Wednesday 21 March 2018

Zanzibar: Blissful way to spice up a honeymoon

Zanzibar's beaches are its key attraction. Personal butlers, exotic cuisine and the chance to swim with dolphins are just bonuses, says Kathryn Thomas

ISLAND LIFE: The five-star Residence hotel, which Kathryn Thomas stayed at, is a perfect retreat for newly-weds
ISLAND LIFE: The five-star Residence hotel, which Kathryn Thomas stayed at, is a perfect retreat for newly-weds

Kathryn Thomas

I never thought I'd say this but now I miss the days when people stopped me in the knickers department in Dunnes and asked me: "Of all the places you've ever been, where is your favourite?"

Only because that question has more recently been replaced with: "Will you be heading up the aisle anytime soon?" This leads to an awkward moment, where inevitably I answer something like: "No, I'm actually thinking of heading back to Bogota... just for a break."

Cue confused expression, more awkward silence and an eventual turn of the heel. I'm not qualified to talk about flowers, dresses, churches or wedding bands, but if there is one wedding item on the checklist that I'm qualified to talk about, it's honeymoons. If you will be saying "I do" in the near future, then you will be asking: "Do you know somewhere new and exciting, romantic and affordable that you have been to and can personally recommend?" Here's my chance ,folks ... "I dooooo".

My first time to the spice island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, was eight years ago. Since the Sixties, backpackers have been going there to chill out after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

Long before the backpackers though, it was Arab traders who came and went from the island. Ninety-three per cent of the island's population today is Islamic, and the Eastern influence is very noticeable around the ancient city of Stone Town, where women in burkas weave through the narrow streets, past intricately carved wooden doors, and where loudspeakers on top of mosque minarets blare out the call to prayer. Stone Town is a working capital, albeit 200 years old.

Since my last visit, I found it to be busier, dirtier and more rundown than I'd remembered. However, being able to see people going about their daily lives provides an insight which can be rare in a lot of tourist-island hot spots. It's a reminder that this is an island where the African way of life fuses with the Middle East. The meat and fish market are both worth a visit.

Locals barter loudly over produce which is laid out on the ground in front of them or hung on bloody hooks. Massive yellow-fin tuna are flung from the roofs of jeeps to be filleted and sold along with the freshest of moray eel. Outside, spice stalls line the streets, children and chickens run in all directions and it's buzzing in a way that is unique to an African market.

If it all gets a little much, on the tourist trail and much less smelly are the House of Wonders and the Arab fort which are well worth a visit. But the main reason people come here is for the beaches. The palm-thatched shacks of the Sixties have given way to luxury hotels, most situated on the north coast. But to the south-east, 45 minutes from Stone town, the island has recently opened the doors to the five-star Residence hotel. As you drive through the gates, the open-air white marble reception frames a picture-perfect collage of blues, with the infinity pool in the distance and the Indian Ocean beyond.

As we made our way to the villa, every member of staff who floated past on a bicycle, greeted us with their hand on their heart, "Namaste". After a few days this simple gesture becomes recognisable as part of the hotel's customer service. Ninety-eight per cent of the staff who work here are from Zanzibar or Tanzania and you can tell they are genuinely proud that this venture is now open for business.

The property has 66 villas, 29 of which front on to the ocean. Maku, a manager, said: "With most honeymooners, we might not see them for two days. They have either come off a week's safari or straight from their busy wedding and they want to be left alone. The villas are designed to be a home away from home. Depending on whether our guests are on full or half-board, they can have their lunch and dinner delivered to their room by their personal butler at no extra cost."

Yes, a butler. Every villa has one, as well as a private deck with an infinity pool. There are also two bicycles on hand. Cycle the length of the beach, past the floodlit tennis court, up to the spa, stuffed with the fanciest French Carita goodies, round by the massive infinity swimming pool and finally stop at the bar for a mojito before dinner in the Arabian-styled Pavillion restaurant. Mezze to die for, slow-baked lamb and spicy fish stew. And when you have dined like a sultan, you can collapse on a low, wide sofa, loosen the drawstring on your linen trousers and smoke a hookah pipe to your heart's content before jumping on your bike home.

Swimming with dolphins in the wild is something that often makes people's "bucket lists" and in Zanzibar, together with diving and snorkelling, it's one of the most popular activities. We're not in the boat long before we spot a school of dolphins to our right. All overboard! I was quite nervous seeing them; a force of nature in the clear blue water. We never got close enough to touch them but what an exhilarating experience. For those who want to disappear a little deeper into the Indian Ocean, there is a fully licenced PADI dive school in the hotel. They also organise deep-sea fishing trips and sunset cruises.

The Residence hotel's remoteness makes it perfect for couples looking to get away from it all and switch off. Those people short on time should bear in mind that an overnight flight from Heathrow will have them on the beach in time for breakfast, with no jet lag.

If you feel like a more lively atmosphere for one or two nights, consider the five-star Baraza hotel on the other side of the island, 45 minutes' drive away. This all-inclusive family-run property sits on Bwejuu beach, which was voted one of the top 30 island beaches in the world by Conde Nast. It has two sister properties next door, the Palms, with six villas, and Breezes Hotel and Spa with its lively bar and late-night jamming sessions.

Two adults travelling in January, including flights, seven-nights half-board, costs €4,740. See www.wetravel2. com and www.theresidence. com/zanzibar

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