This month, Nomad kicks off with a new series, Great Hotels of East Africa. Every month, we’ll be delving behind the scenes at some of the region’s most fabulous and eccentric retreats. Amanda Sperber drops in on Peponi, the legendary hotel on Lamu beloved by well-oiled Europeans, A-listers and expats.
The reviews are faultless. A deep online dive from TripAdvisor to the most obscure personal travel blog wields nothing but effusive comments (“Old school excellence.” “The loveliest hotel in Africa.” “Absolutely perfect!”) Fair enough: There’s nothing the staff won’t accommodate. The lush, tropical terraced gardens with their shocks of colourful flowers border on surreal. The Swahili inspired menu is as extensive as it is delectable (the fish curry and rock oysters are best sellers). At any time of day, in any sort of weather, the views from the large, comfortable, though pleasantly understated porch, are gorgeous.
Its status as the only place to serve alcohol in Shela, the small Muslim village just three kilometres south of lively Lamu town, and moreover as (likely) the place to imbibe the tastiest cocktails on the entire, glorious archipelago (or in Kenya proper, for that matter), often results in tourists redrawing the map of their Lamu universe to put the posh, colonial-style property at the epicentre.
This could only, of course, be Peponi Hotel. The legendary 28-room property opened in 1967 and just finished celebrating its 50th anniversary. Five decades in, Peponi appears to be as fashionable as ever, mostly by remaining rooted in its original (see: “old school”) charm which was always the initial appeal. It seems central to understanding the place Peponi occupies in Lamu to know that it was founded by Danes pushed out of their farm in the Aberdares following the resettlement scheme arranged by the Kenyan government after Kenya gained independence from the British.
Seated on the crook of the golden-white sand facing the periwinkle estuary that flows out to the Indian Ocean, Peponi is the most centrally-located property on the strip, and attracts wealthy international vagabonds, as well as actors (the founder’s son, Lars Korschen, died in 2014 and actress Kim Catrall is quoted in his obituary), musicians (most famously, Mick Jagger), and mid-level European royalty.
It was here that world-famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin once launched into an impromptu after-dinner concert that ended in his replacing a string on his violin with a bit of fishing line.
For the many high-profile visitors to Lamu (Princess Caroline of Monaco, for example) who stay in private homes, Peponi is a popular watering hole. Though now estranged, the princess and her husband Prince Ernst of Hanover, were known to stop by for sundowners at Peponi, staying on for an after dinner dance as the musky night disintegrated, as they tend to do at this establishment. One hopes they tried the Old Pal, a satisfying, addictive mix of vodka, lime juice, Angostura bitters and soda water with a crunchy sugar rim.
While the bar and restaurant are accessible to the masses, the area past the dining room is guests only. A winding, 50 metre-concrete walkway leads past a just-guests pool, through the three-acre land, with painstakingly conserved tiers of gardens (there’s always at least few people tending to them, and the concerned manager, Carol, Korschen’s blonde widow, is happy to oversee and happier to comment on their work). Among those levels sit various rooms or bungalows. All are decorated in the classic Lamu style, which means vast, intricately-carved wood beds and whimsically draped mosquito nets. There are the necessary amenities, including hot water, and perks: plush white bathrobes, luxe bath products and frangipani, artfully placed. In terms of layout, colour scheme and size, none of the rooms are exactly alike. Breakfast is included.
Time spent at Peponi will – for better or worse – colour your experience of Lamu. Plan accordingly. Try the fresh juice.
Rates start from $280 per room, based on two sharing, with breakfast.