Offshore assets

Long a post-safari seaside idyll, Zanzibar – just 25 miles off Tanzania’s coast – is reinventing itself as a destination in its own right, with new resorts offering a blend of elegant and ebullient luxury. Maria Shollenbarger reports.

September 16 2011
Maria Shollenbarger

On Zanzibar’s south-east coast, near the town of Bwejuu, the Indian Ocean begins to disappear around mid-morning. Strolling north along the beach to the cliffs at Pingwe, past an enfilade of hotels ranging from the double-gated to the decrepit and overgrown, one can watch the sea drain out beyond the reef, over a kilometre distant. It fades with frisson-inducing speed from turquoise to aquamarine to opal, shadowy patches of sea fronds and ink-dark clusters of sea urchins wavering into view, then cresting on the receding water to glisten in the searing equatorial sun, the sea pooling just a few inches deep around them. By midday, Hadimu men and women are wandering far out at the reef’s edge, their silhouettes tiny brushstrokes wavering in the heat, their Kiswahili calls floating in snatches on the breeze as they hunt for octopus or harvest the seaweed that is their livelihood.

The vagaries of tropical tides put on quite a show on this island, 25 miles off the Tanzanian coast, technically called Unguja and one of several that make up the Zanzibar archipelago. Recently, however, in the south-west, the tidal flats have been the source of some consternation. Two nights earlier my friend Valentina and I had sat under an outrageously bright full moon at The Residence Zanzibar, an all-villa resort that opened in April. “Does it bother you the way the sea is here?” Yves Montel, the general manager, asked us over drinks. His elegantly insouciant manner remained unaltered, but his inflection betrayed a hint of worry. The Residence, with established properties in Tunis and Mauritius and an estimated spend here of £28m, is in no uncertain terms aiming for the highest calibre of client.

The surroundings reflected the ambitions: pristine, airy pavilions designed by a Singapore-based firm responsible for some of South-East Asia’s sleekest hotels; extravagant landscaping, with raw red earth still showing around it; a five-acre spa with a pool, hammam, a full-service beauty salon and fitness centre; a purpose-built jetty for private dinners and sundowners. One suspects that Montel is concerned that the seaweed tracts and urchin colonies – not to mention a sea that is, for a good four hours each day, effectively non-existent (and therefore unswimmable) – might not square with his target client’s idea of an ideal beach destination. And one that costs about €860 a night in mid-season.

But then The Residence is an interesting gamble in many respects. Zanzibar’s attractions are plentiful: the vast spice plantations and Unesco-designated monuments (both illustrious and infamous; Stone Town’s slave market is a deeply sobering must-visit); the centuries of royal Shirazi and Omani history; the warmth of the locals; the diving; the mesmerising white beaches. And it’s hardly a new frontier of higher-end tourism – Mnemba Island Lodge, off the north-eastern coast, set the benchmark for luxury in 1996 and holds it to this day; and others, including The Palms at Bwejuu and Fundu Lagoon on Pemba island to the north, have plied variations on finely accoutred beach shacks and elevated Swahili cuisine for going on a decade.

Now yet more luxurious resorts have joined the fray, willing to gamble that the truly privileged who opt for Zanzibar over Mauritius or the Seychelles as their post-safari seaside idyll will become repeat guests, making the island a top-end destination in its own right. Even Emerson Skeens, the American expat and co-founder of Stone Town’s most famous hotel, 236 Hurumzi (formerly Emerson & Green), has a very chic new 12-room sultan’s palace, Emerson Spice, which opened in July.

“Zanzibar is at a very interesting stage in its evolution,” says Will Jones of superlative Africa specialist Journeys By Design, who orchestrated my visit. “The longer-term draw will depend on how development is handled. Its advantage is, of course, its logistical strength when combined with mainland Tanzania and Kenya safaris. But it’s competing with the likes of Ilha de Moçambique or Ibo in the Quirimbas, where similar opportunities exist and there is also significant inward tourism investment.”

Squaring the development with the reality is part of the challenge. Unlike Mauritius and the Seychelles, Zanzibar is firmly in the coastal malaria belt; and unlike even northern Mozambique, its customs agents will forbid you entry if you arrive without a yellow-fever vaccination certificate. Somalia’s ongoing political fallout presents a security issue that resorts all along East Africa’s coast would disregard at their peril (at time of going to press, a murder and kidnapping at Kiwayu Safari Village on Kenya’s coast threw the problem into acute focus). And, as on much of the mainland, poverty is ubiquitous. The Residence’s sparkling Kids Club facilities, Astroturf tennis courts and sleek villas, in their white-on-biscuit-white chicness, are in pronounced contrast. It is also the only resort in its class on the south-west coast, known mostly for the mass-market dolphin tours out of Kizimkazi village (increasingly the target of conservationists’ concern) and for Dimbani Mosque, whose clapped-out tin roof belies Kufic inscriptions and a mihrab prayer niche dating to the 12th century inside.

But the gamble so far is a winning one. At six weeks old, The Residence offered service unmatched anywhere on the island (the aforementioned Mnemba excepted). Its 340 staff, 98 per cent Tanzanian and of that around three-quarters Zanzibari, underwent months of intensive training overseen by a team from the Mauritius property and the former spa director at Tunis. An impromptu request for dinner on our ocean-front villa’s terrace was executed with cadet-corps seamlessness, real culinary flourishes, and magically conjured brass votive candles scattered on the grass. A timid spa therapist, who seemed a sure bet for an unremarkable treatment, surprised with one of the more competent facials I’ve had.

