Subscribe to Mambo Magazine
Hot hotels: Emerson Spice
It's a fierce fight for prime location amongst the rooftops of Stone Town, with many hotels fighting for recognition as the best place to enjoy an atmospheric sundowner, as day passes to night and voices echo in the stone ravines below.
However the gong looks like it has surely passed for now to the teahouse of the recently opened Emerson Spice hotel. This characterful, chic hotel has a 360 degree view of the UNESCO world heritage site that is Stone Town. In tribute to its religious diversity, from this eyrie you can see a cathedral, a Hindu temple and a mosque.
View from teahouse in daytime
With delicately carved wooden trellising and hanging lanterns, this is an incredibly romantic location, and the food lives up to this promise too. Dinner is a six course menu of small dishes with an emphasis on flavour and freshness. Zanzibari seafood, spices and fruit are the main stars here, often in combination, with typical dishes including passion fruit ceviche, lemongrass calamari with black pepper banana, tambi prawns with grilled mango, coconut fish, squid ink risotto, and sorbets of custard apple with saffron and mango with cardamom.
At the current price of $20, dinner is a steal. Food is finished off and plated up at the mini kitchen in the corner of the teahouse in front of diners, by a loyal staff, some of whom have worked with owner Emerson Skeens for decades.
Emerson himself was the co-founder of Emerson & Green, the original Stone Town boutique hotel that became the blueprint for many others as the tourist scene developed in Zanzibar. One of his passions is the design process, and much thought has gone into the development of the hotel rooms. (Five rooms are currently open, with a sixth opening shortly and the plan is to have 12 rooms once the hotel is complete.)
It's currently a bargain to stay here as the hotel isn't finished, so it's a great chance to check out this hotel, which has already played host to celebrities such as Matt Dillon and Juliette Binoche. It's already far and away the best reviewed hotel in Stone Town on Tripadvisor.
Of the existing rooms, Emerson's personal favourite is Camille (although he says Kate, which will be based on Katherine Hepburn, will steal his favour once once it opens). He offers guests extravagant descriptions of the inspirations behind each room, although they are all variations on a theme.
Of Camille he says: "Camille is dedicated to the film version of Dumas' La Dame aux Camelias. When I say the film version, I mean the immortal version by George Cukor, starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor; two of the most beautiful people ever captured on film...
"On entering the room Camille for the first time, it felt somehow like a French country villa... The height above the street gave the view from veranda a Manhattan feel and a remoteness from the street below. Combine the citiscape with the French villa feeling, and there I was in a netherworld of Greta Garbo's Camille and Garbo's Manhattan life.
"Zanzibar, like most places, was influenced by Art Deco... Zenji Deco was the solution to the netherworld of Camille and Garbo. The gold satin that is a background to the room represents the Oscar that four times eluded her. The deco bed is a queen but looks reserved for one."
The history of the hotel is fascinating. The oldest wing of the building (which is actually formed from three separate buildings), built in the Swahili Arab style, was originally owned by the last Swahili ruler of Zanzibar, Muhammad bin Ahmed, known as the Mwenyi Mkuu. He died of smallpox here in 1873 but first enjoyed a lavish lifestyle - "silk, silver, gems and hundreds of slaves".
An Indian businessman, Mr Patel, took over the building and added new wings in the Indian style. At this time, East Africa's richest man Tharia Topan started to do business from the building.
When the courtyard was being excavated, two mysterious crypts of hardened lime were discovered. They might have once contained tombs or treasure but were discovered to already have been stripped of their contents. However, thousands of abalone and oyster shells were found, giving credence to the story that there was once a jewellery store here specialising in mother-of-pearl. Meanwhile, the large number of shards from large, colored chemical bottles testifies to its housing the first photographic studio in Zanzibar.
Balcony of Violetta room
N.B. There are now six rooms open in the hotel, and the price of dinner has gone up to a still relatively wallet-friendly $25. (May 2012)
What's to love:
+ Class and character
+ In-the-know advice from owner Emerson about what to do in Stone Town, especially if you are a history and culture aficionado
+ Quality food with fresh, local ingredients
+ Friendly staff
What's not to love:
- The hotel is right inside the maze of alleyways that make up Stone Town, so if your sense of direction is poor beware
- Mosquitoes can be bad here, as throughout town, so pack lots of repellent
View from the hotel into Tharia Square
Pemban dance and music group Shauri ya Moyo perform outside the hotel