Just Back From

A Heavenly and Life-Changing Family Adventure on Lamu Island

by Sara Banks
Lamu A sunset cruise with new friends. All photos courtesy of Sara Banks.

The last time we checked in with Sara Banks, the founder of SteamLine Luggage, she was telling us about her family trip to Sri Lanka – Three Kids, Two Parents, and One Tuk-Tuk Have a Grand Old Time. Continuing her tradition as the world's coolest mom, she recently relocated her brood to Shela, a small village on Lamu Island, Kenya, for a winter sabbatical. This article should come with a warning, because you'll want to book a trip before you even finish reading. Here's what they got up to.

So what brought to Lamu Island?

My family and I live in Dublin, Ireland, and if you have ever visited in the month of January, you will know that it is cold, wet, and dark. We leave every January for the month to seek out sun and work remotely — as every travel brand should. This year we had a new challenge of working around schooling schedules for our three boys. Our chosen destination was somewhere we had been before and loved, Shela on Lamu Island off the coast of Kenya.

Shela was recommended to us on another idyllic trip in Kenya. We were told that it was even more picturesque than where we were on the coast. Moments like that always remind me of what an amazing world we live in. Beauty compared to beauty.

Since we were taking our kids out of their Dublin school for a month, one trip requirement was that we would send them to school when we arrived. Shamba la Shela, a school on the island, was a perfect fit and could accommodate all three boys (aged two, three, and five) for a month of schooling. Truthfully, as we knew this place would be paradise — no cars, really quiet, miles of untouched, pristine white beaches — we decided to bring our team from to shoot upcoming collections and brand assets for the month. Bringing a model, two photographers, a videographer, and a couple of people from the office to the island for two weeks was about the same price as a two-day photo shoot in London.

How did you get there?

It’s fairly grueling to get to Shela from Dublin, but it’s 100 percent worth it. Each way involved four flights, a few taxis, and a speedboat that finally dropped us off 24 hours later in the most beautiful, relaxing place in the world. 2018 was a busy year for SteamLine Luggage, and I thought it would take us weeks to fully get into vacation mode, but when you land in a place so beautiful and relaxed, it is impossible to hold any tension.

The locals on the island radiate a calm pole pole (pol-ay) attitude. Pole pole means “slowly, slowly” — you hear this several times a day in relation to everything in Shela. Stub your toe? Pole pole. Spill water? Pole, pole. Break a bowl? Pole pole. It is a mantra that we brought back to Ireland and incorporate daily into our home, as it seems to pertain to everything.

What did you do in Shela?

We hunkered down with our little family and became part of the community for five weeks. We enrolled our kids in a local school (they were picked up by a donkey every day), my husband played soccer with the fishermen when the tide was out. I hung out on the patio of a nearby cafe with a mug of Swahili tea. A Masai warrior taught my oldest, Milo, how to bead. Ruben, my middle child, played with beach sticks and pet every donkey in sight. Our youngest, Benji, ran around high-fiving and fist bumping everyone and tossed endless stones into the ocean.

We swam in turquoise waters at gorgeous white-sand beaches, searched for shells, and built sandcastles. In the evenings, we took sunset cruises on beautiful wooden dhow boats, drank coconuts, and ate fresh seafood. Through it all, we chatted with the locals and embraced their way of life.

Family portrait.
Shamba la Shela.

What did you know on the last day that you wish you had known on the first?

That we had found the most relaxing, wonderful place in the world. Shela is special beyond words. There are no roads, no cars, no deadlines. You don't have to wear shoes, because you are walking on sand. And because everyone is walking, it means that conversations with other people are constant. Always a hello and a friendly chat wherever you are headed. You can make more friends in a month in Shela than a year in a big city. Jambo! — the Swahili greeting or salutation with an exclamation mark — is the most spoken and heard word in a day.

Side note: We lost our five-year-old’s shoes midway through our trip. He went shoeless until we returned home.

This was especially great:

The Masai played with our children every day — showing them how to bead necklaces, playing football, telling stories, and counting shells. It was incredible. On one of our last days, we brought a group of nine Masai warriors and a couple of fisherman on a dhow boat with our family. It was one my life highlights. The Masai had never been on a boat and sang tribal songs the entire way. They even brought a selfie stick for the occasion.

But this wasn’t:

I got a swollen foot when a mosquito bite became infected. But I learned a few good life lessons as a result. First: The locals know how to fix local problems. Second: Don’t worry. One woman who helped me heal said, “I’ve seen your movies, and I know how you worry in the West. Worry is what causes situations to get worse. Of course, we all have problems. But learn to park them in your mind and solve as you can. Everything takes time.” We should all try to remember that piece of advice as much as we can.

A dhow boat sail with local Masai warriors.
Sara on a walk in the ruins of an old village.

What is your favorite travel advice?

Traveling with kids is incredible. Doors open because you are constantly engaging with people through your children and meeting locals. By the time we left Lamu, forty people had come to say goodbye. They were really saying goodbye to the kids.

What’s the local speciality?

Seafood, kikoys (type of sarong), baskets, and Masai beads.

Speed round of favorites.

1. Meal: Ginger crab with coconut rice.

2. Thing you did: Sunset cruise on a dhow boat.

3. Cafe: Sea Suq, a casual spot where you can watch the world go by.

Sharing stories with local Masai warriors.
Feeding a giraffe.

One thing you didn't get to do, but wanted to:

Walk the along the empty eight-mile beach all the way to the end. With small kids, something like this isn’t as easy as it use to be.

You can’t stop thinking about:

Our return next January. Would anyone like to come?

What's the #1 tip you'd give a friend who wanted to go?

Take the kids and put them in a local school. This was mind-blowing for us. They loved it, we loved it, the school loved it. Our kids left having a sense of place, feeling they were part of the community. The routine was settling for them and gave us a chance to work, walk, and talk.

Would you go back?

Yes, it’s just a matter of for how long.

Our friend Lali.
Sunset in Lamu.

Keep Exploring Kenya

Mysteries of Kenyan Wildlife
Don’t Mind If I Dhow: An Overnight Sail Up Kenya’s Northern Coast
One Kid, One World, One Incredible Trip