The road to Mnemba island is long and arduous – a bumpy drive from Stone Town to a remote, forgotten beach populated by the occasional bus of dive tourists, and a few fishing boats, followed by a short speed boat ride to the little sand-fringed, broccoli-covered island. But when you get there, you realise this is exactly as it should be – you can’t get away from it all if you don’t leave civilisation behind. A small private island off the north-eastern coast of Zanzibar’s main island (Unguja) set in its own atoll, Mnemba Island Lodge, run by the experts in luxury adventure experiences Andbeyond, this is the ultimate in barefoot luxury.
A symphony of doves cooing greets you as you arrive at the beach, and that birdsong becomes the soundtrack of your stay. There are just 20 bandas – the local name for the sprawling, open-plan rustic-style beach villas – on the island. There are no doors and windows in the bandas, just doorways and an oversized, blank picture frame suspended on one wall of the lounge area – the view is all the art you need. But don’t let that worry you – you are truly undisturbed here, and once you’ve got your head around the fact that the canopy of greenery surrounding the banda offers complete privacy, it is extremely liberating. Your private butler arrives at pre-agreed times to bring you whatever you need, whether it’s your morning cuppa, sundowners at the beach, or anything else that catches your fancy.
Simple whites and natural materials pervade the décor, which is designed to encourage lounging – from the multitude of stuffed cushions dotted around, and thoughtful touches like local board games and birdwatching books provided. Not that you’ll need much distraction, between snorkelling in the crystal clear waters (Mnemba island enjoys restricted access to the surrounding waters which boast some of the best underwater life of Zanzibar), kayaking, swimming with the dolphins (they make a regular appearance in the area) or simply kicking back in your private beach loungers.
Or indulging in a gourmet feast. Food is a highlight of a stay at Mnemba, with the freshest produce used to create simple yet sumptuous meals. Every morning at breakfast, either the executive chef or the sous chef has a personal chat with each guest to discuss the day’s meal plan. While a suggested menu is written up on a chalkboard at the common dining room area, meals can be personalised to taste, and dietary concerns are carefully managed.
The young chefs, armed with experience at leading hotels around the world, do their best to put food on the table that is no more than four-six hours old, and sourced from around the region. It is a common sight to see local fishermen turning up at the resort parading in with their fresh catch in for the chefs to take their pick. And even the fruit and veg are as local as possible, with the farthest sourcing point probably being Arusha, a mountain town in mainland Tanzania.
But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Or in this case, in every single course. Simple, light and uncomplicated Mediterranean flavours with an Asian influence and a hint of Africa let the ingredients shine through, and make every meal memorable. Whether it’s lunch of pan seared freshly caught tuna with rice noodles, wasabi sauce and sesame tuille at a private dining spot tucked away in the middle of a natural bower, or breakfast of homemade jams, fresh fruit and made-to-order eggs, the team ensure that you have a happy belly at all times.
Each day brings a new culinary surprise, and if all the stars align during your stay, you might be lucky to catch one of their beach barbecue nights. A magical, intimate setting is created with candles and cushions, with waves gently lapping inches from your feet, where guests get an opportunity to socialise – if they want – over cocktails and canapes at first, followed by freshly barbecued fish and meats accompanied by delicious sides. It isn’t unusual for the entertainment to be provided by the sous chef, who displays almost as much talent in the singing department as he does in the kitchen!
This is just one of the many unexpected delights you can come to expect at Mnemba island. When it’s time to leave, as the boat pulls away from the island, and the managers and your butler wave goodbye with arms outstretched, you just know you will want to come back. With the truly warm, friendly and intuitive hospitality, that effect of having visiting long lost friends in their little slice of paradise – something a lot of luxury hotels aspire to but don’t always manage – is effortlessly achieved here.
Need to know: Prices start from US$1,550 per person per night, visit andbeyond.com
A version of this feature was previously published in BBC Good Food ME.