Culture

Why Mnemba Island in Zanzibar needs to be on top of your holiday list

There are few places in the world where the quaint is as charming as it is in Stone Town, in the old part of Zanzibar City in Tanzania. The diverse and chequered past of this UNESCO World Heritage Centre (it was a major hub of the spice trade in its heyday) seems to have finally settled into a languid harmony of Portuguese, Arab, Indian and English influences. My husband Gaurav [Mahajan] and I arrived at Stone Town on an early flight from Mumbai, enroute to Mnemba Island, a luxurious private island retreat. We began with a leisurely breakfast at the serene terrace at Park Hyatt, watching little boys jump gleefully into the ocean, giving us a fabulous start to the day. The water sparkled under the morning sun and fishermen were busy casting their nets from old wooden boats painted in bright colours. We could have stayed there forever, but decided to shake off the reverie and explore the town in the few hours we had before our journey to Mnemba Island. All around us were narrow winding alleys, ivy-clad mansions, breathtaking mosques and buzzing bazaars. We chanced upon designer Doreen Mashika’s store, and I bought myself a stunning cape in her trademark bold colours, decorated with local motifs. After some very fine Arabic coffee and a delicious piece of cake at the heritage Zanzibar Coffee House, we clambered into the limousine that would ferry us to the speedboat to the ultra private and very intimate Mnemba Island.

Arrival at Mnemba

An hour’s drive brought us to a beach where a boat swayed gently in the water a few metres out. The sand was soft and powder-white, the water was a clear turquoise, the sky was a sharp blue and the sun’s intensity was unrelenting. We waded through knee-high water to reach our speedboat. Soon, we set foot on Mnemba Island, run by South African wildlife operator andBeyond, which is known for its uber-luxe and stylish lodges. This one was barefoot luxury in the truest sense—we didn’t need footwear till it was time to leave. The most striking feature of the lodge was its open living concept: two open thatched pavilions on the beach; one with a dining table, chairs and a couch (called a sala), and the other, luxuriously appointed with a beautiful large bed, an open bathroom and a sit-out, known as a banda. At any point of time, we had a dozen or so crabs for company. The proximity to nature gave Gaurav and me a wonderful opportunity to reflect and bond. We spent long, languid afternoons lounging under the shade afforded by our sala, chatting and watching the sun shimmer on the sea.

Life at Mnemba

Each morning, we would wake up to the gentle sound of the ocean and our butler would arrive with platters laden with fresh fruit and assorted breakfast goodies. Long walks, snorkelling at the stunning reef, diving, or just moments spent together in silence; peace was de-rigueur on the island. Lunch was normally relished under the dining sala— heaps of prawns and lobsters marinated in local spices, along with an appetising spread of mezze. And the flaming sunsets were among the
most beautiful I have ever seen: crimson, bordering on purple, lighting up the water and enveloping the entire island in its soft glow.

Delight at Mnemba

andBeyond had some wonderful surprises in store for us: a spectacular beach side dinner in a sand pit, a lantern-lit table in the middle of a pine forest, a sunset dhow cruise and massages by the beach. But the one Gaurav and I enjoyed the most? Swimming alongside a pod of dolphins that visited us just off the shore from our sala. Zanzibar offers some of the most unspoiled coral reefs and among the best marine life in the Indian Ocean. We saw blue potato groupers, indigo Napoleon fish, deep red cubera snappers and sea turtles. But the biggest stamp of approval to Mnemba’s pristine ecosystem came from the sea turtles themselves, who have, for years, chosen the island as their nesting site. On our last night, guided only by starlight, we followed our butler down the beach to watch a massive turtle laying her eggs. The next morning, as the boat left the jetty to drop us back to the mainland, I stole a last look at our island escape. It had indeed been the perfect setting for that essential dose of togetherness.

Priti Mahajan came with a memories of lifetime after a few days at Zanzibar's picturesque Mnemba Island

Photographs: andBeyond, Priti Mahajan