Eco-luxury on the isle of Zanzibar

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ZANZIBAR, TANZANIA / / It's 6 a.m., the sun is about to catapult above the horizon, and trays with the makings for coffee and tea, along with tins of sweet cookies, appear quietly and almost magically on the verandas of the thatched-roof Matemwe Bungalows on the northeast coast of Zanzibar.

A woman wades in the low tide water below, hunting for seaweed to sell. Fishing boats, some of them with sail -- called dhows -- and smaller ones called ngalawa, propelled by poles in the strong arms of fishermen, pass by, heading for the deeper waters beyond the reef.

If that sounds idyllic, it's because it is.

The Matemwe Bungalows, 12 sanctuaries of peace and luxury, are situated on a coral reef facing the Indian Ocean, about an hour's drive north of Stone Town, the legendary center of spices and one-time home of East Africa's slave trade.

After enduring the final 10 minutes of travel through the village of Matemwe -- a bone-jarring, dusty experience on the unpaved road -- one begins to relax the moment one hears the dulcet voice of Nigel Folker, the resort's collegial and gracious general manager.

"It's too late for breakfast, too early for lunch," he says. "So let's get over to the bar and get you a bungo juice to ease those parched throats." Folker, a native of Durban, South Africa, explains that the juice of the fruit from the bungo tree is quite delicious -- and he is correct.

Matemwe Bungalows is one of several resorts in the Zanzibar archipelago that strive to take care of the environment by building it into the facilities.

At Matemwe, the small chunks of soap in the bathroom are made by local women from lemon grass and lemon juice, and hand-

wrapped in brown paper and string made from leaves. The shower and tap water is saltwater heated by solar panels. For drinking, there are bottles of water.

The resort was started in 1989 by two sisters from Sweden and was targeted to backpackers whose idea of fun was scuba diving and snorkeling at the nearby Mnemba Atoll. Now, it is a place for all manner of tourists. Capacity is 24 people unless some are children. If they are, the hotel's workers can add beds.

The rates have risen above backpacker levels -- when my wife and I visited in October, a bungalow with breakfast, lunch and dinner included cost $230 per person double in low season.

Rightfully, the resort champions its food. The chef, Said Mohammed, learned his trade in India, where his father was a diplomat, and buys his fruit and vegetables from markets in Stone Town as well as from the gardens of local villagers. The seafood was swimming the day before and is purchased from the same fishermen who daily pass the bungalows headed to deeper water.

The rooms are spacious bungalows with ceiling fans, king beds (covered at night with a mosquito mesh tent), bathtubs big enough for two and a veranda complete with hammock and lounging couch. There are two saltwater pools surrounded by lounging chairs and a bar (which closes when the last customer leaves).

For those seeking an even more luxurious experience, the resort has opened three villas to the north of the bungalows. Each villa has a private bar and air-conditioned bedroom on the ground floor, and an upper-level terrace with a plunge pool.

But the real treat here is that each villa comes with its own personal chef.

Zanzibar is

a frequent stop for tourists who have gone on safari in Tanzania on the plains of Serengeti or Ngorongoro Crater. A walk through the labyrinthine section of Stone Town, with its winding alleys and bustling bazaars, is a unique experience. Hearing the call to prayer -- the island is more than 90 percent Muslim -- is a moment forever to be remembered.

While popularly thought of as a single exotic island, Zanzibar is actually made up of two main islands and numerous smaller islands.

A 15-minute boat ride from Stone Town lands us on Chapwani Island, a strip of land about 200 feet wide and less than a half-mile long. It has abundant wildlife -- hermit crabs, small antelope called dik-dik and a variety of birds.

There are only five guest cottages here, each with two rooms for two. With a maximum guest population of 20, there is almost a Robinson Crusoe feeling of intimacy, and the staff works hard to take care of all. Rates -- with all meals -- are $150 per person double occupancy during low season, $170 in high season. And if you're looking for that special place to take all your friends -- the entire island can be rented for $2,400 to $2,600 per night with a three-night minimum.

