“Like most interesting things that happen in life, it was quite by chance that I first came to Lamu. It was 20 years ago and I had no idea where I was going, but my friend had said the Kenyan island was the most beautiful and romantic place he had ever been. As we walked in from the plane we were greeted by a Masai warrior in full regalia. “Welcome to paradise, Sir,” he said.
Lamu gets called the Venice of Africa, as there are no cars; the only modes of transport are walking, sailing or taking a speedboat. It’s a very laidback place. I can sit at the Peponi Hotel – arguably the best hotel on the east coast of Africa – with a Tosca beer and instantly feel relaxed.
On Saturday I do a session with my fitness trainer first thing, then Captain Hassan, our boat captain, comes for a chat and to see if we want to head out on the dhow we rent from him. He’s a great raconteur and a guide to visiting artists. Twenty years ago, he would take my teenage kids to and from beach parties all night; now my children come to stay here with my grandchildren.
I’m always in Lamu with other people; if not my family, then artists or friends. Our place is an 18th-century Gujarati townhouse that my family has lived in for two decades. It’s in the World Heritage site of Lamu Old Town, which really is like a place that time has left behind, with narrow little streets and ancient, crumbly buildings. It’s like entering medieval times – but with cellphones.
We walk into town for breakfast – either at Lamu House, a recently built boutique hotel done up in Swahili style, or a place called Whispers Coffee Shop adjoining a wonderful shop, Gallery Baraka, that’s full of things from all over Africa. You can ask for anything you want: an egg with soldiers, or a Swahili breakfast of chai tea and mahamri, a deep-fried dough bun that’s light like a croissant.
We’ll read the papers before going to the market in town. The fish is so fresh; you can see the boats coming in. The main street is lined with shops, such as Slim Silversmith, whose owner made rings for my children. I also like Fish Recycled Arts & Crafts, owned by local artist Isaiah Chepyator. He has a good eye for antiquities and authentic, ethnic African objects – I recently bought a 100-year-old tribal carved wooden bowl from him.
Later we’ll head off by boat to swim at Diamond Beach; the water is so blue. It’s a unique sensual experience; there are days when everything – the air, the water, even your skin – feels like velvet. We stay until the sun goes down and they serve pizza on the beach, before going home by boat, stopping off at the Floating Bar, which is basically lashed-together oil barrels. There’s lots of dancing, mostly to Kenyan pop, which can be very good.
On Sunday we might go for breakfast at Seafront, a café at the harbour that serves Swahili dishes. Afterwards, I’ll go to our studio, which is in an old factory, or I visit the orphanage. It has about 300 children who are well looked after. They have an art programme and some of our artists go to teach the kids and I take them materials.
One constant on Sunday is lunch at Peponi Hotel. It has a wonderful menu – local, French, Italian, Indian – and superb wines. We often stay all afternoon, then go to the beach below. If we have guests, we’ll ask Hassan to take us on a dhow sunset cruise through the beautiful mangrove channels. It’s the perfect end to our stay.”