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Few things in life excite me more than spending time in nature. I love anything that involves the wild, the mountains, the sea and any kinds of sustainable and responsible interactions with wildlife, from humpback whales in Tonga to diving Sipadan or Fiji, to swimming in Bora Bora’s shark infested waters or trekking for gorillas in Uganda. This is one of the many reasons why I love Africa. A day out on safari is as perfect a day for me as a day out at sea. Show me a wild animal in its own territory and I will show you a happy Mar.
Naturally, when I read that you could sleep with the fish in the middle of the Indian Ocean in Tanzania, I was excited that someone had come up with the perfect hotel room. What else could you ask for than your own private underwater room complete with another star gazing bed? The Manta Resort, in Pemba Island off Zanzibar and the Tanzanian Coast offers just that. Would you like to know what it is like to sleep among the fish in the world’s first underwater room? Continue reading my review of The Manta Resort to find out what it was like.
Arrival and check in at The Manta Resort, Tanzania
Pemba is remote, The Manta Resort is remote. If Zanzibar evokes images of a lost tropical paradise washed in warm waters and breezes of a spicey past, Pemba is the little sister you didn’t know existed and it is going to be the next Tanzanian island to reach the starlight. You heard it here first.
To reach The Manta Resort you first need to get to Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, or Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. From there, you can board a plane to Zanzibar from where you can connect on a tiny propeller plane to Pemba. When I say tiny airplane, I mean it. If you have never taken a Cessna or Caravan plane across the African Savannah, you will be shocked to see how small the plane is. On our flight with ZanAir, the plane was so tiny and packed that the pilot had to make his way from the back of the plane on the 10cm 1m high aisle between the two rows of window seats after all the 9 guests were seated because the plane had no front door. These propeller planes don’t fly very high, staying at comfortable sightseeing heights which add to the experience.
It is a fabulous experience, unless you are scared of flying. If that is you, you will be terrified. The plane shakes a lot, the windows can open mid-air, the draft comes in and gusts of wind can shake the plane. If you are not afraid of flying, the experience is exhilarating.
After you land in Pemba you will get your luggage delivered by hand, like in Zanzibar and you will meet your driver. The Manta Resort is at the very northeast tip of the island, so it takes about one hour and a half to get there in a 4×4 car. As our driver put it, the first 46min are on a comfortable paved road then it all becomes a bumpy track. He was right. But look through the window for fantastic landscapes and pictures of life on a small African island. Children run around, chickens cross the road unannounced, cows roam freely – sometimes tied to the ground by their noses. The fields are planted with sweet potato and clove, a spice Pemba is known for.
When you arrive, you will be seated on the veranda, at the top of the hill, where the lobby and restaurant have the best views and you will immediately forget about the surely messy flights, confusing connections and the bumpy ride. Peace will have descended and your mood will be changed.
We were offered a drink, a gin and tonic in our case, to continue with our bush feeling and fend off the sunset mosquitoes while we were explained how things worked and then introduced to our butler. As everything was prepaid in advance, we didn’t really need to provide many details, so we just walked through the spa and activity options and showed to our room when the glasses were empty and the sun had set. Perfect timing.
The resort room at The Manta Resort, Tanzania
We were staying for three nights, so we spent two of them in a regular sea facing villa and one in the underwater room. You don’t really want to spend more than one night in the underwater room, for two reasons. One is the steep price. The novelty costs USD1,500 per night. The other is the comfort. Although I slept well both under water and on the star gazing bed, the underwater room has no hot water, only a marine toilet and the feeling of isolation is at its maximum. You can’t go anywhere but the water, so after one day you have experienced it and are happy to go back to firm land.
The main resort area consisted of several brick, thatched and very spacious villas with two kinds of views. The first line of villas were located above the beach and had views of the sea. They were a wonderful place to wake up in and also to watch the sunset from. They were huge, with a four poster bed and a higher level with the toilet, shower and two sinks.
I liked the rustic chic feel to the place and the fact that they were relatively bare, with most of the furniture made of local wood and white washed walls. The sea facing wall had expansive windows with only wooden doors placed at night and otherwise fully opened onto the sea. There was a day bed by the window from where you could read or relax.
