Kenya’s north coast is a paradise of many hidden and not-so-hidden travel gems. While some of these like Malindi Marine National Park, the oldest marine park in Africa—and Watamu Beach, are fairly well known and more accessible, Lamu is literally off the beaten path in so many ways. Forget about Mombasa or even Zanzibar, for anyone who’s planning a summer vacation to East Africa’s sea coast, and wants something uniquely magical, Lamu, though little-known, ranks at the top.

Here’s the reason.

THETRAVEL VIDEO OF THE DAY

Lamu looks like a town where time passed by or has just forgotten. There’s not a single automobile on the streets, that, apart from the occasional donkey poop, is surprisingly clean. The streets are quiet. There’s no sound of honking cars. They are also narrow like those of Amsterdam, but not as modern, busy, or noisy. The buildings, most of which are made of coral stones and mangrove timber, compactly line the town’s streets where donkeys can be seen carrying both people and cargo on their uncomplaining backs.

Related: Kenya's South Coast: Less Famous But No Less Beautiful

To first-time travelers, the donkeys, walking in pairs or in a single file—are quite an impressive sight. They are part of what makes Lamu a unique town. The buildings, most of them oblong, feature open but small courtyards or verandahs, where the breeze from the Indian Ocean does a fine job of lessening the humid conditions of the old town. Most of these buildings are two stories high. Only a few go beyond. While Lamu certainly looks laid-back, even nonchalant, there’s a certain vibrancy and rhythm that, although not obvious, is insanely addictive and hypnotic.

There’s a reason why Lamu is an odd duck. The town is the only cultural landscape in Kenya recognized on the UNESCO World Heritage List. A cultural landscape is a geographic area that expresses a long and deep association between people and their natural surroundings. It’s also the oldest town in Kenya of those continuously inhabited. Having been established in the 14th century, the town is a good 700 years old. That alone is reason enough to make it one’s port of call. There’s always something weirdly attractive, if a little mystifying, about standing on the grounds and looking at buildings that hold seven centuries in their white, somber walls.

Most of the imposing structures, however, are from the 17th and 18th centuries. And for Lamu, visiting it has now assumed some sense of urgency. There are developments in infrastructure by the government of Kenya— and other plans in the pipeline—that may soon make the town lose its mystic charm and allure. However, before hopping on a plane, some basic information about Kenya will make a visit more stress-free.

  • Where Is Lamu located? Lamu is on the east coast of the African continent in the country of Kenya. Mombasa, the more famous town, is about 212 miles to the south by car.

Still, the name Lamu itself refers to a group of 65 islands of which the town that also bears its name is the principal one. Yet the town of Lamu encompasses a larger area. Lamu Old Town is part of Lamu Town. While the Old Town is made of beautiful stone houses, the surrounding areas are made of mud brick.

Related: This Is How To Watch The Great Migration On A Budget

What To Do In Kenya’s Lamu Old Town

Of course, just strolling through the narrow, unnamed streets of Lamu Old Town and admiring the architectural treasures that are hundreds of years old would be quite intriguing. The unique designs of the buildings are a fusion of at least five cultures including Swahili, Arab, European, Persian, and Indian influences. The mysterious Egyptian cats that laze about on the town’s streets have long been a source of international fame. The Lamu Fort is just about 80 meters from the town’s jetty— and houses a small but valuable library— with a decent collection of Swahili poetry. Then just about 250 meters away is the Lamu Museum which is also beautifully situated on the waterfront overlooking the Indian Ocean. With one five-dollar ticket, one will visit both the fort and the museum. A lot of the fascinating history of Lamu Old Town, the Swahili culture, and other interesting exhibitions are always on display.

The Shiraa, an Islamic women’s tent-like dress with a wooden frame is usually a huge attraction. More than 100 years ago, before the buibui and the hijab, Islamic women hardly ventured outside their houses. When they did, they would be completely veiled under these beautiful, house-like dresses. After this, one can get on a dhow boat for a 15-minute ride to the quaint, small village of Shela. At Shela, there are about 12 kilometers of white, sparkling sand that a traveler may have for himself as the beach is rarely visited.

One can Snorkel or swim as she admires the many beautiful villas by the beach. From Shela, hop onto another dhow boat to Manda Island, just about five minutes away. Manda Island is a rustic, unspoiled Island, that’s even more laid-back than Lamu and fringed by miles of white, sandy beaches all around. One can then choose to hop from island to island or get back to Lamu Old Town.

Even though Lamu is off the beaten track, it's an East African secret that will effortlessly blow anyone away.