African Queen

The circuitous journey to Dhow House, a spectac­u- lar private villa on the Kenyan island of Lamu, is all part of its charm. First there’s the one-and- a-half-hour flight from Nairobi, which delivers a glimpse of the Lamu archipelago, separated from the mainland by a narrow channel and pro­tected from the Indian Ocean by dunes and coral reefs. Upon landing, it’s an­­other ride—this one by boat and 20 minutes long—past lateen-sailed dhows and into the shallows surrounding Shela village. But after all that, throw off everything but your shorts, caftan, or bikini, and voilá. You’ve arrived at possibly the chicest beach house in Africa.

"Finding this island was like waking from a sublime dream and realizing it was true. The place had that kind of impact," says Dhow House’s owner, Brit­ish photography agent Katy Barker, who built the property with French architect Laurent Buttazoni. "It needed to feel open, spacious, and, above all, sexy, like it belonged to me and wasn’t just another rental."

The seven-bedroom house is indeed generously proportioned, comfortably accommodating 14 people, and as such it has been much in demand, with past guests like singer Marianne Faithfull and actress Gillian Ander­son. The airy, sunshine-flooded rooms, which were created with cement using an old Swahili method, open onto a large blue-and-black checkerboard–tiled pool and lush three-acre gardens. These are stuffed with palm trees, hibiscus, and flat-topped acacias; Barker’s giant tortoise resides there and a tamarind tree produces the fruit from which fresh juice is made every morning,

The main feature of the thatched-roof outdoor living area is a sunken sofa stuffed with pillows—ideal for lounging. And throughout the house tasteful accents (that perfect antique Persian chair, an Indian Mogul painting here and there) reflect not only Barker’s eclectic style but also Lamu’s exotic past. A 14th-century Swahili settlement, the island eventually attracted Por­tu­guese explor­ers, Turkish traders, and Omani Arabs, and each group left its mark.

Today Lamu retains a slow, re­­laxed pace, the manner of its people so charm­ing and the lob­ster so fresh, devotees easily forgive the occasionally lackadaisical service and the dearth of contemporary cui­sine. They come to enjoy the sea breeze, not air-conditioning, after all, and to read and read and read, sipping fresh coconut milk as they laze away the beachfront hours. Dhow House rents from $21,000 per week, not including meals (