A small desk and a couple of armchairs with a low table completed the decor. But the room was likely just a place to sleep and wake up in as the resort, the beach and the surroundings were so beautiful you wouldn’t want to spend any time indoors. I liked the simplicity of the decoration, we didn’t really need any fancy furniture or accessories.
Perhaps the slightly odd and impractical part of the room was the fact that the shower had no curtain and basically opened out to the rest of the room with little place to hide from the person showering. As I was sharing the room with a friend, this made for awkward moments.
There was also a second line of villas that were further in from the sea-facing ones and so lacked the view. You could enjoy the view from the main lobby area too. But waking up to the clear blue skies, the sound of the birds and the green of some lush trees that frame the ocean is a view that I will forever remember.
This is however the time when I have to mention, because it would unfair not to say it, that we had several issues with a mouse inside our villa that made us feel a tad unattended. On our second night we woke up at 1am to the noise of a mouse jumping from the top of our four poster bed’s mosquito net onto the floor. I turned on the light and I was sure I saw a mouse, but despite looking for it in the rather bare room, we could not find it so we went to get the staff. We got hold of the guard who alerted the manager.
After a helpless attempt at finding the mouse, we could only go back as the resort was full and so there was nowhere else to relocate us to. The mouse, with its two baby mice, proceeded to spend the rest of the night jumping around, making squeaky noises and even having a bath in the toilet, no kidding, splashing everywhere. Needless to say, even after taking a sleeping pill I was woken up every hour by the noise and Edwin ended up sleeping on the daybed (and getting bitten by mosquitoes in the process) to be farther away from the noise. It was an unpleasant night. In the morning, we saw it again and knew it was still in the room.
The staff spent the morning trying to locate it, looking for holes in the thatched roof and found the nest with the two babies. We were sure the problem was a one off and it would not happen again. In the evening, when we were getting ready for dinner, we saw the mouse by the open window jump right back into the room. Thankfully, we managed to chase it until it got into Edwin’s bag and we could give it to the staff to get rid of it. In the process, I also discovered that the mouse had eaten a pair of my trousers which the resort paid for. It was all a very unfortunate once-off event but left a sour taste in our mouths as it all happened on my birthday. Perhaps the resort should not run on full house in case such incidents occur, and are almost unavoidable when you are in the wild.
A night at the underwater room
The star of the resort and what has made it famous beyond its pretty location and dreamy destination is the first underwater room in the world, located all by itself in the Indian ocean. But first things first. Where is the underwater room at The Manta Resort?
The room is actually in the middle of the Indian Ocean, held to the bottom by four anchors, otherwise floating freely. That means that if there are big waves, the room actually moves quite a bit. Its location was chosen particularly because it is the deepest part of the shallow reef and for being close to various coral heads teeming with marine life. It takes about five minutes on the resort speedboat to get there and the structure can be seen from the main resort although it is impossible to make up anything without binoculars. This is an accessory everyone coming to The Manta Resort will have as this is a typical add-on to a safari in Kenya or Tanzania. So bear that in mind if you plan to walk around or sleep on the sun bed naked.
The platform is made of three decks at three levels. The one at sea level has a table where you will be having your meals and sofas on a horseshoe-shaped lounge. That part is mostly in the shade and is facing the horizon. From there, the view is exclusively of the sea and you can’t see or be seen from the shore. The toilet and a small fridge, as well as shelf space are also on this level.
From the sea level deck you can either climb up to the top deck and relax or sunbathe on the sun bed or descend down the vertical ladder to the underwater room. The rooftop has nothing more than a bed with a proper mattress. The feeling of being stranded and lost at sea is of a maximum from there.
Descending down to the underwater room is quite a feat. The ladder goes down four meters under sea level and requires both your hands. If you forget something or need to carry anything with you, there is a small rope which we attached to a bin basket and used to fetch things up and down. This was a makeshift lift of sorts which was pretty useful to carry cameras and tripods.
