For a while lovely Lamu was the place to be. Sienna Miller, Mick Jagger, Princess Beatrice, Madonna, Kate Moss and Charlotte Tilbury: if any of London’s It-crowd escaped, this silent Kenyan hotspot was where they would go. But, thanks to Instagram, it seems (quite abruptly) to have had its day. Thank goodness for Pemba then.
“Zanzibar 50 years ago” is what connoisseurs enthusiastically call it. Zanzibar, with its bulky beach resorts crisscrossing the coastline and accompanying tourist circus, has long passed the threshold, while other slices of African idyll have suffered the same fate at the hands of global hotel chains. .
But in Pemba, green and hilly, adrift of Tanzania and part of the spice island archipelago of Zanzibar (just north of sister island Unguja), days are still ruled by the rhythms of agriculture and fishing, the tide and the sunsets. Translated from Arabic as “The Green Island”, Pemba’s lush, gently rolling fields are dotted with island treasures (crops, vegetables, fruit trees and spices), mangroves and lagoons line its pretty coastline and coral reefs offshore with a steep ocean drop-offs offer some of the most exciting diving in Africa.
In the dense tangle of greenery, vervet monkeys and Pemba’s flying foxes navigate the trees and below, blue Pemba’s duikers (a relative of the antelope) weave their way through the sun-dappled forest floor to graze and listen. But it is the warm breeze, permanently imbued with the smell of dried cloves and salt, that is indelibly imprinted on the memories of those who know who have discovered the charms of Pemba. That and otherworldly deserted beaches where nothing but the occasional wooden pirogue interrupts an endless turquoise horizon.
There’s a growing scene here amid old-growth forests and sleepy, unspoiled coves, but still a refreshing lack of Hamptons or Mustique-style homes lining the beaches. Described by one traveler as “a recluse, with very little alcohol outside of hotels and the most amazing beaches I’ve ever been to”, it’s the style ensemble’s best kept secret. Pemba only offers a handful of hotels, with connoisseurs hoping it stays that way.
These hotels have cleverly weaved themselves into the dense vegetation surrounding the beaches and combing the fertile hills in an effort to preserve the raw beauty of the island. It’s in their interest to ensure that Pemba is limited to a certain tribe of travelers – those seeking an authentic, castaway thrill as opposed to the manicured, bulky invader with overwater suites reminiscent of a Manhattan apartment. And it’s exactly this delicate balance that has drawn a host of celebrities to the island, some for months, to hide out and recalibrate in this off-the-grid paradise under starry skies.
Fundu Lagoon is usually whispered across the Pemba set at dinner parties in West London, with crowds choosing it as the perfect remote party spot. “My friend couldn’t believe how beautiful it was and invited a group of 30 of us there for his birthday,” one told me. The small, secluded and hugely private hotel where rooms start at £414 a night, is accessible only by boat and quietly occupies a mangrove-fringed beach on the southwestern shores of Pemba. Amidst a slew of rather basic guesthouse-style lodges dotting the island, it stands out for its blend of beautifully scruffy Robinson Crusoe aesthetics and top-notch service and menus of freshly caught fish as well as its fusion spa.
Owners, fashion designer Ellis Flyte and Brian Hensen of Jim Henson and Muppets pedigree, have followed the traditional, unassuming line of the island with safari-style Makuti thatched-roof suites overlooking the sea and ornate local handcrafted materials and dark wood furnishings. The sunsets here are lovely – moving through shades of yellow, burnt orange and scarlet – and the morning sunlight streams through the porous restaurant, accompanied by a warm, salty breeze from the sea. ‘Indian Ocean. In addition to the slightly cut castaway appeal, Fundu Lagoon enthusiasts are lyrical about its safari-style dives. The pristine (and fiercely protected) corals of the Pemba Marine Reserve and kaleidoscopic array of exotic fish lie right in front of the hotel, in uncrowded waters and with expert guides leading wide-eyed divers. The dives around Misali Island are considered some of the best in East Africa. Above the water, you’ll find the capital’s magazine editors swapping the front row for sunset dhow cruises that glide past schools of dolphins and sea turtles, and spotting adventures whale watching can even be arranged during the summer months. Such trips are considered the far-flung island sequence of the bells and whistles of the Tanzanian bush safari, among a demanding, deep-pocketed package.
