History of The Majlis

The Majlis, a family home evolves into a boutique hotel

It’s hard to believe looking at it today, but The Majlis was never meant to be a resort. A private African home- away-from-home; it was built as a family retreat from the pressures of the world – a place to spend precious time with friends.

The story begins in 2000, when an Italian gentleman known as ‘Nanni’ and his wife Elena were on a global quest to find the perfect place to escape from the cold European winters. Having travelled extensively, they realized that Africa held a special place in their hearts. They had journeyed its length and breadth, exploring its remote wildernesses and delighting in the diversity of its people. For many years they had owned a textile factory in Ethiopia, so now, in the twilight years of their lives, they wondered if Kenya may offer the haven they sought.

Landing in Lamu, they watched the white-sailed dhows glide up the blue water of the Manda Channel; the patient trains of donkeys ferrying sand in baskets on their backs; the black-cloaked figures of the Swahili ladies; and the jade green domes of the island’s many mosques. They realized that on this remote and beautiful island, time had almost stood still.

They had found the ‘home’ they were looking for.

Staying in the small village of Shela, Nanni gazed across the glittering reaches of the channel towards Ras Kitau Bay on Manda Island. Serene and beautiful, he was surprised to note that there were no houses on the pristine stretch of beach. Back in Italy, he found he couldn’t get the image of Manda out of his mind. Eventually, he decided to return and bought a single plot of land. Embarking on his new challenge, he first built a small house; then, thinking that his three sons and their families would join them, he bought another plot of land and expanded their house into a villa.

Built from local bleached-white coral blocks and delicately styled to reflect a fusion of Italian style and Swahili culture, the villa rose elegantly above the silver sands. Inside, Nanni and his interior designer Armando Tanzini filled the rooms with delicate Swahili niches, intricate fretwork, luscious rugs, hand-made furniture and an eclectic collection of art, sculpture and carvings.

Friends came from all over the world to stay. One of them, the artist and film director Julian Schnabel, provided the inspiration for certain architectural elements of the villa. Schnabel also used local dhow sails, faded by the wind and sun, to act as canvasses for his flamboyant paintings, which now hang on the pure white walls of the central drawing room, alongside the work of a myriad of local artists, Swahili craftsmen and internationally recognized artists.

In 2005, the villa was finally complete. A fabulous party was thrown in celebration and everyone marveled over the purity and style of the cream-hued coral palace that stood on the sands at the tip of the Lamu archipelago. Two years later, two more villas were built for family friends, and then at the last minute, almost by chance, the family decided to combine the two villas and the main family villa to create a ‘boutique hotel’ on Lamu, thus providing an entirely new and unique accommodation option.

The family decided to add an open-air restaurant with a rooftop bar equidistant between the various villas. The rooftop was constructed in a traditional Swahili style, fanned by the cool breezes that wafted through its open sides, and shaded by a soaring Makuti (palm thatch) roof. Rising starkly elegant above the surrounding weave of grey-green mangrove swamps and bone-white sands, the roof features over one million palm leaf ‘tiles’ clothing a central structure of locally sourced mangrove.

Debating what to call the emerging resort, Nanni remembered how a friend had remarked on the fact that the main villa had one reception room inside the house for the family and another eclectic Indian-styled pavilion on the beach for receiving honored guests. ‘It’s called a Majlis,’ said the friend. ‘The Arabic word refers to a beautiful place reserved especially for entertaining honoured guests in the Muslim community’‘Perfect,’ said Nanni. ‘Since Lamu used to be a Protectorate of Oman, we must honor the local community. We shall call it The Majlis’.

Officially opened in October 2009, The Majlis welcomed its first guests that Christmas.

Designed to offer an African ‘home-from-home’ for all who visit, The Majlis was built with love and finished in beauty. Not intended as a hotel, it still isn’t one; it’s simply a very special place in which our honoured guests can feel absolutely at home.