Lamu is an island with a main town characterised by narrow streets and Swahili architecture; tall houses of white-washed coral block built around a shaded central courtyard and often with a flat roof from which one can enjoy the sea-breeze.
Shela village is a half hour walk from Lamu town and possesses a more intimate feel. It's quieter, and you're likely to see the odd familiar face wondering the windy streets once you have been there for a few days. While Lamu's bustling and lively, Shela is a bit more sleepy with the added bonus of being only a few minutes walk from a broad, sweeping beach.
Almost all the old Swahili family homes have now been bought by Europeans who have converted them into private residences or boutique hotels, so the village is more up-market and less the scruffy, informal place that it was. However, despite this and aside from the odd conspicuous mansion on the edge of the village, it has managed to retain it's original style.
Lamu itself is more of a harbour with no beach and looks directly onto the channel. Consequently, for a swim you need to get a boat for the short hop across to Manda Island or walk to the Shela beach. The town has a great deal of charm though and even if you're not staying here, you should spend a day wondering around. Lamu is an experience in itself and you should come here expecting to relax and soak in it's unique atmosphere, enjoying long walks and swims in the warm sea, fresh seafood and trips on the traditional wooden 'dhows'.
After a day or two, you'll find that you no longer feel that lying on a "lamu bed" reading a book seems like a cop out...this is what Lamu is all about. There are no really big hotels here and much of the accommodation is in guest houses or self-contained villas or houses which give you freedom to relax and feel completely at home.
Lamu is a Muslim town and it's worth remembering that alcohol is not readily available here. You can have a drink on the terrace of Peponi in Shela and one or two other places, but most guest houses and hotels don't actually serve alcohol. You can however bring your own with you.
Lamu is a pleasant combination of beach and culture and suits those that are less happy about lying on a beach all day but still want to feel the sand between their toes and be part of life outside a big resort.