1 April 2009 by Duncan Mills
While the coast at Nungwi oozes quiet serenity, the island’s capital, Stone Town, is a vibrant and bustling place where all aspects of Zanzibari life come together. Among the spice markets, stalls, church spires and mosques stands an east African institution, the wonderfully archaic Emerson and Green’s. Or at least that’s how most people still know this legendary colonial haunt, despite the fact that co-founders Emerson Skeens and Tom Green have since gone their separate ways. So, officially at least, the hotel goes by the name of ‘236 Hurumzi’ these days, on account of its position on Hurumzi Street – one of Stone Town’s twisting alleyways, a narrow thoroughfare outside of which sit Zanzibari tradesmen, perched on short stools or on front porches, beckoning passers-by to enter their Aladdin’s Caves of fine carvings, tinga tinga paintings and jewellery made from rare Tanzanite stones mined on the mainland.
“Come on in, I’ve seen you already,” one said with a knowing smile – as I walked by, no doubt for the third or fourth time – my sense of direction thrown by the rabbit warren of streets, the faded remnants of a city built by Omanis, Portuguese and British overlords in days gone by, with a Swahili twist. I later found myself wandering around these same lanes in an increasing state of frustration when the hotel’s management served up my only genuine reason to gripe during my stay. It was the final night of my stay and I needed to send an urgent email to confirm my flight for the following morning. The hotel’s office was due to close in 10 minutes, but by the time I’d stood by the office door watching several members of staff checking their hotmail accounts and accessing the websites of their favourite English football clubs, they told me it was too late as they were closing in time for evening prayer. After climbing two flights of stairs to my room to get some money for the internet cafe they’d directed me to, I returned downstairs, on my way passing a still-open office door. My final remonstrations went unheard, the office was forcefully closed, and I begrudgingly headed out into the street to find an alternative internet source. It was a waste of my time, unnecessary, and a poor reflection on this otherwise splendid hotel.
Fortunately, in every other respect my stay was indeed memorable for all the right reasons, and the qualities of Emerson and Green’s – a name that stands for class, quality and good old-fashioned style – were upheld. Steep stairwells of dark hardwood lead up to a series of suites, full of character, many with splendid views across the surrounding rooftops, the throng of life down below a gentle and distant hum. It’s the second tallest building in Stone Town, where the humidity and heat of the tropics are very noticeable. So I had been more than a little relieved on arrival to have a porter take the strain for me and carry my bags to my room on the fourth fl oor. We’d been given a small and simple bedroom – accessed via a wooden bridge from the top veranda – with an antique wardrobe, bureau and four-poster bed complete with mosquito net.
Turning on the overhead fan, I could only guess at the logistical struggles that would have got these furnishings to that spot in the fi rst place. It also made me wonder about the comings and goings in days and nights past, when this was the home of Tharia Thopin – an incredibly rich and infl uential man known as the Bismarck of the Swahili regime. Thopin had close ties to the Sultan, who allowed him to build the house so that only his own ceremonial palace, the House of Wonders, stood taller. Our private balcony reinforced the hotel’s colonial feel. Secluded by fl owering plants and creeping vines, this lovely spot for morning tea and fresh fruit led on to a private bathroom, to which water was pumped at a surprisingly warm temperature into a delightful al fresco stone bath and shower. Yet although the hotel’s guest rooms are wonderfully intimate, by far its best feature is at the very top of the building. The snug Tower Top restaurant is where 20 or so diners settle in for the hotel’s famous sunset banquet every evening. Its reputation precedes it, but hotel guests are given priority when booking. It’s a great experience, good value for money, and not to be missed.
Sitting cross-legged beneath low tables on Arabic cushions, we tucked into a three-course feast of spicy meats, fi sh curry, scented rice and vegetables. The Islamic call to prayer sounded across the city as the sun dipped beyond the horizon. Long shadows were cast on the corrugated rooftops all around and on the venerable House of Wonders. Beyond, the Indian Ocean shimmered brightly.
Dhows bobbed gently in the port and small cargo vessels were hastily loaded with their last remaining freight before the light fi nally waned. The restaurant – and the sunset – provided an atmospheric fi nale to the trip, in keeping with this romantic island. As the mesmeric voice of the muezzin briefl y halted, we chinked our glasses one last time and looked again at the city down below. A lasting memory at the end of another wonderful African day.