I met a blind man in Matondoni who, 50 years ago, worked on the most majestic dhow on the Swahili coast of East Africa. Long before Tusitiri was refitted as an elegant home, it was a workhorse plying trade routes between Arabia and Mombasa, carrying coffee, spices, and mangrove poles.
Sitting beneath a tamarind tree in his home village on the Kenyan island of Lamu, weaving rope for donkey harnesses from memory, Bwana Mzee could still recall his three-month-long journeys on the stately dhow, sailing north to Oman and Yemen on the Kaskazi trade wind and returning home on the Kusi.
In the late 1980s, a Norwegian family, the Astrups, found Tusitiri's abandoned skeleton on a beach and decided to rebuild it, calling on Bwana Mzee to help put the vessel back together.
Afterward, the accomplished craftsman sailed on the dhow for 22 more years, voyaging as far south as the Quirimbas islands in Mozambique, where he lost his heart and fathered a daughter, Asha, but was never to return.
Today visitors can charter the boat from the Astrups to sail up to Kiwayu, a secluded but mesmerizingly beautiful islet near the Somali border.
But it is more commonly found plying the waters of the Lamu archipelago, a timeless world of reflected sea and sky.
The islands' mix of Arab architecture, Chinese and Indian cultures, and superb artistry (silversmiths and woodworkers abound) has proved irresistible to travelers since hippies hailed Lamu as Africa's Kathmandu in the 1960s.
The archipelago still attracts curious nomads, its inaccessibility being a draw rather than a hindrance.
The three largest islands are the sandy isthmus of Lamu itself, the coralline Manda, and the mysterious Pate, which is only accessible at high tide.
Resolutely traditional and almost entirely Muslim, there is nowhere more authentically Swahili along this stretch of shoreline.
The Tusitiri is a languorous base for exploring Lamu's bustling hamlets and emptier margins. Measuring 65 feet from almond-shaped bow to stern, with a deck polished to a rich patina, it moves with surprising grace and speed; seven sailors are needed to raise anchor and hoist its imposing sails.
I joined the dhow in the village of Shela, one of just four settlements on Lamu and a haven for European royalty, artists, and rock stars.
We sailed past Lamu Old Town, the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, and on to Matondoni, where Tusitiri was built and Bwana Mzee lived in a simple brick house until he passed away in 2019, not long after my visit.
We continued our circumnavigation of the island to anchor at remote Kipungani, a cluster of thatched houses fronted by a deserted beach, where we slept soundly on deck beneath the sparkling equatorial skies.
One afternoon, I took a tender from the dhow to explore the ruins of Takwa, a once-thriving trading town on Manda that was abandoned in the 17th century.
We motored slowly up a narrow creek lined with mangrove forests rich in spiny lobster and shrimp, and when the clear water became too shallow to navigate, we walked, coming eventually to a clearing.
The remains of a grand mosque dominate the site, its outer walls etched with images of sailing dhows and Arabian daggers.
Baobab trees stand sentry over a sacred tomb distinguished by a single soaring column. It is said that Takwa was forsaken when its wells ran dry and its occupants made their way to Lamu to settle in what is now Shela.
Pole, pole (“slowly, slowly”) is one of my favorite Swahili sayings, and time certainly has a more languid dimension here.
Twice a year, villagers visit the pillared tomb at Takwa to pray for rain. Some still see Shela, four centuries after it was founded, as an uppity upstart and rival to Lamu Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Center site since 2001, which lies just two miles away.
They are linked by a coastal path, along which donkeys serve as taxis and pickup trucks carry salmon-colored bricks and lime mortar.
Until recently the only vehicles on Lamu were a Land Rover belonging to the district commissioner, a tractor, and an ambulance.
Today a fleet of boda boda—whiny motorcycle taxis—whiz along its rudimentary backroads and busy promenade, puncturing the Arabian Nights atmosphere of Lamu Old Town.