Under water, the room is nothing more than a box barely bigger than the double bed that is in it and made of glass on all four sides. Fish swim freely in the ocean at the other side of the window and, at night, they are attracted by the four blue spotlights projected from the room onto the water. There lies the magic of The Manta Resort’s underwater room.
The view at any time of the day was so mesmerising that it was easy to lose track of time and just stay there lost in your thoughts.
Food was brought by the staff in containers at the agreed times and we just kept it all until the next service, so we were basically alone without any interruptions, except for the curious passing boats of fishermen who seemed quite intrigued and interested in seeing who was staying on that night.
What is there to do in the underwater room? You can take a mask, snorkel and fins with you in case you want to jump in and meet the fish up close. Other than that you are pretty much alone with nature and the elements. It is hard to explain what it felt like, the closest comparison is a sailing trip on a glass bottom boat.
When night descended, the sea level “living room” faced the sunset and so it was the most beautiful place to see the light fade away behind passing sail boats – with a drink.
After dinner, I did not want to go to sleep. Instead, I wanted to take it all in, the underwater room’s fish action and the rooftop’s star gazing experience. I was overwhelmed but I fell asleep early, nonetheless. I woke up several times as if my mind was fighting my body for a chance to experience a night away from the world.
I first went to sleep under the stars, wrapped around several blankets to protect myself from the humid and cold winter night in the ocean. I then woke up, still feeling chilly, and went downstairs to watch the fish. I could then not fall asleep. Simply looking through the glass, I was hypnotised by a tornado of reef fish swirling around in unison, perfectly coordinated and choreographed, as if they had practised for years. There were the occasional trumpet fish and even a very large tuna fish that I spotted at 3am. Excited, I wanted to wake my friend Edwin up and tell him, but the fish must have felt my excitement and swam away.
Dozing in and out of sleep, I woke up at 4am to unique sightings of a squid and a few small jelly fish. Translucent under the dark night and the blue light, the jelly fish, barely recognisable, were gently floating up and down, with the current, like ballerinas in motion. Everything around us was pure magic, the same incredible and unexplainable beauty I was drawn to as a kid when my older sister’s boyfriend bought her a 200 litre tropical warm water fish tank that she filled with lobster, Nemo clown fish and other pretty and colourful fish. I used to sit down by the stairs, next to the tank, and watch the fish at night when the equally blue light was on. It was relaxing and peaceful in a way only untamable fish can be.
The next morning, I woke up with the sunrise and climbed up to the rooftop to continue dozing on and off from my sleep as the sun pierced through the palm trees on the other side of the island and started to warm up the air. Breakfast was brought to us and we enjoyed the last few hours of our stay at sea trying to unsuccessfully fly the drone against the gusting winds.
As you are in an all-inclusive type of resort with no other options, eating the food there is quite appropriate. There is nowhere else to go, so breakfast, lunch and dinner will be eaten at the main restaurant area. Your butler can also organise alternate settings for either meal if you are celebrating anything special – be it by the beach, by the pool or anywhere else – but the food will be the same.
Breakfast consisted of a choice of a cooked dishes with the usual eggs any style or pancakes, cut local tropical fruits, a sponge cake or muffin and toasts with jams. Coffee and juice, although strangely not always freshly squeezed, were also offered and I got a fresh coconut on several occasions.
Lunch was light with a starter dish that often included breads and dips and a main of fish or meat that expressed Zanzibar’s and Pemba’s melting pot of cultures and heritage with curries and grilled fresh fish.
Dinner, as in most journeys through the continent, was a more formal affair. Not that anyone wore anything else than flip flops and linen shirts or floral dresses, but the veranda was dimmed with candles and oil lamps. There was a three course menu featuring more elaborate dishes, if still using the same ingredients.
The most amazing part of dinner was the atmosphere. Out there under the starry night, it was as romantic a setting as it could have been. One evening, as it was my birthday, our table was set by the pool under a large tree, our feet dipped in the sand, with a curious bush baby for company. We were completely alone and in silence, except for when the waiter came to bring and take our plates. It was a beautiful and special meal entertained by the bush baby who insisted on coming close and eating the pieces of bread we threw by him. He got within a meter from our table.
