For a moment, the adorable Lamu was the place to be. Sienna Miller, Mick Jagger, Princess Beatrice, Madonna, Kate Moss and Charlotte Tilbury: if one of London’s It-fows was getting away from it all, it was to this secretive Kenyan hot spot that they went. But, thanks to Instagram, it seems (quite abruptly) that she’s done his time. Thank goodness for Pemba then.
“Zanzibar 50 years ago” is how it is enthusiastically referred to by those who know it. Zanzibar, with its bulky resorts jostling towards each other along the coast and accompanying tourist circus, has long since crossed the threshold, while other slices of African idyll have suffered a similar fate at the hands of chain hotels global.
But in green, hilly Pemba, cast adrift out of Tanzania and part of the Zanzibar “Spice Island” archipelago (just north of its sister island, Unguja), days remain governed by the rhythms of farming and fishing, the tidal and from sunsets. Translated from Arabic as ‘Green Isle’, Pemba’s lush, gently rolling fields are dotted with island treasures (crops, vegetables, fruit trees and spices), mangroves and lagoons line its beautiful coastline which brings the Mouth-watering and offshore coral reefs with steep -off ocean reefs serve up some of Africa’s most thrilling diving.
In the dense tangle of green Pemba’s vervet monkeys and flying foxes move through the trees and below them, Pemba’s blue duikers (a relative of the antelope) approach the sun-dappled forest floor to graze and listen. But it is the warm breeze, perennially imbued with the smell of dried cloves and salt, which is indelibly imprinted in the memories of those who have discovered the charm of Pemba. That and otherworldly deserted beaches where nothing but the occasional wooden dugout canoe interrupts an endless turquoise horizon.
There’s a growing scene here amid the ancient forests and pristine, sleepy creeks, but still a refreshing lack of flashy Hamptons or Mustique-style homes lining the beaches. Described by one traveler as “a recluse, with very little booze outside the hotels and the most extraordinary beaches he’s ever seen”, it’s the best kept secret of the style set. Pemba offers only a handful of hotels, with those in the know hoping it stays that way.
These hotels have artfully woven into the thick vegetation that supports the beaches and combs the fertile hills in an effort to preserve the island’s rugged beauty. It’s in their best interest to ensure that Pemba is confined to a certain tribe of travellers, those seeking an authentic castaway thrill as opposed to the bulky, manicured invader with stilted suites reminiscent of a Manhattan apartment. And it’s this delicate balancing act that has drawn a succession of celebrities to the island, some for months on end, to hide out and recalibrate in this off-grid paradise under a star-studded sky.
Fundu Lagoon is typically whispered within the Pemba set at West London dinner parties with crowds choosing it as the perfect remote party venue. “My friend couldn’t believe how good it was and invited a group of 30 of us there for his birthday,” one of them tells me. The small, secluded and immensely private hotel where rooms start from £414 a night, is accessible only by boat and quietly occupies a mangrove-fringed beach on Pemba’s south-west shores. Amidst a slew of rather simple guest house-style lodges that litter the island, it stands out with its blend of beautifully shabby Robinson Crusoe aesthetics and top-notch service and freshly caught seafood menu alongside its fusion spa.
The owners, stylist Ellis Flyte and Brian Hensen of Jim Henson and the Muppets’ pedigree, have followed the traditional, unpretentious island line with safari-style thatched Makuti suites overlooking the sea and adorned with handcrafted materials rooms and furniture in dark wood. The sunsets here are lovely — they move through hues of yolk, burnt orange, and scarlet — and morning sunlight pours into the porous restaurant, along with a warm, salty breeze from the Indian Ocean. Along with the delicately cropped castaway charm, Fundu Lagoon devotees become lyrical about its safari-style dives. Pemba Marine Reserve’s pristine (and fiercely protected) corals and kaleidoscopic variety of exotic fish are found right in front of the hotel, in uncrowded waters and with expert guides guiding wide-eyed divers. The diving around Misali Island is considered to be some of the best in East Africa. Above the water, you’ll find the capital’s magazine editors swap front row seats for sunset dhow cruises that glide past schools of dolphins and sea turtles, and whale-watching adventures can be arranged during the summer months. Such trips are considered to be a distant island sequence for the bells and whistles of the Tanzanian bush safari, among an insightful and wealthy set.
