Architect Vincent Van Duysen’s favourite island hotel

The Belgian architect, who is making his own foray into hotel design in Antwerp, has claimed a tiny private-atoll resort off the east African coast as his hideaway

The sea view from one of the 12 thatched-roof bandas at Mnemba Island Lodge on Zanzibar
The sea view from one of the 12 thatched-roof bandas at Mnemba Island Lodge on Zanzibar | Image: Stevie Mann

“I first came to Zanzibar about 15 years ago, after a safari through Tanzania. The archipelago is often dubbed Africa’s Spice Islands, and immediately you see and feel the influences from its historical role as a major post on the trade route between Persia and Arabia. You can see it in the mélange of architecture styles in Stone Town – I was fascinated by all the beautifully carved wooden doors – where the narrow streets feel like northern Africa. You can see it in the dress of the people and taste it in the food. There is such a compelling mixture of everything. At one moment you think you could be in India and at another you think you are somewhere in the Arabian peninsula.  

To reach Mnemba, a tiny Robinson Crusoe-like atoll off Zanzibar Island, first you drive through spice plantations about 90 minutes from Stone Town north and east. There, at the water, a small boat is waiting for you; people are carrying your luggage on their shoulders and you have to take your shoes off and roll up your trousers to get to the boat. So when you arrive at Mnemba, you are already barefoot and feeling like a content castaway. 

Minimalist architect Vincent Van Duysen
Minimalist architect Vincent Van Duysen | Image: Kasia Gatkowska

Mnemba is a very private, unpretentious paradise, with 12 bandas with thatched roofs. They are hidden within tropical foliage just metres from the beach; each has its own private veranda where you can sit and look out over the turquoise waters. I’d wake up every morning and jump out of bed and run right into the ocean. Although there are other guests, of course, you always feel like you have the island to yourself. The staff, who treat you like family, set up private dinners on the beach or in your banda. All the food is fresh and almost everything, including the bread, is homemade. They catch fish for your next meal right in front of you. Everything is beautiful but unpretentious; the curtain in the bathroom is made from strung stone pearls.  

The luxury of being on Mnemba is that you feel cut off from the stresses of the world and big city life; and for a time you are completely embraced by the beauty of nature. There are no televisions. Instead, there is wildlife all around – I would spot these tiny antelopes walking by the banda, and green sea turtles were laying their eggs in the sand. I also had one of the most beautiful dives of my life there: they took us out on a boat and suddenly we were surrounded by dozens of bottlenose dolphins. We dived in with them and they were dancing and making loops around us. It was really incredible – I felt completely disconnected not just from my mind but also from my body, literally floating away from all daily concerns. I felt absolutely free. 

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The first time I stayed, Mnemba was managed by CC Africa, which became &Beyond. Both companies are all about sustainability and conservation. More than 10 years ago, &Beyond formed a marine conservation area around Mnemba. That is a big part of the appeal as well – that as a guest, I am contributing something to the place in terms of preservation. It makes the experience that much more meaningful.

I went back a second time a few years ago; and I will go back again, without question, because the place touched me so deeply.”

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