Laura Spinney dodges the power cuts of Lamu and encounters green turtles, screeching baboons and the multilingual Dude
Lamu is still waiting for its own Graham Greene or Ernest Hemingway. As far as artistic inspiration goes, I was told by a British poet-artist who lives there, you can't beat it. It's bulging with good character fodder, littered with settings of outstanding natural beauty, and the pace of life is so slow that if one can avoid coming to a complete standstill (a condition known by the ex-pat residents as "coastitis"), there is very little to distract the budding novelist from creative thought.

That sounded promising holiday material. And, as if reading my mind, the poet added casually that the manuscript of Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy had weighed down the bar at the Peponi Hotel, where we now sat, months before it was published.

To avoid confusion, I should point out that while A Suitable Boy is set in India, Lamu is an island off the coast of Kenya, an hour-and-a- half's flight from Nairobi - or two hair-raising days by road. It is 70 miles as the crow flies from the Somali border to the north.

Despite its Arab appearance, notably the intricately carved wood of the doors and the white coral palaces, Lamu is probably one of the few outposts of the Islamic Swahili civilisation to have survived British rule intact. It also has a long literary tradition. For centuries the arts, and particularly poetry, thrived in Lamu while ivory, rhino horn and mangrove poles passed through the harbour on huge, ocean-going dhows.

Peponi Hotel, which last year celebrated its 30th anniversary, commands many of the island's best assets. Once the home of the district commissioner, it occupies a headland in the fishing village of Shela from which unravels eight miles of wide, empty beach.

Behind the hotel is a high sand dune which almost two centuries ago was the site of a bloody massacre; a hapless invading force from Mombasa and the northern island of Pate tried to make a quick getaway only to find that the tide had stranded their boats high and dry. Even today, they say, a strong breeze can uncover the bleached bones of the dead.

The beach is truly unspoilt. Swimming off a deserted point only a mile from Peponi one evening, a wildlife warden stationed on the island told me he came face-to-face with a dolphin. I didn't necessarily believe him until, flying over the island as a passenger in his two-seater plane, I glimpsed six playing in the shallows.

Flying over one of the smaller, unpopulated islands in the Lamu archipelago we saw a shark silhouetted against a sandbank, and two vast green turtles heading for land like plucky cross-channel swimmers. A troop of baboons hunting for morsels marooned by the tide ran screaming into the dunes at the sound of the plane, and we buzzed a trawler dragging its nets illegally close to the shore. An ominous, muddy brown trail spread out behind it - coral scraped up from the bottom - and pterodactyl-like pelicans floated in its wake.

All these things are better seen from a dhow, and the posse of beach boys that hangs around Peponi will even offer to take you out to sea where you can swim with the dolphins. If you can shrug off the coastitis, they will also arrange snorkelling, sundowner trips, windsurfing lessons or an early-morning fishing expedition followed by a barbecue on neighbouring Manda island.

I took a boat trip across to Manda's deserted beach to watch the ongoing reconstruction of a 90-foot dhow. The boat is called Tusitiri, which means something along the lines of "God Help Us". Winches had to be brought in from Mombasa to heave it up the beach because the wooden rollers they tried initially splintered under its weight. It took almost 400 people to do the job, and it will take a similar number to relaunch it once new planks have been hand-chiselled to replace the rotting hull. Lying forlornly on the sand, it looked more like a godforsaken whale than a seafaring vessel.

All Lamu's beach boys have nicknames. It makes sense in a place where the name Mohamed is almost as common as the power cuts. In the dark some extra means of identification is required. The most vociferous, who introduced himself as Dude, spoke four European languages although he had never left Kenya (a tribute to him and to the flux of tourists that Lamu entices). His friend Captain Fishblade tried to tempt me with a snorkelling trip while Banana, his eyes hidden behind purple Oakleys, advertised guest houses in Shela.

Shela is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways shielded from the sun by bougainvillaea, all of which eventually lead down to the waterfront. There are no cars on the island, except for the district commissioner's, and donkeys are the alternative, unmotorised, beasts of burden. Children treat them like obstinate schoolmates, racing them flat out along the shore before dragging them into the surf by their front hooves for a bath.

Noise pollution in Shela is restricted to the din of cicadas and marauding cats, the tragic cough of a donkey and, five times a day, the cacophonous call to prayer. A cockerel, competing for airtime, had resigned itself to a nocturnal slot at three in the morning.

One night, "traditional" African music was played until dawn to celebrate a wedding. The village's entire male population congregated in the main square to listen to a frangipani-garlanded, 10-piece band. The singer reclined horizontally, his eyes closed and his microphone glued to his lips (fortunately, it was Shela's turn to have electricity). Two guys, drunk on what was rumoured to be moonshine illicitly brewed in the dunes, performed something resembling t'ai chi in time to the music.

Peponi is Swahili for paradise, coolness, rest or relief. It is one of only three hotels on Lamu allowed to sell alcohol. You can sit on the terrace affectionately slurping an Old Pal, Peponi's cocktail of vodka, lime, bitters and soda, and allow yourself to be cooled by the trade winds blowing off the Indian Ocean. For 150 shillings (a little under pounds 2), you can even indulge in a dozen Shela oysters. Along with crab, lobster, jumbo prawns, and red snapper cooked in coconut, these are the island's culinary delicacies.

Shrewdly, in a place which discovered electricity barely two decades ago, Peponi has recently installed its own generator. The island's power station provided amply for the population when it was first built but is now stretched beyond capacity, so Lamu town and Shela take it in turns to be blacked out at night.

The Swahili residents don't bat an eyelid if the mosque speakers aren't working: the call to prayer is shouted from the rooftop. And much of their cooking is still done over charcoal-burning jikos. But when night falls, ex-pats and tourists clutching torches descend on Peponi to sit out the power cut in more sociable surroundings.

This is a good time to size up Lamu's characters. Take the elderly spinster who, as a member of the French Resistance, was captured and tortured by the Nazis, survived to help found Kenya's flying doctors, and still flies herself around the country, despite having cataracts in both eyes.

Or the American woman who came to the island 15 years ago and swapped her sun- dress for the long, black buibui worn by Swahili women when she fell in love with and married a local man.

If you don't meet them, you are bound to hear about them. Peponi is a hive of gossip, and given the hotel's popularity with honeymooners - all the rooms have their own verandahs and face the sea - there is still scope for sexy beach assignments at midnight. But times have definitely changed since the Golden Age of Lamu. The 18th-century poet Mwana Kupona, who wrote Advice on the Wifely Duty for a daughter, would not have been best pleased.

lamu fact file

Getting there

To get to Lamu, Fly direct with Air Kenya Aviation (tel: Nairobi 501421) from Nairobi's Wilson Airport (one and a half hours pounds 115 return). Flights are daily. The bus journey from Mombassa or Malindi is uncomfortable if not dangerous due to the state of the roads and, on very rare occasions; bandits.

Where to stay

A standard double room at Peponi Hotel is charged at US$220 with Full board, and $170 for bed and breakfast only, including boat transfers. The hotel is shut during May and June. Peponi Hotel, PO Box 24, Lamu, Kenya. Tel: Lamu 33421, 33423, 33154. Fax: Lamu 33029.

Other information

The dry, hot months on the Kenyan coast are January to March, June to October is warm and dry. The long rains usually fall in the low season of April and May, when many places are shut but prices are low, and the short rains come in November and early December.