Jannah Lamu – a little piece of heart and soul by the sea
By Fiona Sanderson
Just off the southwestern edge of Kenya, where the country meets the coast, lies the island of Lamu. In the heart of Shela, on Lamu Island, is a “Constellation Hotel” – a series of properties founded and run by German-born designer Anna Trzebinski. This new project incorporates a number of decorated buildings clustered around the old village square with a series of shared outdoor areas, and four lovingly restored traditional wooden boats (three of which are Mozambican dhows). Named after the stars in the Southern Cross, the Constellation Hotel’s first property, Jannah House, features three unique independent suites with en-suite bathrooms, a living area, and a private kitchenette. As one of the tallest buildings in Shela, it offers incredible rooftop views. There is also a communal “Contemplative Scented Garden,” created to give guests the ideal place to relax and embrace the energy of a traditional fragrant garden typical in so many Arab-influenced cultures, with covered day bed areas and a Moroccan fountain.
The rooms at Jannah Lamu are quite unlike any others that I have seen – with the standards of a high-end hotel combined with the comforts of a home, paired with African textiles adorning the furniture, bright pillows, and billowing white curtains. All of the suites are fully serviced, with their own fully equipped kitchens, large living spaces, and stylish dining rooms. Overlooking the sea, the terrace floors are open to the elements, where you get a panoramic view over the sea, and Lamu and Shela town beyond.
A chic destination for discerning travellers looking to discover new worlds, Jannah Lamu boasts quite an incredible design, decorated with most of Anna’s own artefacts and collectables from other creatives. “That’s the thing,” Anna tells me, as I join her one day for a lunch. “I think, for the moment, my focus is on working with the things that I have an authentic connection to, that I really have a feeling for, because that’s the sort of place that people will want to come to. It’s here that I grew up running around barefoot as a child and it’s that connection that is so important to me. So, when you spend time at Jannah, you’ll see this as a story of me and what I love most.”
Anna has helmed the Jannah Lamu project since the outset and has had plenty of experience in building and designing homes. She initially set about building a home-cum-art-studio in Nairobi with her first husband, artist Tonio Trzebinski – characterised with reclaimed dhow boat wood and salvaged offcuts from local carpenters – before his untimely death in 2001. Years later, after having remarried a Samburu warrior and having moved to the States, Anna returned with her family to Kenya, to the house that she and Tonio had built, and turned it into a unique boutique hotel filled with her own book collections, Tonio’s personal artworks, and things that she and her family had collected over 40 years. “Eden Nairobi is almost like living in a museum,” Anna smiles. Jannah Lamu is the latest project on her creative CV, which also includes a fashion design business, which she still runs to this day, employing local artisans – many of whom have worked for her for years – to create beautiful, traditional collections of pashminas, ponchos, jewellery, shoes and bags.
Jannah Lamu fills all your senses from the moment you walk in. With open top terraces overlooking the sea and the village square below, you are invaded with the sights and sounds of Lamu and the local village around you. Imagine a place of ancient Swahili traditions – a remote town with no cars, just donkeys and dhows, and mesmerising sunsets. Anna has captured all this in one magical place. This multi-sensory peaceful corner of paradise is really alive with the clatter of village life below you, intermingled with the sound of trickling water and rustling palms trees – a place where you can just let the wind take you in a dreamscape across the mainland and archipelago outstretched before you.
Water is a very important part of life in the area, it would seem. “One of the most important parts of the whole archipelago is life on the water,” Anna tells me. “People will stay here for a couple weeks, but they’ll go out every day on the boats.” At Jannah Lamu, the resort’s four boats take guests out on excursions, from magical day trips to longer forays into the archipelago. There are also plans afoot to buy and restore a fifth boat for the growing fleet.
Jannah Lamu is certainly a very magical place. “I think the thing is, people need to remember why they’re here, and that it’s a very traditional, very unique place in this world,” Anna muses. “I just feel like I want to offer somewhere new for people to travel to, and that’s all I can bring to the table here. You have to immerse yourself in it.”
Most importantly, though, Anna wants to be able to give something back to the country that has adopted her as one of its own. “My passion is in helping build the community to show the world that we don’t need external validation.” Looking around at the beauty and creativity at Jannah Lamu, I think she may have hit the nail on the head. An expression of not just personal vision, but also the passion and culture of the country, as I left Anna later the evening to watch the sun sink into the sea beyond, I couldn’t help but feel that this is a woman who knows exactly what she needs to do in order to achieve her dream. I applaud her heartily.