Away from Fundu Lagoon, the A-listing is also found at The Manta Resort, where its glass submarine suite (£1,500 a night with a three-night minimum stay) offers a thrilling marine wake-up call and guests returning from the deep sea fishing expeditions with tall wahoo, dorado and tales of yellowfin tuna (the island may be enclosed by coral reefs, but these drop off sharply to depths in excess of 2,000 metres).
But a large part of Pemba’s appeal is that its underwater and island-hopping theater remains largely democratic. Yes, deep-sea fishing adventures seldom come cheap, but those who leave their duffel bags at Lala Lodge or the less barefoot luxury Pemba Eco Lodge can join the rich and famous and marvel at turtles, lionfish and sweet lips of the Red Sea. Shards of brilliant African light cross the warm bathing waters, enlivening the coral-strewn seabed for superb visibility and offering novice snorkelers a level of marine spectacle typically reserved for scuba divers. Unlike many Maldivian dive or snorkel sites, there is a reluctance here to share coordinates: a group of snorkelers heading to Scorpions Secret or parts of the Shimba Hills (a quiet underwater valley) may find they have coral reefs, fish triggerfish, octopus, and giant frogfish to themselves. The Njao Gap between Pemba and the Njao Islands, and Fundu Gap both host stellar snorkelling spots, the latter home to sea eagles. It is Pemba Island’s isolation from the mainland that has protected its tropical waters and coral reefs, giving divers and snorkelers a privileged glimpse of pre-human marine life, and on land, with the forest reserve of Ngezi and Vumawimbi beach — an endless, empty strip of powder-white sand.
Unlike many islands, Pemba offers a multilayered and complex history, typically explored by scooter along dusty, winding tracks. Among its dense forests and lush rolling countryside are various tombs and mosque ruins, vestiges of 17th-century Arab occupation and Sultan rule. The ruins of Ras Mkumbuu, located in the Chake Chake district near Ndagoni village, feature an 11th-century mosque and a number of grandiose tombs. Those who know the island well recommend first a visit to the Pemba Museum, the 18th-century Omani fort (allegedly built on the remains of a 16th-century Portuguese garrison), for a succinct account of the island’s history.
Woven into the island’s cultural tapestry, along with a horrific history of the slave trade and spice trade, are certain traditions. Both Pemba and Zanzibar have long been centers for so-called voodoo rituals and continue to attract those seeking alternative cures for physical or mental afflictions, or a transcendent form of enlightenment that Western culture cannot offer. Visiting the island in the 1930s, British writer Evelyn Waugh affirmed the island’s role as a center for this practice, noting in her travel book Remote People (1931) that Pemba attracted budding “sorcerers” 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 more alternative doctors and physicians when they are unwell or faced with a threat, even though tourists are rarely offered a window into this world.
These traditions, along with the distinctive clove blowing, sultan lore, ethereal pools of light dotting ancient forests and boulder-strewn beaches, give Pemba its air of mystery and enchantment. A land of mangroves, deserted beaches and magic.
Five more island escapes under the radar
Seychelles — Alphonse Atolls
A 1990s Microsoft Office PC screensaver is the least imaginative image of the Seychelles and perhaps the most accurate. It shows flawless white beaches that gently slope into transparent waters. Alphonse Island attracts deep sea anglers eager to fill their Instagram accounts with exotic and meaty catches. The island’s namesake hotel, with its thatched-roof villas, sits along the beach.
Part of Bazurato National Park, this group of six islands off the southern coast of Mozambique is enclosed by coral reefs for superlative diving. Marine life includes dugongs and whale sharks, while on the coast, wetlands and ancient forests are teeming with exotic birds and wildlife. Intrepid ambitions are paired with Egyptian cotton and fine wine at the chic castaway resort and beyond on Benguerra Island.
Moorea, French Polynesia
Tahiti’s prettier little sister is teeming with tropical life while its coral reefs lure serious divers into the water. Those craving thatched-roof suites with stilts and snorkels before breakfast head to the Hilton Moorea Lagoon.
Where rainforests plunge into turquoise water, volcanic lakes bubble and natural hot springs hiss in the warm air. Stay in understated luxury at Secret Bay, perched on a bluff with breathtaking sunset views.
Koh Yao Noi, Thailand
Just a 30-minute speedboat ride from bustling Phuket, Koh Yao Noi offers stays at Six Senses Yao Noi, whose wooden villas wind their way towards limestone mountains that rise dramatically from Phang Nga Bay.