For more than 50 years, the Peponi Hotel has been part of the fabric of Shela. The handsome seafront house was built in the 1930s for the Kenya Colonial Service district commissioner, a Major Henry Sharp (known as “Sharpie”), and sold in the 1950s to Henri Bernier, a Swiss heir of the Nestlé family.
Bernier, in turn, sold the house in 1967 to Aage Korschen, a Dane, and his German wife, Wera. The couple had lost their farm in the Kenyan Highlands after the country won independence and they decided to leave Africa.
But after setting sail for Europe from Mombasa, they stopped in Lamu. Taken by its remoteness and great beauty, they bought a house and opened the small hotel, then with just four bedrooms.
Peponi, which is still in the same family, has expanded organically over the years to 28 rooms set in whitewashed buildings, arranged protectively around the old house on grounds full of palms.
Early on, the Korschens added the deep, colonnaded veranda overlooking the Lamu Channel, where guests gather to gossip over sundowners.
But the hotel really took off after Aage and Wera's son, Lars, picked up the reins when his father died in 1976. Some of Lars's earliest guests were Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, whom Lars took fishing.
Small and quirky, with none of the usual hotel trappings (there are still no televisions or telephones in the rooms), Peponi attracted worldly novelists and foreign correspondents, big game hunters, and robust conservationists.
Its celebrity status was sealed in the late 1990s when Prince Ernst August of Hanover built a mansion next door and renovated three other Shela houses to rent out through a discreet agent at Hollywood prices.
Soon, stars including Sting, Kate Moss, and Jude Law were hanging out at Peponi, enjoying the anonymity afforded by a low-lit bar on a far-flung African island.
Virtually all visitors to Lamu end up on Peponi's bougainvillea-shaded terrace at some point.
In the early mornings, expats stop for coffee before walking their dogs along the empty eight-mile beach just south of the hotel; around lunchtime, sunbathers clamber up the stairs; and come dusk, young men from Nairobi in pressed linen shirts and kikoi gather for Tusker Lagers.
It also has the best restaurant in town, hosted each evening by Lars's widow, Carol Korschen, or her daughter Elie.
Lamu's tourism is still recovering from a travel ban imposed by the U.K. government following Somali terrorist attacks.
Without Brits, who made up the bulk of Lamu's tourists, its hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, and shops suffered.
Many have reopened since the ban was lifted in 2017, and in more recent years there has been a real sense of purpose and optimism about the place, which I hope will return once travel resumes.
In the labyrinthine lanes rising steeply behind the waterfront in Shela village, amid the mosques and private houses owned by wealthy Europeans, there are art galleries and tiny boutiques selling beads and boho jewelry, kikois, and fabrics.
The finest of these is Aman, owned by the South African designer Sandy Bornman.
Her delicately embroidered clothes, which are run up by local tailors in handloomed fabrics from India, are bought by the screenwriters, poets, architects, stylists, and musicians who blow through Shela.
“I am very happy here,” says Bornman, who visited on vacation more than 20 years ago and never left. “When I arrived as a single mother with two little girls, we were made to feel welcome and safe. The whole village took care of us from the start. The people here are kind, generous, and warm. We stick together but respect our differences. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.”
If Shela displays a curated, contemporary edge, Lamu Old Town has the unvarnished appeal of centuries-old traditions.
Even today sailing dhows are built by hand without drawings or plans; the carved Swahili doors, the kiti cha jeuri chairs introduced in colonial times, and the spindle beds copied from Indian designs are all part and parcel of the cultural swirl of these islands.
Wandering around town one morning with Nassir Omar, a man of Yemeni and Omani origins, I stopped at carpenters' workshops where timeworn chisels and techniques are passed down through generations.
I met Mbarak O. Slim, who makes silver pendants and rings from luminous shards of antique Chinese pottery.
Later, I was introduced to Isaiah Chepyator, an artist who creates colorful fish sculptures from old dhow wood decorated with beach detritus.
Together we sat in the town square and talked about the 21st-century problem of plastic waste, watching feral felines said to be direct descendants of the sacred cats of Egyptian pharaohs.
