Money can't buy happiness, they say. But if it can afford you two nights in a private island off the coast of Zanzibar, you're halfway there. While private island stays aren't exactly new to Singapore's city dwellers who secure bragging rights with every Instagram post (#mytinyatlas), a luxury beach escape in East Africa takes you on a whole other level. Admittedly, my perspective of an island holiday in the continent conjured visions of Wakanda-meets-Atlantis, but after a weekend stay at andBeyond Mnemba Island in Zanzibar, those narratives were dispelled. Consider my wanderlust wishlist officially widened.
In fact, Zanzibar has more in common with our Southeast Asian neighbours than you think. More than 99% of this semi-autonomous region of Tanzania are Muslim, I learned, as my private driver, Musa, informed. Making our way north, we passed by towns which saw children on the way to madrasas, men manning their biryani and pilau stalls and women chatting in salons and convenience stores alike the "mama shops" of yore. Meandering away from the town, I'm met with spice plantations, a view previously enjoyed by the Brits and Arabs who've made their mark in Zanzibar's history (Musa informed that the Arabic influence is stronger in coastal area). After the 90-minute drive, we arrived at Zanzibar's northern coast, where a 20-minute boat ride to Mnemba Island awaited.
Wading knee-deep from the boat to the shores of Mnemba Island, it's clear that I've arrived in a parallel universe of sorts. Is this Africa? I wondered, taking in the sights: pristine white sand and turquoise waters that soon developed to a deep blue. Out with the bustle of activity and fuss in the streets, and in with a quiet, serene charm. This is where the 'gypset' go for a Robinson Crusoe escape, and where the term "barefoot luxury" could have been invented.
Part of a coral atoll formation, Mnemba Island is sized at just 500 meters in diameter and 1.5 kilometers in circumference. It's Africa's tropical fish paradise, with over 400 fish species recorded around its waters. Here's where luxury hospitality gurus andBeyond had parked its lodge, a community of ten beachfront bandas housing just up to 24 guests. Luxury also comes with an eco-conscience, as they often do in this woke millennium. In partnership with local fishing communities in Matemwe and Kigini, andBeyond has been instrumental in monitoring and protecting green turtles. These gentle creatures have nested here for over two decades, with staff documenting breeding activities.
No other private island takes the term "own time, own target" as seriously as andBeyond Mnemba Island. Consider this your high-low approach to travels off the beaten path. No sandals required, but you'd want to strap on a beaded anklet, along with a fresh coat of paint on your toenails (the Zanzibar hues of yellow, blue and green, perhaps). What you wish to do is up to you, but I recommend this checklist: if you're in a group, hop on a sunset cruise on a dhow complete with canapés and cocktails to rekindle friendships. If you're on a 'solo yolo' escape, a morning paddle-board session in search of dolphins will work your muscles to gratifying exhaustion.
The menu is a taste trek through the lush spice plantations that blanket Zanzibar. Diet staples include rice and beans, with spices not uncommon to my Southeast Asian palate: cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, lemongrass, nutmeg and black pepper. In fact, chef Tessa, who stopped by for dinner, regaled me with stories from her Cape Malay kitchen which were similar to that of my mother's. Our meals were given a spicy kick with dawa, a potent, Swahili version of sambal with chili, cumin, coriander and slow cooked with olive oil. I mopped up spoonfuls of Zanzibar curry, a hearty broth of coconut milk and local masala spices. The difference? The islanders use olive oil, which lent a distinct peppery, toasted hint to each mouthful. Guests can enjoy their meals just about anywhere — in the privacy of a banda or a sandy soirée by the shore.
andBeyond Mnemba Island's nesting situation is sophisticated and stylish — sans doors, window panes and air-conditioning. There are no locks too, but it's not like anyone can just wander in. A landscaped garden acts like a protective cocoon around your beachfront banda that houses an expansive patio, bedroom, bathroom and wardrobe. It has all the bells and whistles of the atas kampung hut of your dreams: straw, rattan, stone, wood and leather make up the design mood board that melds cream and sand. While functional, the mosquito net over the four-poster bed drapes you in a restful, majestic bliss. Ditch the sleeping app, for your soundtrack to slumber is tuned to waves from the majestic beast of the Indian ocean, lapping up against the shore.
If 2019 is in fact, your year, make an East African island escape something to look forward to. Happiness comes from such an investment, and I couldn't recommend andBeyond Mnemba Island enough. It looks a bit like your phone's wallpaper (complete with an inspirational quote), it tastes almost like your childhood and it sounds like a song you've always wanted to record — but better.