Watching life go by from the veranda of one of the Matemwe Lodge bungalows in Zanzibar, Tanzania, it feels like it could be 1816 rather than 2016. Fishermen in dhows — traditional wooden sailboats — head out with the morning's high tide, returning with the day's catch at high tide in the afternoon. In between, during low tide, hundreds of villagers wade in the shallows, some swimming with masks and spear guns, others reaching under rocks in search of squid and shellfish. Still others systematically beat the water with large branches to herd fish into their long nets.
I came to Zanzibar as a guest of Asilia Africa, which took over the all-inclusive Matemwe Lodge in 2005. The property is more than 20 years old, one of the first tourist establishments on Zanzibar's east coast. The main lodge has 12 ocean-facing bungalows, half of which are two-story setups, and two have their own small pool. There is also a beach house for up to six people, which comes with a private pool and a personal chef. Finally, there's the latest addition to the property, the luxurious Matemwe Retreat. Built four years ago, it caters mostly to couples, particularly honeymooners, and is composed of four spacious, two-story bungalows, each of which features a king-size bed in the expansive main room, a sunken bath and shower and a small pool on the rooftop deck. The Retreat bungalows, which also come with a private butler, underwent a soft refurbish last year to add traditional furniture to the downstairs veranda, sun loungers for the rooftop pools and soft furnishings in the bedrooms.
The veranda provides a beautiful view of the ocean.
All the Matemwe guests have access to the hotel's open-air restaurant and bar as well as its two swimming pools, one of which is an infinity pool set high on a bluff. The food at Matemwe was some of the best I had in my two weeks in Tanzania, with an a la carte menu for lunch and dinner, often featuring fresh local fish, and a delicious breakfast buffet with local honey and fruit. In the evening, many of the guests congregate at the bar for a predinner cocktail, entertained by the baby bush monkeys that descend from the trees at night in search of snacks. According to hotel staff, the majority of their guests come to Matemwe after going on a safari (Asilia primarily operates as a safari operator on mainland Tanzania and Kenya). It's common to hear guests recounting game sightings and adventures from their respective excursions.
My home for a recent stay at Matemwe was a high-ceilinged bungalow, set just feet from the ocean, perched atop a coral rock wall. The thatched-roof building had a couch and a wide hammock on the front porch, affording great views of the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean and the white sands of the Mnemba atoll a few miles offshore. The centerpiece of the roomy interior was a large king bed surrounded by mosquito netting. Above the ocean-facing wall is a screen that bridges the gap between the wall and the roof, which allows for a cool breeze to flow through the room even with doors and windows closed, perfect for an afternoon nap.
Diving at Mnemba atoll is a highlight at Matemwe Lodge.
In the three days I spent at the lodge, I took full advantage of the recreational activities offered. One afternoon I spent on a snorkeling trip organized by the hotel to the Mnemba atoll and was as impressed by the brilliant turquoise water as by the beautiful coral and array of fish below the surface. Another day was spent diving with Scubafish Zanzibar, a dive company. Away from the crowds of snorkelers, I was able to fully appreciate the variety of fish along with sea snakes, eels and octopus. I also spent a morning with a Matemwe staffer, a young man from the local village, who pointed out the different kinds of coral and fish and helped me avoid stepping on any of the thousands of sea urchins scattered on the ocean floor. This is perhaps the only downside to the Matemwe location: Between the coral, the sea urchins and somewhat dramatic tides, it can make ocean swimming complicated.
The highlight of my stay was taking in the daily life on the island, and the lodge has a perfect vantage point to do that, from watching the fishing boats from my veranda to observing locals play soccer on the beach. And that's a big part of the charm of Matemwe. As hotel manager Ross Owen pointed out, when visiting Matemwe, "You're not just coming to a hotel, you're coming to Zanzibar."