One day I took a speedboat to Manda Bay. Rustic and romantic, the boutique lodge was built in the 1960s by Italian musician Bruno Brighetti.
Then called the Blue Safari Club, it became known as the ultimate barefoot hideaway, equally popular with glossy Italian actors and intrepid aristocrats, and recorded for posterity by celebrity photographer Slim Aarons.
Brighetti sold the club to Fuzz Dyer and Andy Roberts, sons of prominent white Kenyan families, 18 years ago. The friends had overspent on a fancy deep-sea fishing boat and thought they'd better justify the cost by starting a business.
They started viewing properties in the area, until it dawned on them that Brighetti already had the best location: Ras Kilindini, an iridescent peninsula with a calm swimming beach and no irritating sand flies or recorded cases of malaria. An offer was made, and Manda Bay was born.
Manda has always been a family place. The Dyers' and Roberts' four children were ages 8 and 10 when they all moved in. Caragh Roberts, now 26, remembers her childhood fondly.
“We were never bored. We'd go digging for clams or harvesting oysters and eat them on the beach; we played football and volleyball, with the staff against guests.”
There were some inevitable cutbacks during the tourism ban, but the place is back to looking a lot like its past self: an unapologetically old-school retreat with fishing, sailing, and good times at its heart.
Even today, there's still no glass in the windows of the bandas, which were built with mangrove poles and mats woven from palm leaves. The pure sea-salty breeze is the only air-conditioning needed, and geckos come and go as they please.
The fast boat from Manda Bay to enigmatic Pate Island skims across the glassy blue water at high tide, past fishermen free-diving for lobsters and along the island's mangrove-forested southern coast.
I had heard stories about Pate from Mia Miji, who, with his English wife, Kirsty Tatham Miji, hosts guests on the Tusitiri. Mia was born and raised on Lamu, but his mother's family hailed from this outpost that outsiders seemed to know little about.
The village of Pate, where I landed, was once an important port. Even in its ruined state it resembles Lamu and Shela with its maze of narrow streets.
Pate islanders are mostly subsistence fishermen, and I found them repairing nets and cultivating modest crops of tobacco amid the remnants of once-grand houses and mosques.
The presence of wazungu (white people) is still a novelty, but the locals made me feel welcome and asked a teenager to serve as my guide.
Mohammed appeared to know more about Arsenal and Chelsea than the historic features of his village, but we passed a pleasant hour among the ruins before catching a boda boda to Siyu, riding three-up along a dirt road through coconut plantations, radio blaring.
I was taken to Siyu because the few wazungu who do come to Pate always ask to see its impressive fort, a national monument. Soon I had a second guide, Salim, to escort me around the crumbling tombs.
As it happened, Salim had once worked at an archaeological dig on the island at Shanga. According to local lore, a bedraggled contingent of shipwrecked Chinese sailors stumbled onto Pate in the 15th century and, having proved their worth by dispatching a python, were permitted to settle and marry.
The name Shanga, it is said, derives from Shanghai. For centuries, speculation swirled that descendants of the Chinese sailors still lived on Pate, a notion encouraged by the high cheekbones and other Asiatic features of some of the islanders.
In 2002, a DNA test conducted on a family in Siyu provided proof of Chinese ancestry—and the myth became fact.
I thanked Salim for his time and left Siyu, hurtling through the coconut groves, and the centuries, to a waiting speedboat.
At Manda Bay, I walked along the beach to the tip of Ras Kilindini. In the distance, I could make out the cranes of dredgers working on a vast new port that will one day rival Mombasa's.
As in so many other places, change is on its way to these isolated islands. But that night, life continued at Manda Bay as it has for 50 years, with a barefoot supper served on a starlit beach and the sound of ice cubes and laughter at the bar.
This will always be a place for dreaming, where herds of wild buffalo swim across from the Kenya mainland to feed near the ruins of a ninth-century Arabic town and best friends take risks to raise their children on a tiny island in the great swell of the Indian Ocean.