Although the food was tasty and filling, there was not a lot of variation. I felt that the choice repeated itself a bit and I found myself eating tuna three times in three days. This is expected since the resort is so remotely located that the ingredients used are locally sourced. I am all for reducing carbon emissions and promoting proximity food and would have felt pretty bad if we were offered Australian grain-fed beef, but being on an island I would have expected and welcomed more of a fish and seafood variety since most of the locals were fisherman, and indeed lived off fishing. The waters teemed with marine life after all so it would have been great to have a different choice of fish every day.
The restaurant’s drink menu had several Kenyan and Tanzanian beers as well as a selection of wines and a cocktail list to enjoy with the sunset. There was no better way to while away the hours before dinner than with a drink and the beautiful view of the sun setting in the horizon behind pink and purple bougainvillea in bloom. The cocktails were original, hand made and used local ingredients, so they were just perfect.
If you are peckish during the day there are cookies and coffee/tea available in the main lobby. As the drinks are available and included throughout the stay, it is pretty convenient to simply order and enjoy them anywhere.
The activities and facilities
Although it seems that most people come here to find relaxation and peace, there is also plenty to keep you busy at The Manta Resort, from diving to sailing or walking up to a lighthouse.
Pemba island can also be explored, as can the forest near the resort where 70% of the world’s cloves are grown. If you enjoy being in the water, there are kayak excursions, snorkelling trips and boat cruises at sunset or to a nearby sandbank.
We took a traditional Tanzanian fishing boat out at sunset and sailed around the tip of the island to a long white sand beach on the other side. After enjoying some drinks and snacks on the shore, we saw the sun set behind the palm trees as we sailed back to the resort. The trip also included a quick visit to our captain’s village on the way back. It was all very organic and casual.
Diving is possible and there is a dive center on site. The West side of Pemba has a few dive sites with plenty of coral and fish including sharks, tuna, rays and even turtles.
Lastly, if you want to truly indulge, the resort also has a spa.
To make all the above easiest, every evening as you are having dinner, the dive center instructor, your butler and the spa manager will drop by every table to check if you would like to sign up for any activities for the next day.
But if you want to genuinely enjoy the sea, sand and sun, the resort’s beach is beautiful and quiet and there are enough sun beds spread out enough that you don’t have to be anywhere near any other guest if you don’t want to. And for fresh water lovers, the pool, one level above the sea, is the perfect place for a swim. If you’ve had too much sun though, there is a small bar and lounge area by the pool with cushioned swings to read on.
Other things to consider include the lack of TVs, though I only just realised that, and the poor and weak WiFi signal only available in the restaurant area. This was not such a big deal for us, as we were not there to go online but it will be impossible to get any work done or do anything more than just check emails and do social media.
The staff were eagerly keen and always smiling. They were friendly and caring and constantly coming to check up if we needed anything. Like in other parts in the continent, Africa taught me to have patience. When you are on holiday you are not in a rush anyway, but Pemba is not a place you come to get things done quickly. It is rather a place to savour the journey as much as the destination.
I have stayed at plenty of resorts, lodges, beach hotels and all sorts of accommodations options across Africa. Africa is my happy place and it has taught me a lot about myself, about life and about the things that really matter. Coming back this year, after 6 years not stepping foot in the continent, I longed for the same feeling I had when I first arrived in December 2006 and it did not disappoint. A part of it was my time at The Manta Resort.
The beautiful beach, the powdery sand, the receding tides over warm turquoise waters, the feeling of time standing still. The Manta Resort is a place you come to find peace and yourself. The place is beautiful, in a way only rugged love can be, and the magic of the sun, from sunrise to sunset, is a stark reminder that happiness may as well be a feeling we can only cherish when we have nothing.
But trust me on this one, spend a night with the “fishes” and under the stars, it will be one of the feelings you will take with you and remember for life.
Once in a Lifetime Journey was a guest of The Manta Resort. As always, all opinions are our own.