Shela – The Other Side of Lamu

Shela dominates the southeast corner of Lamu Island and might just be the Kenya Coast beach destination of your dreams.

For those planning a visit to UNESCO World Heritage designated Lamu Island, Shela receives comparatively little attention. Which seems to suit this sleepy hamlet fringed with white sands and an artsy vibe all its own.

dhow in Shela Lamu
Dhow at low tide in Shela, Lamu Island, Kenya.
Shela Lamu alleyways

Shela Village vs. Lamu Town

While exploring the narrow and twisting alleyways of Lamu Town was great fun, I also enjoyed venturing to other parts of Lamu Island over my week-long stay.

Two things that historic and atmospheric Lamu Town lacks are waterfront restaurants and a beach — Shela Village, on the other hand, has such things.

Just two miles separate Lamu and Shela, but in many ways, the two communities feel a world 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 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.

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.

Lamu Island, Kenya, showing Lamu Town and Shela on the eastern shore. Source:
road to Shela
Cement and thatch villa on the seafront path back to Lamu.
The inland “highway” between Lamu Town and Shela Village.

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 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.

woman walking with umbrella Shela Lamu

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.

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!

Stop Over Restaurant Shela Lamu

The view from my table at Stopover Restaurant in Shela.

Stop Over Restaurant Shela Lamu

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.

Stop Over Restaurant Shela Lamu

Shela harbor is a great place on any given day to watch fishing dhows arrive and depart from the shore.

Shela Lamu Island
Painted signpost for Willy Art, Shela, Kenya.

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.

mules in an alley
Rush hour in Shela.

Walking Shela Beach at midday. Not a lot happening in these parts right now, but Shela’s pretty sleepy any time of day.

Shela Lamu dhow water
Manda Island, as viewed from Shela.

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.

Shela Lamu Kenya dhow on beach
ice coffee

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.

boat on water
Lamu “oil tanker” heading across the strait to Manda island.
Following the seafront path back to Lamu Town.

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.

2 thoughts on “Shela – The Other Side of Lamu”

  1. I would love to hear more about Manda Island, next to Lamu

  2. Shirley Northcraft

    The orange cat is the only pet I have seen in your photos. Is it unusual to own a pet in Kenya?


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