Away from Fundu Lagoon, A-listers can also be found at Manta Resort, where its Glass Underwater Suite (£1,500 per night with a three-night minimum stay) offers an exciting marine awakening and guests return from the deep sea . fishing expeditions with tales of great wahoo, dorado and yellowfin tuna (the island may be surrounded by coral reefs, but these drop sharply to depths of over 2,000 metres).
But much of Pemba’s appeal is that its islet and underwater theater remains largely democratic. Yes, deep sea fishing adventures are rarely cheap, but those who drop their canvas bags at the less barefoot luxury Lala Lodge or Pemba Eco Lodge can join the rich and famous and marvel at turtles, fish -lions and sweetlips of the red sea. Bursts of brilliant African light stream through the bath’s warm waters, enlivening the coral-studded seabed for superb visibility and providing snorkelling novices with a level of marine spectacle usually reserved for divers. Unlike many dive or snorkel sites in the Maldives, there is a reluctance here to share coordinates – a group of divers heading to Scorpions Secret or patches of the Shimba Hills (a serene underwater valley) may discover they have the reefs, triggerfish, octopus and giant frogfish to themselves. The Njao Gap between Pemba and the Njao Islands, and the Fundu Gap are both home to stellar snorkeling spots, the latter home to eagle rays. It is Pemba Island’s isolation from the mainland that has protected its tropical waters and reefs, giving divers and snorkelers a prime glimpse of pre-human and terrestrial marine life, with the reserve Ngezi forest and Vumawimbi beach – an endless, empty strip of powdery white sand.
Unlike many islands, Pemba offers an intricate layered history, usually explored by scooter along dusty winding tracks. Among its thick forests and lush, rolling countryside are various tombs and ruins of mosques – remnants of the 17th century Arab occupation and Sultan’s rule. The ruins of Ras Mkumbuu, located in the Chake Chake district near the village of Ndagoni, are home to an 11th century mosque and a series of grand tombs. Those familiar with the island advise first visiting the Pemba Museum, the 18th-century Omani fort (supposedly built over the remains of a 16th-century Portuguese garrison), for a condensed account of the history of the island. ‘island.
Certain traditions are woven into the cultural tapestry of the island, as well as a heinous history of the slave and spice trade. Pemba and Zanzibar have long been centers of so-called voodoo rituals and continue to attract those seeking alternative healing for physical or mental affliction, or a transcendent form of enlightenment that Western culture is unable to offer. Visiting the island in the 1930s, British writer Evelyn Waugh asserted the island’s role as a center of this practice, detailing in her travel book Remote People (1931) that Pemba attracted “witch doctors from as far away as the Great Lakes of Central Africa and even Haiti to hone their skills. Today, many islanders still seek the advice of physicians and alternative doctors when sick or facing a threat, though tourists are rarely offered a window into that world.
These traditions, along with the signature cloves, Sultan’s tradition, ethereal pools of light dotting the ancient forests, and rock-strewn beaches give Pemba its air of mystery and enchantment. A land of mangroves, deserted beaches and magic.
Five more under-the-radar island escapes
Seychelles — Alphonse Atolls
A Microsoft Office PC screensaver from the 90s is the least imaginative image of Seychelles – and perhaps the most accurate. It shows pristine white sand beaches gently rocking in transparent water. Alphonse Island attracts deep sea anglers eager to coat their Instagram accounts with exotic and meaty catches. The island’s hotel of the same name, with its thatched-roof villas, is located along the beach.
Part of Bazurato National Park, this group of six islands off the coast of southern Mozambique is surrounded by coral reefs for exceptional diving. Marine life includes dugongs and whale sharks, while on shore, wetlands and ancient forests teem with exotic birds and wildlife. Fearless ambitions are paired with Egyptian cotton and fine wine at a chic resort beyond Benguerra Island.
Moorea, French Polynesia
Tahiti’s prettier little sister vibrates with tropical life while its surrounding reefs lure serious divers into the water. Those dreaming of thatched-roof, overwater suites and pre-breakfast snorkels head to the Hilton Moorea Lagoon.
Where rainforests plunge into turquoise water, volcanic lakes gurgle and natural hot springs hiss in the warm air. Stay in understated luxury at Secret Bay, perched atop a cliff with stunning sunset views.
Koh Yao Noi, Thailand
Just a 30-minute speedboat ride from frenetic Phuket, Koh Yao Noi offers stays at Six Senses Yao Noi, whose wooden villas twist toward the limestone mountains that jut dramatically from Phang Nga Bay.