And while to some it will seem anodyne in its sleekness, it is objectively beautiful. The restaurants, terrace bar and lounge are bathed in light and a breeze wafts through the massive Omani keyhole-shaped arches. The villas themselves, scattered across 30 hectares, are sparsely furnished with teak sofas, vintage photographs of local villages, huge canopied beds and seagrass rugs. Bathtubs sit flush next to ocean-facing glass walls for optimal appreciation of that beach, empty of all but Residence guests and the occasional local cycling past, a brace of fish slung over his handlebars.

Across the island in Bwejuu, where the resorts share wall boundaries, a mile-long empty beach seems a whimsy indeed. But the Raguz family, Kenyans of European descent, came close with the 1.2km they purchased in the early 1990s, when this coast was still quite empty. They are now something of a first family of Zanzibari hospitality: the three-star Breezes opened in 1995; then in 2002 came The Palms next door, far more luxurious with private beach cabanas and its namesake trees wrapped in fairy lights.

Baraza, their latest endeavour, is a paean to Zanzibar’s hybrid vernacular of Arab, Persian, African and Indian architecture, updated with soundless air-con and heated plunge pools. Villas are elegant white boxes with abundant gardens of frangipani and bougainvillea. Brasswork, gold silk, saffron velvet and latticed woods prevail in the interiors; they are opulent and light-suffused, sumptuous rather than suffocating. In fact, the whole resort is in escapist but faultless good taste; its spa is an extraordinary zone of iridescent tiles and canopied day beds, presided over by Balinese and Thai therapists who pad by smiling, incongruously offering the formal Kiswahili “hujambo” along with their namaste bow. Waiting staff in white linen traverse the beach bearing iced-fruit skewers and cocktails to a clientele of Europeans, Indians and honeymooning Americans. Most seem to be on a full-board option, convening in the evening in one of two restaurants. And Baraza, like The Residence, is a resort with a capital R. A more smug sort of traveller – the kind who bush-planes the whole brood into the Javanese interior for a fortnight in a house on stilts – might decry its gilded perfection, or disparage the guarded steel gates separating it from the “real” Zanzibar (though they might cast longing glances towards the cabana-lined pool while doing so).

The luxury does, however, come in gradations that integrate a bit more with what’s happening beyond the gates. Drive north through the lush rice plantations of the interior, crisscrossed by avenues of ancient mango trees; after half an hour the paved road ends abruptly, and a short, muddy while later, the dirt one terminates at the fishing village of Matemwe.

Matemwe Bungalows has been around “for yonks”, as Jones puts it – a laid-back string of huts along a cliff, where electricity only became a 24-7 fact of existence a handful of years ago (it was hurricane lanterns after dark before that). Just north of it is Matemwe Retreat, which opened in late 2008 – three rambling thatched villas cantilevered out over the rock bluff (a fourth was under construction in June). Where Baraza asserts its wow factor and The Residence is resolutely elegant, Matemwe Retreat is whimsical and ebullient, with charming low-fi nods to local culture (profusions of Swahili block prints, a massive living-room bar crafted from the hull of an old mtumbwi canoe). Atop each villa is a vast living terrace with a raised pool and shaded lounge area. Retreat guests are welcome at the Bungalows restaurant, considered one of the best in the area, but its chefs – affable, slightly cocky and quite talented – will also plan the day’s meals with you and serve them in your villa (with sundowners on your terrace, of course). The southern end of the beach abuts the village, where little boys in Arsenal jerseys shriek and splash in the tidal puddles while little girls in creamy hijab giggle and watch, and hens scramble amid herds of goats and speeding bicycles. In the evenings you might be joined by an inquisitive bush baby or two in your open-air living room, watching you as you dine. Late at night, the lights on Mnemba, a mile offshore to the north-east, flicker just at the edge of visibility.

After 14 years, Mnemba Island Lodge is still Zanzibar’s see-it-and-die luxury incumbent, despite it being accessible only via a pitted and deeply uncomfortable dirt road, which leads to a driftwood-strewn cove, whence a small speedboat shuttles you across the channel. Its clientele is clearly – many say fortunately – regulated by dint of this situation. (Not even Bill Gates arrived by helicopter, it’s said, so your garden-variety Kazakh mining magnate doesn’t stand a chance of doing so.) The 10 very chic bandas – imagine Crusoe had been shipwrecked with Ralph Lauren in lieu of Man Friday – are set in the deep shade of the casuarina forest at the island’s centre. The only wildlife is a profusion of seabirds and doves, two hare-sized antelope species and rare sea turtles which increasingly come here to nest (lodge managers will rouse everyone on the island in the wee hours to help deter the sand crabs that prey on the hatchlings making their valiant bid for the sea). Guests eschew clothes for days on end, wrapping themselves in the piles of kikoi stacked in their dressing rooms, and it’s possible to take the 20-minute stroll of the island’s circumference without seeing another soul. A few quietly commented on Mnemba’s rates; at an all-inclusive $3,000 per couple in the high season, they are the highest in Zanzibar by a large margin, and some felt the growing competition on the main island and in northern Mozambique should encourage a review. Perhaps they’re right; but beyond the artfully choreographed service, top-notch diving facilities and exquisite food, the truth, and arguably the justification, is a simple one: for the time being there is no other experience precisely like it in East Africa.

Zanzibar’s larger truth, meanwhile, is that the island itself is the asset these places will leverage to their success, for it is an unforgettable place. In 1867, the princess Sayyida Salme bint Saïd bin Sultan fled Stone Town amid family intrigue and a scandal involving a German lover and a secret conversion to Christianity. Despite her multiple appeals to return, she was shunned by her father’s successors, and remained in restless exile for the rest of her life. When she died in 1924, among her few remaining cherished possessions was a bag of fine white sand, taken from Mtoni beach some 65 years before.

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