the island, things were very much the same as they had been when I'd last visited. Here Mary-Jo Van Aardt and her family have established a haven for worn-out visitors who, like me, have forgotten to pack anything other than walking boots and flip-flops.
Kizingo is a little hamlet of bandas strung out along the beach. All built of local materials, with no glass in the windows and no doors. They are light, airy and naturally cooled by the breeze off the sea. Crabs scuttle along the beach, seabirds dive for fish, fishermen wave from their dhows.
Over dinner (the ingredients for which were supplied by the local fishermen and Kizingo's vegetable garden) Mary-Jo's husband, Louis, told me about the coastal bottle-nose dolphins that are regularly seen just beyond the island's tip.
Their daughter Emily took Ludo and me to look for them the following morning. Soon after setting off we spotted something at the surface; not dolphins but two green turtles. These lay their eggs on the beach just beyond Kizingo and Mary-Jo's family plays an active part in the local turtle conservation project. Soon afterwards I saw four dorsal fins break the surface of the sea. We scrambled for our fins and masks and were rewarded with a brief but exhilarating view of the dolphins diving. With a casual flick of their tails, they disappeared into the blue.
"They were hunting, I think," said Emily. "Sometimes they stick around for a bit, but they seemed to be on a mission."
Back in the boat we pressed on, then just a few minutes later Emily spotted another group of six dolphins swimming in tight formation right at the surface. We slipped back into the sea and swam gently away from the boat. As we floated, the dolphins swam around us, diving and gliding, clicking and squeaking.
Emily dived down and they swam alongside her and then headed back up as if to encourage the rest of us to follow them too. We needed no second invitation. Here we were, in the open ocean, with a wild pod of dolphins that appeared to find us amusing enough company to want to stay around and play."
By Kate Humble
This review was published in The Graduate in January 2011. It not only provides you with information on Kizingo itself, but also gives you a comprehensive view of Lamu Island, its culture and historic significance. Please click to view the pdf of the review.
"There's a few things Kizingo don't do: firstly, shoes are right out - carpeted with fine white sand, there's simply no need for them, so from the peaceful wooden banda's where you sleep, to the mess banda where you set up residence for the evening, you simply leave your footwear behind and assume the role of Captain Casual; and secondly, doors - so remote and secure is the resort, the banda's just don't need them. So, rather than having a clunky front door with foolish things like keys, privacy is gained by lowering a rolled reed blind..."
"...a mere 8 banda's make up the resort, ensuring the buzz at the bar remains intimate and, with scant few other people around, guaranteeing a prime spot on the sprawling beach-front. Peace and tranquility rule here, so those looking for clubbing and excess, stick with Ibiza.
Of course, that's not to say that Kizingo doesn't offer more than just the chance to catch your breath and chill out. No, if you're still up for adventure, there's a wealth of activities available too, including snorkeling, body boarding, boat trips and, depending on the time of year, the chance to go turtle watching or swim with dolphins. So, in a nutshell, you can do as much or as little as you like at this 'no news, no shoes' haven."
"Just when you think you have been to the edge and back... we just discovered the ultimate 'no news, no shoes' beach resort, tucked away in a wonderful secluded and tranquil escape from the modern world. Aaaaah! So refreshing as the wind swiftly wafts past...."
The tiny airstrip that serves the Kenyan island of Lamu was basking in blissful heat. Even the white cat snoozing on the baggage desk was too lazy to budge as tourist suitcases were dumped down within a whisker of it. Half an hour later, we were decanted on to an apparently deserted Robinson Crusoe beach where the world's problems faded into nothingness.
About one-and-a-half hours from Nairobi, I had landed with my daughter and her husband in a world populated by see-through ghost crabs, birds, lounging lizards and turtles, all ruled by some dramatic tides. Most Europeans who come to Lamu, an old slave-trading outpost settled by Omani Arabs as early as the Middle Ages, gravitate towards the famous Peponi Hotel in Shela village. But we decided to head for the other end of the island and stay at the Kizingo. It is hard to imagine a better choice.