The electrical power on the island is supplied by a generator that is shut down from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and from midnight to 6 a.m. It's hardly noticeable unless the breeze dies at night. With no electricity to run the overhead fan, your options for staying cool are few. For those who would move outside to sleep, be aware of night noises, such as the flapping wings of the island's fruit-bat colony.

The rooms are small and come with a four-poster bed with mosquito net, a saltwater shower and a writing desk. Each bungalow has a front porch with a lounger for afternoon naps. Just south of the dining area is a saltwater swimming pool with a view of the Tanzanian coast, but most folks head for the beach.

There is also a cemetery here, which explains Chapwani's original name of Grave Island. Here are buried soldiers who were killed during World War I or fighting slave traders who defied abolition.

Much of the meals features local cuisine. On one night during our stay, chef Ali Abassi devoted the dinner menu entirely to Zanzibarian food: breadfruit, chickpea dumplings, choroko (lentils in rice), cassava leaves and cassava roots (known as muhogo), plantains, chapati (a flour tortilla), rice with coconut or masala sauce, and grilled snapper and grouper.

The hotel is owned by a group of friends led by Francoise Pilois-

Brown and her husband, Nigel Brown, who were married in February 1999 in Zanzibar. At the time, the island was abandoned, and they arranged for their 100 wedding guests to be taken there by boat for a picnic on the beach.

It was in Zanzibar that they met Maura Antonietta, an Italian by birth who has spent most of her life in Zanzibar and who was instrumental in helping them acquire the island. Now, Antonietta watches over the resort, though if you ask her if she is the manager, she will reply, "I prefer not to say manager. I prefer to say this is my home and you are my guests."

That is a sentiment shared by the staff, particularly Kathleen Andrew Nsema, who can only be described as an all-singing, all-

dancing lady in waiting. She coaxed out of my wife and me while we were sitting at the bar that we were celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary.

That evening, when we walked to the main house for dinner, Kathleen declared with a broad smile, "You will not be dining in the main dining room this evening. Please wait here."

Minutes later, kerosene lantern in hand, she led us out of the main house. "For your anniversary, you will be dining on the beach," she said. "Follow me, please."

About 50 paces away, at the edge of the beach with the lights of Stone Town twinkling in the background, was a table for two, surrounded by 21 pockets dug out in the sand in the shape of a heart. Inside each cavity was a lighted candle. It was a scene carved from a romance novel.

This was a "home" worth visiting.

Maurice Possley writes for the Chicago Tribune.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Most flights to Zanzibar are from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, or Nairobi, Kenya. You can also take a 90-minute ferry ride from Dar es Salaam. From the airport, a taxi ride to Matemwe is about $25; to Stone Town harbor, it's less than $10. Chapwani Island offers complimentary boat transfers daily from the island to Stone Town.

LODGING

All rates are for 2008 and are per person based on double occupancy, with meals included. High season is, roughly, early to mid-July through August and late December through early January.

Matemwe Bungalows (011-255-747-414-834; matem we.com) are $230-$245 in low season, $285 in high season. The Retreat Villas are $400 low season, $485 high season. No air conditioning, except in villas. Closed April 1-May 31.

Chapwani Island (011-39-051-234-974; chapwani island.com) bungalows are $150 low season, $170 high season. The entire island can be booked for $2,400 per day low season, $2,600 high season -- minimum three nights. No air conditioning. Closed April 1-June 4.

INFORMATION

The Tanzanian government charges an entry fee of $100 for U.S. citizens and requires U.S. citizens to pay a $30 exit fee when leaving the country. Both fees payable in U.S. dollars. The dry seasons are from December to February and June to October. There is a brief rainy season in November, but the main rains fall from mid-March to the end of May.

[MAURICE POSSLEY]

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