The gardens of Peponi Hotel at Shela are possibly some of the best kept secrets of beauty on Lamu Island.
The Hotel itself is renowned worldwide for being the next best thing to Paradise. Shela village and nearly all of Lamu Island is bestowed with the blessings of beauty, gentle seaside breezes, glistening sunny skies and local people who are generally warm, gracious and welcoming to strangers of all types.
Yet the gardens at the Peponi are unique. It all started back in the 1930s when Colonel Sharp was DC of Lamu Island and built the main house right across from Manda Island. He wasn’t much of a gardener but in the 1950s he sold the place to the heir to the Nestle’s wealth, a Swiss gentleman named Henri Bernier who was the first avid collector of palm trees on the island.
He was also the source of inspiration to Carol Korschen whose Danish father in law Aage bought the house in 1967 and a year later the Peponi Hotel was born. It was Carol’s coming on the scene nearly 20 years later in 1985 that was what became the decisive factor that transformed Peponi from being an elegant but slightly spartan seaside resort to becoming a lush green paradise covered in canopies of towering palms of all different colors, sizes and configurations.
Carol initially came at the Hotel to work as a cateress but quickly became good friends with Lars Korschen who like his father Aage felt compelled to build more guest rooms beside the main house since the Hotel had already earned international renown and its popularity exceeded space available for guests to stay.
Once Carol and Lars were married, her green thumb began to show. She hired professional gardeners but even as they manicured and maintained the grounds, she had begun collecting palms from all over the world.
“Right now we have approximately 90 types of palm,” said Carol who has become a serious palm collector. “Wherever I travel, I try to bring home either seedlings or just the seeds since I actually prefer planting seeds and watching them grow.”
She has a small tree nursery high above the shoreline, and even above the swimming pool that her husband built before he passed on midway through 2014.
Carol doesn’t only plant palm trees. She also has found time to plant flowers, herbs and an array of vegetables. But her first love among tropical vegetation is definitely the palms. “I’ve got palms from Cuba, Thailand, Peru and Brazil as well as from all around the Mediterranean.
Carol, who was born and brought up in Kenya, says she inherited her green thumb from her grandmother with whom she started gardening when she was just four years old.
Her granny’s garden was in Karen, on ground that had previously belonged to Karen Blixen. That garden is no longer in the family but the love of gardening is still strong with Carol who has been experimenting with all types of palms ever since she and her late husband tied the knot.
Giving credit for the gardens’ expansive beauty to her professional gardeners, Carol nonetheless is the one who today has turned Peponi’s grounds into a green exhibition site where guests have a chance to read labels affixed to the plants and learn their names (both Latin and English).
“I haven’t kept up my captioning, since 2014 wasn’t an easy time,” Carol confessed. She lost both her husband and her father that year.
Nonetheless, what she has kept up is the composting that she began doing several years ago. “Everything from our kitchen goes into the compost,” she said, noting that the soil at Peponi was quite sandy.
“We have to bring in soil from Manda Island. Then we mix a third of the local sandy soil with a third compost and a third, cow dung [never donkey dung],” she said.
In fact, a number of trees have not survived the conditions at Peponi, largely because they are not indigenous to Lamu. Carol doesn’t give up when her seedlings die however. Instead, she simply carries on with what does grow.
In a sense, Carol’s approach to working with the palms prepared her to cope with the loss of her loving and handsome husband Lars. For just as she carries on when a palm doesn’t last, so she never considered shutting down the hotel after he was gone.
What’s more while Carol hasn’t pushed either of her two daughters to one day take over the business, she would love to see Peponi remain in the family for them to keep it as a legacy for the Lamu people with whom she’s lived peacefully for the last three decades.