A collection of roomy individual bandas surrounding a dining room powered by solar energy and cooled by the ever-present trade winds, it is run by an endearingly eccentric family who used to own a coffee plantation in pre-Mugabe Zimbabwe. Here, the rule is complete informality with a reassuring touch of colonial routine. Everyone goes barefoot, most visitors end up wearing a tribal wrap and T-shirt, even at dinner, and yet bang on the dot of 4pm, an immaculately dressed staff member in starched white shirt and shorts arrives at each verandah with a thermos full of tea. Drinks are at 7pm followed by the most delicious dinner. Usually this is fish straight out of the sea, but the brilliant cook Kanchura also does the cleverest things with avocado, eggplant and local spices.
No television, no telephone, no contact with anything but the stars above, which in the complete darkness are so bright I began to wish I'd packed an astronomy handbook. If this is a culture shock for the weary traveller, the trip we made into town the next day was even more so.
We set out by boat once more - the only way to travel, as there are no cars, apart from the local ambulance, and no roads on the island - past the rickety villages where barefoot craftsmen were building boats from mangrove and mahogany, and finally jostled our way between canoes, fishing boats, dhows, even donkeys being washed down after a morning's labour, to tie up at the buzzing Lamu waterfront. For the most part, the town, with its tiny population of 10,000, is Muslim, but it has had many influences in its time: Portuguese, Turkish, European, even Chinese. Life here is timeless and I can't tell you how good that is for the soul. The streets are just wide enough to let two laden donkeys pass; in the central square, old men in skullcaps sit under jacaranda trees leaning on sticks and put the world to rights. The market stalls, the throbbing heat, the smells, the spices, the silver merchants, the colourful bales of cloth, the veiled women, the beautiful cats with obvious Egyptian genes. Priorities have scarcely changed - except that now everyone from the boatman to the stallholder carries a mobile phone in a pouch around their neck and every other shop has a top-up facility. We went to the Peponi for lunch and sampled the vodka-based house cocktail Old Pal, ate a delicious prawn curry, swam in the pool and toured Shela with its beautifully restored houses and Westernised boutiques.
The next day, we decided to take the boat in the opposite direction to swim with dolphins. The waters are much more choppy because it faces the open sea. High waves don't bother the dolphins, but it takes some nerve for the amateur swimmer to jump into dark water with no land in sight, even to play with creatures as reputedly friendly as the bottle nose. Young and old crowded round the boat, inviting us to swim. But the minute you got to their habitat they dived down deep to hunt for squid, only to taunt the land-lubbery humans who had invaded their space by surfacing 50 yards away where we couldn't possibly catch up with them. And I swear to you, they were laughing at us. The dolphins finally led us in the direction of a tiny coral atoll covered in thousands of nesting noddies and terns who, spooked by our arrival, suddenly took flight, darkening the mid-day sky. We snorkelled round the coral beneath the screeching cloud of birds and swam to shore to dry off in the sun amid the pungent smell of guano. This was the world as it was before humans took it over. Alive with birds, crabs and a few tasty snapper left behind in the rockpools.
And so the lazy week went on. It was a huge adventure to visit the abandoned city of Takwa, where you have to get in and out at high tide or be stranded in the mud among the colonies of mosquitoes and black crabs living in the mangrove swamps. Here our guide was a wonderfully erudite chap called Mozambo who, speaking the beautiful Edwardian English taught by mission schools, proudly showed us the famous ruined Friday mosque surrounded by huge 500-year-old baobab trees. Picking up one of the baobab fruit, he encouraged us to chew a seed pod which burst in the mouth like lemon sherbet.
Though the temperature was still high, Mozambo also insisted we climb the steep sand dunes to view the other side of the island. Suddenly it was obvious why the city had been built here. Safe from invaders on the ocean side due to a coral reef which would shatter any boat, it could also easily defend the narrow creek approach by which we had arrived, leaving it practically unassailable. With these natural defences, the inhabitants flourished until their two freshwater wells became brackish, then sometime in the 18th century they crossed the creek to Shela.
