In Kenya, Seeing the Sites by Dhow

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There’s just something about a lager at sunset.

As we headed toward Pate Island by dhow, the traditional sailboat that is ubiquitous up and down the East African coast, the captain popped open my Tusker, a Kenyan beer, and passed around beef and vegetarian samosas. I settled back on large overstuffed white cushions, munched on the savory treats and reflected that life was always better with a sundowner.

Just about a half hour earlier at Manda Bay, the posh rustic resort on Manda Island where we were staying, I had donned the colorful plaid kikoy wrap I had bought the day before and my partner put on his swim trunks so we could wade out into the Indian Ocean and climb aboard the dhow, which comfortably carried the captain, his mate and the two of us.

Dhows have sailed the Indian Ocean for thousands of years, their triangular sails creating distinctive silhouettes. Made of woods such as teak and mahogany, the vessels vary in size from small fishing boats to spacious versions more than 100 feet long.

As for Manda Bay, the Italian musician Bruno Brighetti originally opened it in the 1960s as the Blue Safari Club. It was sold to Kenyans more than two decades ago. Now its thatched roof bungalows, with wooden bed swings on the porches, line a vast, private sandy beach (beachside rooms are $540 a night for single occupancy).

It takes about an hour to fly from Nairobi to the tiny Manda Island airport, then porters carry your bags out to the dock for a 30-minute boat ride to the resort on the island’s northern shore. Everyone from wealthy South African tech executives to members of the British aristocracy have stayed here over the years. (Lady Viola Grosvenor, a sister of the Duke of Westminster — who owns a good portion of London’s Mayfair neighborhood — married the son of the Kenyan owners in 2022, and part of their wedding celebrations were held at Manda Bay).

Mention a trip to Kenya and most people probably think “safari.” But staying at Manda Bay has a whole different vibe. In addition to dhow cruises around the mangrove-studded archipelago — which includes Manda Island, Lamu Island, Pate Island and the smaller islands of Kiwayu and Manda Toto — there are relaxed days by the pool; snorkeling on a nearby reef; day trips to Lamu Town and the village of Shela, both on Lamu Island; sailboats and kayaks to borrow; and offers of inshore and deep-sea fishing expeditions.

Aside from the fishing, we had just about done everything else during our week here when we decided to take a sunset cruise. During it, we asked to visit Pate Island, home to the ruins of the village of Shanga, which archaeologists say was first established in the eighth century.

Our boat captain explained that the island is most accessible at high tide, which we would miss. Plus, by the time we arrived, the sun would have set, and finding the village in the dark would be very difficult.

But as we sailed near, he pointed out some features and regaled us with tales about the island. One was the story of a Chinese ship, filled with goods including porcelain, that was wrecked off the coast of Pate in the 1400s. Descendants of the survivors are said to still inhabit parts of the island, and the silversmiths in Lamu Town insist that the porcelain set into their necklaces and earrings are fragments that still wash ashore today.

As we watched the pinks and oranges of sunset dance across the shifting cerulean blue sky, we admitted we weren’t heartbroken to miss the Shanga site because we already had seen some ruins the previous evening.

On the way to a hilltop sundowner on the resort’s property, our guide, a gap year student whose paternal great-grandfather was the renowned Kenyan paleontologist Louis Leakey, had taken us past the remains of Manda Town, a settlement said to have been founded in the ninth century. (There are historic ruins up and down this Swahili coast archipelago, including what remains of the village of Takwa, on the island’s southern side.)

Manda Town now is filled with the remains of stone and lime-mortar buildings, including a mosque’s ornate mihrab, the wall niche that indicates the direction of Mecca. In the 1960s, archaeologists determined that some of the structures included bricks likely brought to the area as ballast in ships from Oman.

Walking around the ruins covered in overgrown prickly vegetation, not far from what our guide said was a 1,000-year-old baobab tree, I imagined what this town had been like at its peak in the 13th century, when about 3,500 people are believed to have lived there.

This stay at Manda Bay was my third trip to the archipelago — and my second time traversing its waters by dhow. On my first visit here, in 2019, I stayed at the Italian-owned Majlis Resort, a property on Manda Island designed in the Swahili architectural vernacular and featuring intricately carved wooden doors and beds (a junior suite starts around $530 a night, depending on the season).

I had taken a day cruise on the hotel’s dhow and had been fascinated to watch the junior captain climbing onto a wooden part of the mast to hoist the sail, which had a woman’s portrait painted on one side, and watched as it unfurled and instantly caught a gust of wind. As I lounged at the boat’s bow — this one had red pillows — we passed jovial fishermen on brightly painted boats who showed off their catch.

After we had rounded the southernmost tip of Lamu Island, we stopped by a secluded beach where I snorkeled, and then had a seafood lunch on a beach dotted with a handful of luxury vacation villas. Since the area first became popular with the expat crowd in the 1960s, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Sting, the actor Dominic West, the Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn and the makeup entrepreneur Charlotte Tilbury all have owned or rented properties on the island.

After lunch, we spent the afternoon sailing around the rest of the island, passing the small, serene fishing village of Matondoni, which is known as a center of dhow construction and where both of the dhows I have been on were crafted. Soon enough, as we got near Lamu Town, our tranquillity was interrupted by the hustle and bustle of boats dropping off supplies and passengers at the docks and local children jumping in the water for a late afternoon dip.

The day before, the hotel had arranged a guide for my walking tour of Lamu Town. This community of about 15,000 is the best maintained of the Swahili towns along the East African coast, and includes an Old Town that is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

After visiting Lamu Museum and the Donkey Sanctuary (which cares for donkeys that are ill or too old to work), we headed into the maze of alleyways lined with shops selling goods from locally made fabrics to kiti cha jeuri chairs, wooden seats accented with panels of woven string. We ended our tour in the small market square where fruit and vegetable sellers hawked fresh mangos and avocados while local men in bright sarongs and kufi caps caught up on the day’s gossip.

Shela, a small village on Lamu, is less hectic than Lamu Town and has a more cleaned up feel, with a number of small art galleries, a few upscale boutiques like Aman, which sells hand loomed cotton clothing at European prices, and private homes owned by wealthy Kenyans and foreigners that have been lovingly — and expensively — renovated.

It is also home to the storied Peponi Hotel. Opened in the late 1960s by Wera and Aage Korschen, over the decades that hotel has gained something of a bohemian reputation and its cocktail hour is the place to see and be seen. (After my dhow excursion, I enjoyed a cocktail named dawaSwahili for medicine — made with vodka, honey and lime.) Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall visited in the 1970s and since then Kate Moss, Sienna Miller and the Obamas have been among those who popped by for a visit.

On New Year’s Day every year, the hotel hosts a dhow race that is a social highlight for both holidaymakers and locals. Our dhow captain on my most recent sail told us he came in third among the 11 locally made boats.

We missed the race though, as we were too busy lazily lounging poolside in wooden swings, watching the world go by.

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