Our first leg was by overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa, the largest city on the 300-mile-long coast and our introduction to Swahili culture - the result of the melding of Africans with Muslim traders who came from the Arabian Peninsula and Persia beginning in the eighth century.
After a brief exploration of Mombasa, we headed to Malindi, two hours north by matatu. Matatus are cheap, taxi-style vans (the fare was 200 Kenyan shillings, about $3, the same price as the International Herald Tribune), designed for 16 passengers but often stuffed with many more, driven kamikaze-style on Kenya's cratered roads, usually spewing ear-splitting music.
Malindi is a market and tourist town with beautiful beaches that is a prime getaway for Italian vacationers. Kenyans invariably greeted us with "Ciao," figuring if you're mzungu - white - you must be Italian.
Despite the resort-y feel of the town, we found it genuine and interesting. We stayed at a guesthouse near the beach, away from the tourist area. One highlight was a visit to the nearby Gede ruins, remnants of a 13th-century Swahili trading community that represents one of the coast's most famous historical sites.
After two days in Malindi, we arose early one morning to catch a 30-seat minibus (motto: "Others Run. We Fly") to Lamu. The four-hour ride registered 6.0 on the Richter scale of spinal quakes, through coastal forest and jungle punctuated by small villages, where peddlers selling food and small goods pressed against our windows.
Without warning, the bus came to an abrupt halt. Off, they told us. We had reached the village of Mokowe on the ocean channel, and our new best friends were the hustlers steering us to the "fast" and "slow" boats to Lamu.
We chose the cheaper version, an ancient launch with a short canvas roof. When I thought it was full, more passengers were loaded - one with a squawking chicken - followed by crates of pineapples and bananas. Power was supplied by an engine that appeared to have been stolen from a lawn mower, and the captain steered the rudder with a bare foot. Everyone smiled for the 30-minute cruise. I loved it.
More touts greeted us at the Lamu dock, offering guesthouses and tours. But we had reserved rooms at Casuarina Rest House, not far from the main jetty. My wife, Margy, and I were lucky enough to land in the top-floor balcony double, which our guidebook called "romantic as all hell, even if the shower is virtually outdoors."
Casuarina is next to one of the 32 mosques in Lamu, where 80 percent of the 14,000 residents are Muslim. The muezzin's call to prayer began at 4 a.m., continued at 5 a.m., and, because it was Ramadan, resumed for the evening sermons as well. The Muslim holiday also meant that many restaurants were shuttered during the day, reopening when fasting ended after sundown.
Lamu is actually an archipelago consisting of six main islands and many smaller ones. The main island is dominated by Lamu old town, with its twisting dirt streets, buildings of coral bound by sand and lime, and carved wooden doorways, and Shela, an upscale beach community with pricey hotels and precious little charm.
The island is also a donkey sanctuary - more than 3,000 of the beasts are used for transportation and for carrying everything from produce to building materials, and a joy ride for Lissa as well.
A walk down Kenyatta Avenue is a walk back in time in which you dodge donkey-doo as you approach a bustling market square. Islanders were buying Ramadan treats to be consumed at sundown, and young boys crowded around tables playing a skittles game called "Arab" - killing time until they could break the fast. Women walked around in black burqa-like bui-buis, and young men persistently offered their services as guides, interpreters or companions.
Lamu was settled by Arabic traders in 1350 and discovered by hippies about 600 years later. It gets a steady stream of tourists, even some flower boomers lured by its laid-back ethos, yet Lamu is so challenging to get to that its character remains virtually intact.
The town is essentially a fishing village, with dhows made of mahogany and mangrove and waterproofed with shark oil plying the channels. When they aren't fishing, their catch is mainly tourists. Shortly after arriving, we struck a deal with Captain Ali for a two-hour sunset dhow trip. We sailed past islands formed by the ubiquitous mangroves and watched the sun set, then munched on halwa, the Arab sweet.
Ali and his crew liked these cruises during Ramadan because they were permitted to break the fast a bit earlier, when the sun dropped behind the clouds sitting on the horizon.
One bright and warm day, we walked through the end of town, past Shela's resort hotels to the beaches and palm-topped dunes at the southern end of the island. We sought shade from the equatorial sun and read our books until the heat drove us to the warm blue bath of the Indian Ocean. Occasionally, a donkey train would pass on the beach with a herdsman or two, carrying sand to be used in construction; otherwise, we had a quarter-mile of beachfront to ourselves.
Lamu's pace appealed to us. We ate breakfast on the terrace of our hotel, which also served as a common room. Restaurant meals were exotic and nourishing, ranging from locally caught fish, such as barracuda, cooked Swahili-style, to vegetarian dishes. Alcohol was hard to come by, but Petley's Inn offered beer with a reliable lunch. We also tried many of the fresh-made fruit juices - lime was a special favorite.
A local fixture was a rotund, bearded gent named Ali Hippy, whose services included an authentic meal in his home. We were tempted, but the setting seemed contrived.
Kenyans are generally friendly, and the people of Lamu were exemplars. Lissa's facility with Swahili seemed to raise us a cut above everyday tourists. She even chided a shop owner for seeming to take advantage of me when I bought a brightly colored woman's cotton wrap, called a kikoy. But the tailor turned the wrap into drawstring pants in two hours, so I was pleased.
My one regret was not spending more than two days in Lamu. But my back was thankful we were flying back to Nairobi.
On the boat ride to Manda Island - site of the modest airstrip - I couldn't shake the rhythms of Lamu and Swahili life, which seemed so different than anything I'd experienced. Pole pole - slowly. Always slowly.
Kenya's Quiet Side
High season is January through March. The Maulid Festival is in March this year.
British Airways flies to Nairobi from Philadelphia International Airport, with one stop. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $1,383.
Air Kenya and Kenya Airways have daily flights from Nairobi to Mombasa and Lamu.
Places to stay
Ozi's Bed and Breakfast
www.africanconcept. co.ke/ozibedandbreak- fast.htm
Casuarina Rest House
Pole Pole Guest House
Places to eat
Hapa Hapa Restaurant