There was the day we lunched on golden snapper caught less than half an hour before on Pete's pontoon in the middle of the creek. There was the morning the waters calmed like a lagoon and we went waterskiing, and the time we visited the local school and marvelled at the good behaviour of the children in the poorest of villages. After every outing, we returned to our deserted part of the island before the light dimmed - anything later is frowned on by locals who live strictly by the sun.
The back-to-nature formula proved so restorative that, by the end of the week, I was bounding up the dunes which had been so hard going on our arrival and could hardly bear to tear myself away.
Was there ever a more exotic landfall than Lamu? It lies off the northern coast of Kenya, two degrees south of the equator and 500 years from the rest of the world. Even its airstrip is on Manda, a boat ride away, adding to the heady sense of apartness; and when you walk out along the rickety jetty to be transported by dhow across the channel, the feeling of stepping back in time is complete.
A watch is the last thing you’ll need on Lamu. Time here is measured not by the tyranny of clocks but by sun and tides, by the phases of the moon and the quavering voice of the muezzin ringing out from the pepper-pot minaret of the Friday Mosque.
Day begins at saa moja, the first hour of daylight, when the fishing dhows hoist their shark-fin sails and head out through the gap in the reefs that leads to the open sea, and ends with their return at dusk, laden with sailfish, snapper and lobster. In between times, if you feel energetic, you could stroll down the beach.
It runs unbroken for eight miles past sand hills and palm trees, its tide lines littered with nothing but cowries and sand dollars and the shells of ghost crabs. But such is the overwhelming mood of indolence that you are far more likely to kick back on a swing bed with a glass of fresh lime juice and wait for the urge to fade.
Lamu is Kenya’s oldest living town, a Unesco World Heritage Site older than Islam. In its heyday it was one of the great trading posts of the Indian Ocean, a magnet for the ocean-going dhows of Arabia that would arrive every winter, running before the southbound monsoon, laden with cargoes of dates and carpets and brass-bound chests.
There they would wait until March, when the northbound kusi would set in, blowing them home with all the plunder of Africa – slaves and concubines, ivory, rhino horn, myrrh and turtle shells.
The glory days are long past. The dhow trade ended in the 1970s and Lamu sank into genteel decay until tourism prodded it back to life. The island has always attracted more than its share of drifters and dropouts, idealists and romantics seeking a refuge from the madness of the outside world, hence its raffish reputation.
Even so, it’s hard to see why Lamu – a traffic-free mixture of Kathmandu street cred and St Trop glamour – should have evolved from a 1960s hippie hangout to a must-see bolt hole for the footloose rich. After all, this is still a devoutly Muslim island with a dress code that requires decorum and 30 mosques calling the faithful to prayer five times a day. Its young men may wear Man United T-shirts, but women remain shrouded in black buibuis that reveal no more than an flash of almond eyes.
Shela itself is a surprising choice for the A list. Its shoulder-wide alleys are scattered with donkey droppings, but that hasn’t stopped rich Brits and others from snapping up its crumbling coral houses. Princess Caroline of Monaco and her third husband, Prince Ernst August of Hanover, own three villas and a three-storey beach house here.
Curry is also on the menu at Kizingo, a few miles down the coast at the other end of the island. To get there, I went by speedboat, thumping down the mangrove channel between Lamu and the mainland. The place is the dream-come-true of Mary Jo and Louis Van Aardt, a Kenyan-born coffee-farming couple.
Four years ago they leased a slice of beachfront land from the local chief and, using only local materials (mangrove poles and makuti thatch), built the most laid-back lodge on the island. Here I met Dion, the Van Aardts’ son, mixing sting ray cocktails at the bar before Sunday lunch. “It’s curry today,” he said. “We have curry every Sunday to remind us it’s the weekend – otherwise we tend to lose track of time.”
