The little archipelago of Lamu should be on every Gulf traveller’s list. Located off the southwestern edge of Kenya, just a hop across a sea channel from the mainland, the islands feel like their own little world. The islands are home to a thriving Muslim community, with Lamu island – the largest in the scattering – home to 35 mosques alone, and life moves at a slower pace, reflective of the rhythm of the lapping Indian Ocean and the billowing sails of dhow boats.
For centuries, Lamu was a key stop on the trading routes between Arabia and Mombasa, as majestic sailboats sailed the three-month journey carrying spices, coffee, ivory and mangrove poles. Today Lamu’s mix of Arab architecture still stands intertwined with Chinese and Indian heritage, kept alive by descendants of traders and artisans. Because of this, Lamu makes an enchanting and starkly different escape to mainland Kenya, an antidote to the safaris and lodges and the epitome of Swahili culture on the Indian Ocean. German designer-turned-hotelier Anna Trzebinski fell in love with Lamu when visiting as a child, and after honing her skills at Eden Nairobi, has added another gem to Lamu’s growing boutique hotel scene.
Located in the old village square in the heart of Shela, Lamu Island’s charming capital, Jannah comprises three lovingly and beautifully restored hotel apartments, curated and brought to life by Trzebinski. The property is the first opening in the new ‘Constellation Hotel’, named after the Crux constellation of the Southern Cross and incorporating restored buildings hiding chic Swahili-style suites and common areas. Four traditional wooden dhow boats – hosting up to eight guests – are available for day trips and excursions into the archipelago. Jannah, the first of the constellation’s openings, literally translates to ‘paradise’ in Swahili.
‘I first visited Lamu when I was around 10 years old and have been coming here all my life,’ says Trzebinski. ‘It’s a place that is very special to me and holds many treasured memories, and I have a wonderful connection to the people here as well as lifelong friendships. I first fell in love with this beautiful wild place where the African bush meets the Indian Ocean, not only Lamu island, but beyond into this incredible archipelago. Many memories were made here throughout my life. I love that it’s full of the wonders and beauty of nature on land and in the sea; I love that it’s so deeply traditional and exists at its own magical pace; I love how steeped in history it is.’
Born in Germany, Trezbinksi’s life has long been rooted in Kenya. Her long-time home-turned-intimate and exclusive art hotel Eden (now Hemingways Eden) opened in 2021 and has quickly become the chicest boutique hotel in the Kenyan capital. ‘Eden was a deeply personal sharing of my family’s life story in the form of a property,’ explains Trezbinksi on her hotelier history.
Jannah follows Trezbinksi’s same ethos to bring homely, design-led space to Kenya’s hospitality scene outside of the reach of its renowned safari establishments. Jannah’s apartments bridge the gap between private rental and hotels, something she identified people want when travelling to Lamu. Rooms reach the standards of high-end hotels but are pared back with home comforts and authentic touches of the locale. African textiles envelop the spaces in antique wooden furniture, earthy textured walls, billowing white drapes and pops of colours from Swahili ceramics and African textiles and soft furnishings.
‘Is really a very contemporary interpretation of Swahili style,’ explains Trzebinski. ‘It has the traditional architectural components, for example, in the lintels, stucco work, and woodwork and beds; it’s fused or infused with different elements. Some books and collected items are just things I find that somehow reference the island or its history or beach combing. Things found by the coast are pretty simple, not too overdone. I still obviously have my signature layering of textures and colours and weave the content of this island on the continent in – components of pottery, brass and glass and objects.
Jannah’s three fully-serviced suites have kitchens, living spaces, dining rooms and sea view terraces, looking down onto Shela and the Lamu coast – where the ghosts of millennia of seafarers can be felt on the breeze. ‘Lamu has its own distinct culture, the Swahili culture, with its distinct architecture, cuisine, and way of life that is a merging, I believe, originally of Persian and existing Bantu cultures,’ continues Trezbinksi on the rich history of Lamu and its historical links to the Arab world. ‘We have the Bajuni people, and many families here have their roots in Yemen and Oman, but also further into the Gulf. I also love that it’s a place that exists in great part due to its religion. It’s where you come to lose yourself and be invited into a world and a pace of life, and somehow, you find a part of yourself there.
Outside the suites, guests can wander in Jannah’s fragrant ‘Contemplative Scented Garden’ – inspired by the gardens of Arabia and Morocco and home to daybeds – and enjoy views from the rooftop – thanks to its superlative height in the historic town. ‘Lamu and Jannah speak to the post-Covid traveller interested in authenticity and connection,’ explains Trezbinski. ‘It’s really for the discerning traveller.
‘There are few places left on this planet that have not succumbed to the gentrification of things and travel, and Lamu is one of them. At Jannah, we offer a super sophisticated chic destination in a very low-key way; it’s one of these rare places on this planet. You enter someone else’s world because you are invited in, not because you force the door open.’
When finished, the Constellation Hotel will include the ultra-modern tall Jannah, with modern accents and air-conditioning, a more rustic second building with a beautiful lower rooftop and, coming shortly, an old palace with nine rooms. ‘I won’t touch the palace,’ reveals Trzebinski. ‘No air-conditioning will be added, and I’ll make its original beauty shine. I hope a traveller may take a leap of faith and trust me to share what I love and am inspired by and the people who make that so unique and special.’ Anna’s plans also include a fourth element, a rented piece of land in the estuaries where she will build a hangout and deck for languid lunches and sundowner cocktails.
Jannah’s focus on community is a passion for Trzebinski, something she hones at Eden with its artist-in-residence programmes. Jannah follows a similar path, enlisting the help of a local friend to raise funds for an apartment and working space for creatives, where reasonably priced stays are available for artists to realise their true potential and focus on creating. Artists will be able to showcase their work to guests, as well as guests able to enjoy tours of local galleries and workshops through Jannah.
‘Staying at Jannah is such a beautiful way to experience island and archipelago life,’ insists Trzebinski. ‘It’s a full circle of wonderful experiences of the island, the village, and the archipelago woven together by myself as I would dream to live it.’
Apartments from AED1,270 a night; Shela, Lamu Island, Kenya; jannahlamu.com