Island Outpost of Old Araby in the Indian Ocean
The very name Zanzibar conjures up images of romantic spice islands, and—like legendary Timbuktu or Kathmandu – the name alone is almost reason enough to make up for decades overlooked by Western capitalism, Zanzibar is now at the brink of development.
Wide-bodied jets, deluxe cruises, and package tours can greatly improve an island economy while destroying its delicate historical fabric: Now is the time to visit Stone Town’s maze of narrow streets, crooked passages, and crumbling houses with overhanging balconies. Arab traders built homes here after they amassed their wealth by trading in gold, ivory, cloves, and – most lucratively – slaves destined for Arabia and Persia. Zanzibar was once the largest slave market on Africa’s east coast. Today a 19th-century Anglican church stands on the spot of the old slave market, the main altar built where the whipping post once stood. The intricately carved doorways, some inlaid with brass, are all the luxury that’s left of the lavish traders’ homes.
A number of these dilapidated homes have been rescued by American-born entrepreneur Emerson Skeens together with Thomas Green and other partners. They have captured the romance of this island, collecting the antiques, local wood carvings, four-poster beds swathed in mosquito netting, and Zanzibari art that decorate their two restored historical house hotels, Emerson & Green Hotel and Shangani House.
The rooftop alfresco tearooms and restaurants serve food of a quality to match the decor. In the Emerson & Green Hotel, a former Persian home with ten rooms altogether, a hike up the steep teak staircase leads to four unique top-floor guest rooms open to the breezes and a magnificent view of the old city’s minarets and the Indian Ocean. Beyond lie the African coast and the glaciers of Kilimanjaro, which, according to some guests, are visible on exceptionally clear days.
The newest pearl in Emerson’s string of accommodations is nearby Salome’s Garden, a rambling Arab sultan’s home on the coastline, surrounded by lush gardens and ocean views. Like its sister hotels, it’s steeped in folklore and romance that more than compensate for what it lacks in 20th-century plumbing.