Check in: Zanzibar’s original eco-retreat

Zanzibar has experienced something of a boutique hotel boom in recent years, yet Matemwe Lodge – the island’s original eco-chic beach hotel – remains right up there with the best of ’em. Overlooking a coral-fringed lagoon on the quiet northeastern coast of Unguja (also known as Zanzibar Island) the lodge run by Asilila Africa, one of the continent’s top safari providers, boasts one of the most idyllic settings on the island, with the Mnemba Island Marine Conservation Area, an important breeding ground for green turtles, right on its doorstep.

I’ll just be right here @ Sarah Reid

The rooms

Dotted along a coral rag cliff facing the ocean, Matemwe Lodge’s 12 spacious, independent bungalows boast full bathrooms with huge bathtubs and are beautifully furnished with lush linens, furniture made from recovered driftwood, and local antiques such as bao boards (a traditional mancala game) and cherewa (coconut shell maracas). Bungalows are accessed off a pathway that meanders through a lush, beautifully tended garden, and open onto private terraces strung with double hammocks. Two rooms also have private plunge pools.

The vibe

With just 12 rooms, a beach house that sleeps six, and four ultra-luxe secluded ‘retreat’ suites (complete with personal butler) on the property, Matemwe Lodge never feels crowded. With plenty of communal spaces to relax in, including two pools, a deck off the restaurant, two bars, as well as a small arc of beach south of the hotel, guests tend to find their own patch of privacy during the day before mingling at the pool bar in the early evening.

The huge four-poster beds are draped with mosquito nets @ Sarah Reid

The service

The friendly, attentive service I received during my stay helped to make it that much more special. The lighting of mosquito coils in my room during the turn-down service was a lovely touch.

The menu

Due to the lodge’s isolation, meals are all-inclusive. With a good selection of tropical fruit, yoghurt, homemade muesli, croissants and preserves, and fresh juices, the continental breakfast spread is perfectly adequate, though you can also order freshly-prepared eggs and accompaniments.

Two options are available for each course of the three-course lunch and dinner services. While the food was tasty, there were no Zanzibarian or African dishes on the menu during my two-night stay, which I found surprising for a top hotel on an island with such a vibrant culinary culture.

Bungalows are linked by a beautifully landscaped pathway © Sarah Reid

The bar

Just off the main pool area and decorated with a huge sperm whale skeleton, the open-air bar is a great little spot to enjoy a cocktail before the dinner service. Bushbabies can often be spotted around the bar in the evening. Although it’s great to see these possum-like critters up close, it did concern me that the bushbabies were attracted by food proffered by guests. It would be great to see the bar staff discourage this.

There’s also a cute little beach bar next to the entrance to the public beach.

The spa

I didn’t have the pleasure of test-driving the small Sea & Spice tucked off the pool area, but its location, with treatment rooms overlooking the ocean, make it a pretty impressive spot for a massage (which can also be arranged in-room).

Double hammock? Don;t mind if I do @ Sarah Reid

Activities

Matemwe Lodge is the kind of place people book to get away from it all and relax, but if you can’t sit still, reception can arrange plenty of excursions, such as diving and snorkelling trips to Mnemba Atoll, and sunset dhow boat trips. The lodge also has its own watersports centre with snorkelling gear, kayaks and more. Guided reef walks are also available, though I don’t personally recommend reef walking as you may unknowingly stomp on tiny reef organisms.

Matemwe Lodge also works closely with the local community and can arrange visits for guests interested in learning more about local life (check the noticeboard in the lobby for more info on local projects the lodge supports). Be aware that the poverty in the local area can be quite confronting.

Sustainability kudos

It’s clear sustainability is taken seriously at Matemwe Lodge. The bungalows were built using local materials, and the water is solar heated. The lodge is also way ahead of combating single-use plastics, having ditched plastic bottles six years ago. Asilia Africa-branded bathroom amenities are provided in reusable dispensers, and even the cocktail straws at the bar are plastic-free.

In the gift shop, you’ll find sustainably hand-made Maasai jewellery of the ilk that you will be unlikely to find in Stone Town.

The lodge sits at the end of a small, quiet beach @ Sarah Reid

The location

Matemwe Lodge is blissfully isolated, and thus can be quite difficult to find. If you don’t book a transfer through the hotel, direct your taxi driver to the village of Matemwe. Google Maps pinpoints the lodge here, but it’s actually a bumpy, 30-minute drive north of this spot along an utterly diabolical road. When you reach the Matemwe Lodge sign, head down the steep hill to the beach, not up the hill to Matemwe Retreat, which uses a separate entrance.

The important stuff

Free wi-fi? Yes, but the connection is strongest around the pool area
Meals included? Yes
Room service? There’s no menu, but it can be arranged
Luggage storage? Yes
Child-friendly? Leave kids aged under five at home