Imagine floating in the middle of the sea against the backdrop of beaming lights while dining or wining with your friends. Next time you go on holiday at Shela Beach, Old Town or wherever on Lamu Island, try out the Floating restaurant, the only floating eatery in this part of North Coast. Not a fancy name to call a restaurant right?
I must admit that at first, the aqua phobic me was scared, imagining the boat sinking of being blown off by strong waves to India or Madascar probably halfway through my meal. However, the proprietor, Fridah Njeri, assured me that all would be well, as I climbed the boarding ladder to access the boat’s deck.
I dared not look at the sea below, fearing that I would miss my steps and drown. I was amazed by this unique idea and of course how the restaurant manages to float in the midst of the strong kaskazi winds that were blowing fiercely. “The restaurant cannot move because its weight holds the drums in place,” explained Fridah as she welcomed me with a cool drink.
The restaurant is constructed on pontoons, which are structures such as drums filled with air, that gives it buoyancy. Highly durable plastic drums, approximately 240 of them, make up the foundation and are capable of holding any load.
There wasn’t much décor either. The boat’s sides are built with local materials such as makuti and coconut timber without any steel or concrete. It has a sitting area, with easy chairs where I later enjoyed a meal.
A spacious bar with an assortment of drinks is also available for those who desire to have a good time. Lamu is mostly inhabited by Muslims who detest alcohol and a bar is rare sight. This restaurant is amongst the few places that offer affordable beer with a view of the ocean. Gerald Johnson owned this restaurant a few years back.
Then, the restaurant was always full with international clients. Sadly, after the Mpeketoni attacks and a series of travel bans issued by Western countries, the number of international tourists to Lamu county dwindled, resulting in loss of incomes and jobs.
The year 2013 was also bad because of politics. Johnson gave up and Fridah, then a frequent client, persuaded him not to destroy it. She bought the ‘boat’ and spent several weeks renovating it before reopening in 2014.
“The low tourism numbers in Lamu made me look for ways of making the restaurant great again, targeting both locals and international tourists,” Fridah says as she takes me round the boat.
“It’s a little bit different from what it was previously. For instance, they removed the cabins where tourists could spend a night or two.
The two self-contained houses could accommodate 10 people fully equipped with open sundeck, sun beds and a shaded verandah. It also had a banquette, a table and chairs perfect for sundowners. Fridah almost rebuilt the restaurant again. Despite some people suggesting that the boat be modernised, Fridah still desires to maintain the Swahili feel.
A major challenge is that the restaurant has not picked up like it used to, forcing Fridah to reduce food prices. A bottle of beer that Johnson used to sell at Sh400 now costs Sh250. And for just Sh800, one can enjoy a plate of chips served with chicken or fish.
One can also enjoy delicious seafood on board. A special cuisine will always be a local delicacy that comprises lobsters, fish, and calamari. “We are attracting local tourists by preparing more local, Swahili delicacies. We are also not as expensive as other tourist hotels, which helps as the locals can explore beautiful places,” she explained.
At the back of the bar is a place where you can sit and swing your feet in the water. Fridah said one could also fish there should they want. Encouraged by the staff, I sat there and tested the Indian waters with my toes. It was amazing to watch the fish swim in water as the sun went down, hoping that no sharks were around.