But be warned. Kizingo’s insidious charm is addictive. A few days here, exploring the sand hills or perfecting the art of snoozing in a hammock, and you could end up beached on Lamu for good.
It is hard, very hard, to escape from the hawkers and the "you want company" men and women who cruise Kenya's beach resorts. Or so I thought until I came across Kizingo, a proper no-news, no-shoes lodge on a deserted eight-mile strand of the island of Lamu.
Lamu itself is hardly a secret. Prince Ernst of Hanover and Princess Caroline of Monaco spend part of the winter in fashionable Shela, where Europeans are busy restoring the old Arab houses bought for a song from locals. And the lovely Peponi Hotel cossets minor royals, film stars and those who like to wear a linen jacket to dinner.
Some Shela residents bravely tackle the three-hour walk along the beach to Kizingo, but after arriving hot, red and weary, they usually vow never to do it again. That is just how we regular guests like it. Kizingo ticks all the boxes for a holiday hideaway: there are only seven bandas (simple palm-thatched cottages with walls of woven Pandanus), set in dunes just yards from the sea; it has a convivial bar and restaurant; and the hosts, Louis and Mary Jo van Aardt, have that rare ability to make visitors feel they are part of the family.
Guests wake each morning to see dhows sailing by, their shark's fin sails fat with wind. The beds are king-sized and romantic, draped with mosquito netting, and there are shady verandas to while away the hot afternoons.
In the three years since it has opened, word about Kizingo has quietly spread, attracting like-minded guests: people who enjoy good company, hate piped music and contrived entertainment, and whose idea of holiday bliss is to lie in a hammock reading a good book.
That is not to say there are no adventures to be had, effortlessly organised by the van Aardts. Mary Jo is on a mission to improve the schooling and water supply in the district, and only needs a glimmer of interest from the guests before they are organised on a trip to the mainland to see the work of the Kipungani Schools Trust.
She hires rickety old bikes from the locals for guests to pedal erratically through the cotton and maize fields, down sandy lanes shaded by cashew, mango and baobab trees. It is a rare opportunity to see a village in Kenya. There is the chance to drink honey beer with a farmer and his wife, chat to fellow cyclists on their way to market, and visit a school built and staffed with money donated by former guests.
Louis leads adventures of the watery kind: north to fly-camp on remote islets and explore the ruins of Pate, once an important Arab trading port; south to snorkel on a reef that is alive with fish and, between November and April, dolphin. There is something life-enhancing about plunging into the clear blue sea after a pod of dolphins, watching them duck and dive, spiral and sprint, and flip along on their backs as if to say: "Hello, look how clever I am."
They come close, but never too close, and there is constant chatter, clicking and squeaking. They are probably saying how slow and useless we are at swimming, even with those big flippers.
Apart from taking a couple of planes and a speedboat to get to Kizingo, guests can feel good about leaving only a small footprint. The lodge is built on land rented from Kipungani village, the power is solar, and shower water is recycled to grow plants and stabilise the dunes. It provides work for villagers, buys fish and vegetables from local farmers, and supports two island schools and other community projects.
But Kizingo's enduring appeal is not its eco-credentials, but the way it encourages guests to relax and slough off the trappings of the West as the days go by. Men swap linen trousers for Beckham-style kikoi skirts and the women abandon the make-up box and the hairdryer.
Around the dinner table, set on the sand beneath a zillion stars, the only sounds are the lapping of the sea and happy, carefree laughter as Mary Jo recounts another of her endless stock of shaggy-dog stories about the family's adventures in Africa. At times like this, the stresses of 21st-century life seem a very long way away.
The island of Lamu remains a relatively undiscovered gem. It may only be about an hour's flight north east from Nairobi, but it feels as if you have travelled back in time. One of the ten things you must do in Kenya - swim with wild dolphins at Kizingo and enjoy this wonderful, unforgettable experience.
