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Like most travellers over thirty, I often find that places visited in my youth lose their charm to chain resorts and budget airlines. So, it is with relief that I can still return to my favourite Island of Pemba (the Tanzanian one, not the Madagascan one) to find it largely unchanged since I started going there 15 years ago. By contrast, Pemba’s larger neighbour of Zanzibar
(more accurately, Unguja, the main island of the Zanzibar archipelago) has been transformed over the same period of time.
The development of tourism on the Zanzibar archipelago
The Zanzibar archipelago (comprising Unguja, Pemba, Latham, Mafia and a few other tinier islands) was once a byword for the exotic, immortalised by Ernest Hemmingway
, Emily Ruete
and even Bing Crosby
. Sometimes known collectively as The Spice Islands, they were the primary producers of cloves and a major slave port for Middle Eastern traders from Oman. Following their independence in 1963, revolution in 1964, and subsequent collapse of the clove industry, Zanzibar has became a popular destination for independent travellers. And now, tourism is the main driver of the economy, accounting for 80% of foreign trade.
In the 90s some interesting high-end tourist spots opened up: the Emerson and Green boutique hotel in Stone Town with its famous rooftop majlis-style restaurant, Fundu Lagoon
on Pemba with its ‘barefoot chic’ aesthetic and Mnemba Island lodge
, famous for hosting super-wealthy celebrities like Bill Gates and Mick Jagger, although presumably not at the same time.
The rooftop restaurant at Emerson Spice (formerly Emerson and Green)
Since then, the number of tourists to Unguja has expanded dramatically, with some estimates being above a million visitors per year. This has been fuelled by regular international flights and more than 100 luxury resorts, including large Kempinski and Serena
beach resorts aimed squarely at the honeymoon market. The development is not limited to beach resorts, also including the transformation of part of the ancient capital city of Stone Town. This is with the arrival of a Hilton Doubletree
and Park Hyatt
to complement the more sympathetic conversions of Emerson Spice on the original Emerson and Green site, and the nearby Tembo House.
Getting to Pemba
In stark contrast to Zanzibar, Pemba remains relatively undeveloped and getting there does require a bit of effort. There are more than ten flights per day from Zanzibar with small local airlines. Coastal Air and ZanAir are probably the most prolific, typically using nine-seater Cessna Caravans. Landing in Pemba, you realise the extent of the difference from Zanzibar as you pass through an immigration control that is little more than a visitors’ book. The arrivals terminal is a 20 metre tunnel where your plane pulls up at one end, and the car park is at the other. After this, you still face a trip of an hour or more to get to either of the two main resorts of Fundu Lagoon in the South or The Manta Resort
in the North.
The effortless charm of Fundu Lagoon
Accessible only by boat, the reward for your efforts in getting to Fundu Lagoon is remoteness, peace and exclusivity. Fundu Lagoon’s formula has been a constant since it opened in 2003, and it still works well. The Fundu formula is epitomised and represented by the Resort Manager who will greet you on the jetty upon your arrival. In the twelve years that I’ve been visiting the resort, I’ve met three different managers and, whilst all distinctive, they are of one type: charming, relaxed and attentive. If I were casting Fundu Lagoon: The Movie, I’d probably go for Javier Bardem. Or maybe a later-career Matthew McConaughey.
The jetty at Fundu Lagoon in Pemba
The accommodation is of the posh tent/hut variety, either smaller ones set into the hillside or larger ones down on the beach. There is hot water, ceiling fans and a small fridge in all rooms, with larger decks and plunge pools in the larger rooms. Thankfully, flat screen TVs and iPod docks have been rejected in favour of the natural audio/visual stimulation provided by the ocean, views of which are shared in all the rooms.
The 18 rooms are interconnected with sandy walkways and some common facilities: a pool with a small spa and bar, main restaurant, jetty bar for sundowners and a top-quality dive shop. All with a nice feeling of considered restraint – concentrating on what matters (really good cocktails, fresh-baked pastries with mango jam) and not bothering with the superfluous luxury.
Path to the pool at Fundu Lagoon on Pemba
The beach is nothing special. Activities are largely focused around diving and snorkelling, but the whole place oozes charm, and only the hardest of hearts would not fall under its spell.
The Manta Resort’s perfect location
The Manta Resort
is in many ways a similar proposition to Fundu, but has its own unique character and features.
Situated on the North West corner of the island, the beach is beautiful and the sunsets are perfect for the honeymooners that are a big part of the clientele. Accommodation is somewhat more conventional, with stone and thatch huts, all with large ocean-view windows, TVs, A/C and minibar. The centerpiece of the common area is the terrace overlooking the ocean, complete with rocking chairs for relaxed sunset viewing.
The Manta Resort underwater room drone picture
The Manta resort’s trump card is the underwater bedroom – a three-story ‘room’ anchored a few hundred metres off-shore. The bedroom is 5m below the surface, the dining area and dock on the surface, and there is a roof deck with outdoor bed upstairs, for night-time star gazing. There is something undeniably magical about turning on the underwater lights after dark and being surrounded by illuminated shoals of trumpet fish, clown fish and the like. Alternatively, sleeping on the roof-bed, facing out over the ocean with nothing around you gives a feeling of remoteness and calm that can only otherwise be realistically achieved on a boat.
The underwater room at the Manta Resort on Pemba island
Other accommodation options
While Fundu and the Manta Resort are certainly the best places to stay in Pemba, there are other options. The Aiyana Pemba
is a recently-opened 30 villa resort just 300m South of the Manta Resort, and is part of a small chain of Sol Resorts across East Africa. A little further down the same stretch of coast is the Kevin Saray lodge, more basic and popular with divers. Beyond that, there are half-a-dozen smaller guest houses and lodges dotted around the island.
Pemba is a place of beauty and tranquility that still epitomises the traditional Swahili coast. Whilst I would wholeheartedly recommend visiting it, I hope not too many people follow my advice and it retains its charm for years to come.