I recently spent a few days at the Emerson on Hurumzi hotel in Stone Town, the oldest part of Zanzibar City, with my lovely friend Niquet from Jamaica. She was on an African tour and Zanzibar was one of the stops that we decided to visit together. The Emerson Hotel is the second tallest building located right in the heart of Stone Town, the historic capital of Zanzibar – a traditionally Muslim island off the coast of Tanzania. The building where the hotel is housed was constructed in the 1870s as the home of one of the richest men of the Swahili Empire, Mr. Tharia Topan, who served as the principal financial advisor to Sultan Bargash. Although surrounded by buildings along the narrow alleys, the home has been built at an elevation which allows you a clear view of the ocean – even today.
Fitting for this exotic and historic building it was recently totally refurbished into a beautiful boutique hotel by Emerson Skeens, combining its original elegance with antique furnishings, long drapes and a royal interior decoration as well as the comforts of the 21st century. The moment you set foot into this majestic and unique gem you are welcomed by the staff smartly dressed in long immaculately ironed thobes paired with matching kufi hats, which makes you feel like you have been transported back into old Arabic times. You are filled with the spirit of Zanzibar and it’s now time to escape the present day and indulge in the pleasures of traditional Swahili luxury….
How to get there
There are many flight options locally and internationally to Zanzibar. Or if you like a bit more adventure, you can opt to reach Stone Town by boat from Dar es Salaam on the Tanzania coast.
Zanzibar is only a 45 mins flight away from Kenya’s Mombasa International airport, which is how I got there. The hotel had arranged for a taxi to pick us up at the airport for a 20$ ride to Stone Town. The narrow alleys do not allow cars to drive all the way to the hotel entrance, so the driver and porter helped us transport our luggage the rest of the way by foot, and we quite enjoyed the 5 minutes’ walk through the maze of small streets to the hotel where we were welcomed with a cup of refreshing ice cold hibiscus tea.
Rooms and Space
The rooms are few due to the limited space of the once private villa, but are all beautifully appointed with antique furniture, decorated in perfect traditional style. We stayed in the Zenaya room on the first floor, right opposite a mini art gallery that is housed by the hotel. A stately room, with a dreamy canopy bed in one section of the room and a lounge area. I have never been to a sultan’s palace, but I imagine that this is what it must have felt like … I loved my stay here! The room was opulent and every morning we were woken by the calm waves of Adhans calls for prayer, and lively but sublime city sounds of women sweeping as they chat away, children going to school and shop owners preparing for the day. It didn’t bother me – but if you are a light sleeper, you may want to consider using the ear plugs they offer at the hotel.
I love that they have maintained the old architecture but with that comes with some quite steep stairs – and I found this to be the case in most old buildings in Stone Town. You get used to it after a while and there was always the ever helpful staff to help with your luggage.
Food and Drink
The steep stairway climb up to Emerson’s open air rooftop restaurant is totally worth it. Be sure to get here by 6pm to enjoy the sunset and the stunning view of the ocean with a 360 degree view of Stone Town while sipping your sundowner, before moving on to a wide selection of mouthwatering Persian, Omani and Swahili inspired dishes – seated, as we were, in traditional Swahili style, at low tables, on thick Persian rugs. The traditional practice is to have shoes off to be seated and you wash your hands with rose water before and after dinner. It was truly a unique experience. The dinner menus are set, but you have a chance to let the staff know beforehand if you have any specific dietary requirements.
On our first night, we indulged in a three course meal of the chef’s special of coconut rice, an assortment of salads, meats and house made chutneys – rounded off with a dessert dubbed ‘Zanzibar delight’ , a fruit salad with a topping of dates and avocados as a talented Taarab singer took the stage and serenaded us into the night. Another memorable dinner consisted of a variety of fish and vegetables dishes served on a traditional platter. My favourite was the coconut spinach and falafel starter with a coconut chutney. All in all a wonderful cultural and gastronomic experience.
We always opted to have our meals Swahili style, seated on cushions on the floor, but if you prefer there is also a regular sitting section. The rooftop restaurant is very popular with in-house guests and also outsiders – so a reservation has to be made beforehand.
Breakfast can be served anywhere you please, and the portions are huge! We often had our delicious breakfasts of tropical fruits, pancakes, omelette and an assortment of traditional Swahili pastries by our room and one morning, the manager Obama was kind enough to let us have our meal in an unoccupied room’s balcony where we enjoyed a lovely view of the sea. There is also a tea room dubbed Roshani where, if you wish, you can take part in a traditional tea ceremony or a private dining experience for up to 15 people.
On our last night, we had dinner at the indoor Secret Garden Restaurant of the nearby sister hotel Emerson Spice, created in 2006 by the owner of Emerson on Hurumzi.
Breakfast is included in accommodation costs. Lunch will cost you between USD 10 to USD 35.
Dinner is USD 35 for a set menu and evening entertainment – totally worth it!
The hotel went out of its way to share some Zanzibar art and cultural traditions with us. In the Art Room you can study indigenous paintings and artifacts, and on most nights local musicians perform the traditional Taarab music in the roof top tea house. The hotel will happily organize excursions for you to the spice farm or the beach, and the central location of the hotel meant that we could easily enjoy walks around Stone Town with the tour guide recommended by the hotel.
In a Nutshell
If you are tired of staying in generic hotels and are looking for unique space that gives you a feel of the culture and immerses you into the local traditions, Emerson is the place for you. The staff here is amazing. I remember chatting away with some of them like we were old friends and we also had some good laughs. This is the kind of energy I need in a new country. Even if you do not stay at Emerson on Hurumzi while visiting Stone Town, I would highly recommend that you at least stop by for dinner at the rooftop restaurant.
Would I go back? – Yes, I definitely would love to stay at this unique property again.
Please check their website on accommodation rates as they change https://emersononhurumzi.com/
Let me know if you have stayed here and what your thoughts are, also let me know if you do ever stay at Emerson on Hurumzi.