The bulldozers have been beaten and the legendary Nungwi peninsular on the north coast of Zanzibar Island, Tanzania can breathe a salty sigh of relief. Gemma Pitcher visits Ras Nungwi Beach Hotel, living proof that low impact and luxury are a match made in heaven.
It’s the colour of the water that makes first-time visitors laugh out loud with exhilaration and disbelief. The sea at Ras Nungwi is ridiculous, picture-postcard, chocolate-box, Bounty-ad, front-of-brochure turquoise. Of course, it’s bath-warm too, with a perfect sandy bottom shelving away at exactly the right angle for swimming. And don’t forget the miles of fine, flat sand of perfect whiteness that stretch in a graceful arc towards the horizon. Punctuated, naturally, by helpful, overhanging rock formations that create pools of shade for overexposed sunbathers – of which there are no more than a couple every 500 metres or so.
What a place like this really needs, of course, is a massive resort development including 16 giant hotels, hundreds of time-share villas and apartments, three golfcourses, a marina and a shopping centre. Or so thought the East African Development Company when it filed its plans with the Tanzanian government way back in 1996. British-based organisation Tourism Concern, however, felt differently, and, more importantly, so did the peninsula’s inhabitants.
Thankfully, pressure from local residents and international organisations led to the scheme being shelved for the foreseeable future, which means a sigh of relief from those tourists who prefer their beaches minus amusement arcades and amplifiers.
Such visitors stay at Ras Nungwi Beach Hotel, the peninsula’s smartest establishment – although words like ‘smart’ and ‘upmarket’ convey impressions of gilt taps and gold jewellery, which is not what Ras Nungwi is about at all. The hotel seems to be designed to appeal to ‘grown-up’ backpackers who dream nostalgically of halcyon days spent in insect-ridden shacks on beaches just like this, but nowadays yearn for a few more creature comforts. Quite a lot more, in fact. For despite Ras Nungwi’s unpretentious, laid-back atmosphere (the waiters who serve you dinner will sit down for a game of cards with you afterwards), the place has a decidedly chic vibe, and style is not in short supply.
Take the newly-installed infinity swimming pool, for example. Turquoise and dark blue glass tiles of exactly the same hue as the sea on either side of the reef float beneath you and merge seamlessly with the sky – blue, of course. Or the newly-caught kingfish, spiced with coriander and coconut, that’s guided skilfully straight from line to pan and onto your plate at lunchtime.
The sea is omnipresent in the culture of Zanzibar, once the centre of an oceangoing empire that stretched as far as Persia, India and even China. Most Zanzibaris have ancestors who arrived on the north-east monsoon and, understandably, decided not to leave. A dynasty of Omani sultans ruled the island for well over a century, leaving an oriental legacy which, thrown into the pot with the already well-established coastal culture of the Swahilis, produced a design ethic that’s part Asian, part African, but entirely unique.
You’ll get a feel for it here, where Tim Hendriks – young, laid back but passionate about Zanzibar – has been adding a little here, a little there for more than five years to create the look he wanted. It’s a kind of Out of Africa on the beach – formal colonial dining and sitting rooms with safari chairs, hardwood writing bureaux and canvas-covered lamps, juxtaposed with informal, communal spaces, strewn with cushions covered with coral-bright local cotton.
There are so many cushions at Ras Nungwi – piled along the top of low walls, beckoning invitingly from the wood and string sofas, nestling in hammocks suspended from date palms – that it’s a wonder any guest can resist their siren softness and actually remain vertical long enough to stagger from beach to pool to table. Not that it’s a long stagger – just a few metres of sandy path. The central sitting and dining areas are linked by a giant palm thatch roof that protects everything from the occasional tropical rainstorm, blurring the distinction between inside and outside so that even sitting in front of an elegantly-set dinner table, you never really lose that barefoot, sand-between-the-toes feeling.
Sleeping is in chalets of hand-cut fossilised coral limestone, scattered towards the beach, or in bedrooms in the small central lodge. All blend in seamlessly with the natural contours of the Zanzibar shoreline, so much so that when one is contemplating the hotel from a gently bobbing boat off the beach, there’s nothing to distinguish the jumble of palm-thatched roofs from any neighbouring fishing village along this stretch of coast.
Inside, the bedrooms are light and fragrant, with the obligatory mosquito net draped four posters and bedspreads the colour of the Indian Ocean. Notices in the bathrooms exhort guests not to waste the water, which currently makes its way to Ras Nungwi in a tanker, boucing up the rutted roads from Chaani, 10 miles away. But you still get a little personal footbath to wash the sand from your feet before ascending the polished wooden steps to your own front door, behind a veranda replete with more cushions. The influence of the sea is everywhere – lamps encased in shades made out of hemp fish traps swing merrily in the salty breeze, and even the ashtrays are hollowed out coconut shells from the palm trees that line the beach.
If you can summon the energy, the hotel has an all-singing, all-dancing game fishing and watersports outfit on the doorstep. If you prefer your fish in the sea rather than the frying pan, dive the local coral reefs. But if the word ‘watersports’ conjures up images of jet-skis roaring past as you struggle to breathe through the exhaust fumes on the beach, forget it. The vessel most likely to sail past you in the blaze of an African sunset is an Arab dhow – the curved silhouette that shouts ‘exotic’ so loudly it’s almost a cliché. But you’ll smile complacently anyhow, offer a short prayer of thanks for the defeat of the bulldozer brigade, and settle back on those cushions for another nap.