Lamu, known as the Kathmandu of Africa, dates to at least the 14th century, though it may be older. Through the centuries, the island and the surrounding archipelago shifted from Portuguese to Omani and finally to British rule before Kenya gained independence in the early 1960s. It was during the Omani period in the 19th century that the island flourished as a trading center for ivory, mangrove poles, and -- after the trade was banned further south -- slaves from the interior bound for the Middle East. The population boomed, and the island became a center for Swahili and Arab art and learning unrivaled on the African coast.
Lamu town today is small -- it takes just 40 minutes to walk from one end to the other -- but that Golden Age remains very much in evidence. The island has changed little over the centuries, and few places cast as lasting a spell.