There are several top-quality beach hideaways in this largely untouched archipelago but Kizingo took my breath away, and takes castaway luxury to a new level. It consists of just a few bandas hiding in the dunes. The atmosphere is religiously laid back, though snorkelling, swimming with dolphins and body surfing are on offer, plus turtle watching from October to June. Created in partnership with the local village and in harmony with the environment this is a world-class retreat in every way.
Good clean fun - how to have a fantastic holiday without destroying the environment [The Sunday Times, 16 January 2005]
If you weren't feeling so utterly lazy, swinging in a hammock and staring out at the rolling surf, you'd probably give yourself a pat on the back for discovering Kizingo, a lonely new barefoot-luxury lodge hidden in the sand dunes at the far end of nine miles of beach at the tip of Kenya's Lamu island. Most guests are here to relax after the relative bustle of a safari, but a week here would unwind any stress case.
Good for the planet: the local villagers specifically asked Mary Jo and Louis van Aardt to open Kizingo, because they felt they could be trusted to do it right. The airy banda lodges were all built by the villagers themselves, solar power provides the electricity and all your used water is collected and used to cultivate vegetation that protects the fragile dunes.
Kizingo deserves to succeed; it is a perfect fusion of eco-lodge (solar power, water recycling, local market-gardening and education projects) with the level of comfort that well-heeled guests expect even in a 'no-news, no-shoes' kind of place.
Kizingo is an eco-lodge two degrees above the equator on the Kenyan island of Lamu. Owned by Louis and Mary Jo van Aardt, Kizingo juts out to the point at which the creek that separates Lamu from the Kenyan mainland meets the Indian Ocean. It's a group of six bandas - or thatched cottages - constructed from mangrove poles and straw to a surprising degree of luxury. All the bandas have ocean views, eco-loos and solar panels for hot water and lighting, but if you are a bit squeamish, it may not be the place for you. Kizingo's aversion to mod cons, such as air-conditioning, means the bandas have no windows or doors. It also means you may get the odd gecko running about. But if you are looking for a real desert island experience, it's an amazing place.
Though it has been open less than a year, Mary Jo and Louis have that rare ability to make you feel as though you are one of the family and their most revered guest at the same time. The couple have also helped build a village school for the islanders and established a sanctuary for the turtles that nest of their miles of sandy beaches. Life at Kizingo quickly settles into a routine. The staff do personal wake-up calls and guests usually follow breakfast with some sort of group activity - such as taking a tour of Lamu Town, sailing a dhow on the creek, beach or line-fishing and swimming with dolphins.
It's my second day at Kizingo, and a group of us has gone out with Louis to snorkel around the reef. Two wild pods of dolphins hang out in the surrounding waters, so we may get to swim with them. But there's no guarantee that we'll get a sighting because Louis refuses to resort to tricks such as feeding them. 'They have to remain wild, or what would happen if we left?' he reasons. On our way to the reef, dorsal fins appear on the watery horizon. In a bid to catch up with them, we dive into the sea, but our friends disappear again before we can reach them. This happens three more times, the dolphins obviously enjoying the tease. Giving up, we make for the reef, diving into underwater tunnels and exploring other sea life when the dolphin pod appears before us. I follow a pair, trying to keep pace, but they pull a lightning-quick back flip and shoot of in the other direction. They seem to be smiling, as if to say: 'You can't keep up, but we'll come and say hello anyway.' Back on the boat, we swap our dolphin tales. Some of us even have tears in our eyes.
Lamu is a tiny island filled with hot, hot days, perfect sea breezes and empty white-sand beaches. It has crumbling Arabic houses, narrow twisting streets, hectic marketplaces and stunning sunsets. For total isolation try Kizingo which is right at the top of the island offering barefoot luxury. The six thatched bandas are made of local materials by craftsmen in Kipungani village. The resort is a perfect departure point for swimming with dolphins, in an empty stretch of open sea without any hint of the fairground theme that can mar some dolphin 'attractions'. Take a sunset sailing trip on a traditional dhow boat or try kayaking, deep-sea fishing, windsurfing and snorkelling.