When traveling, I much prefer to stay in cozy places that offer some kind of unique experience, have an intimate and easy going vibe, and empower the local community. So on the recommendation of a few local friends (and the assurance of rave online reviews), I decided to start my time in Zanzibar at the Emerson Hotels in Stone Town. And my God, they did not disappoint. To put it lightly, spending time here felt like being transported back in time.
emerson spice VS. emerson on hurumzi
As you can imagine, it's a rare thing to find one place like this, let alone two. There are two Emerson properties, Emerson Spice and Emerson on Hurumzi, which are only a five minute walk from each other and conveniently located in the heart of Stone Town. The hotels were founded by the late Emerson Skeens, who lovingly bought, converted and restored traditional Zanzibari merchant's homes into each boutique hotel and very clearly poured his passion for history, design, and culture into them. Every single detail - from the color washed walls, the locally produced soaps and towels, to the refreshing local hibiscus juice you receive at check in - has been carefully and thoughtfully curated.
If you're trying to decide between which of the properties to stay in, the only real difference between them is the vibe each one gives off. Emerson Spice was created in 2006 after Emerson on Hurumzi, so it gives off a slightly more refined and modern feel. Emerson Spice is a bit larger and airier (with enough space to host a beautiful wedding on one of the days I was there) and easier to spot from the outside thanks to its massive wraparound balconies. Emerson on Hurumzi felt more intimate and down to earth, and had an easy going vibe that made you want to have deep conversations with others you'll likely meet in the lobby. I liked that Emerson on Hurumzi also had a small gift shop with locally designed traditional clothing, and some of the items (towels, baskets, fragrances, and guide books) you find in your room available for sale. Though no matter your preference, you honestly can't go wrong with either one.
The design and decor of each room is definitely the pièce de résistance of both Emerson Hotels. Filled with rich textiles, bold colors, and antique furniture, every single room is a work of art. I also loved the well thought out details available — the stained glass windows, the vintage Zanzibar guide book, the delightful smell of the natural insect repellant made in-house (a mix of citronella, lemongrass, tea tree, geranium, lavender, peppermint oil and aqua), and the wooden "bits and bobs" bathroom box filled with everything from bandaids to razors. Another feature I found thoughtful was the local cell phone they gave me to use while exploring Stone Town, which was particularly helpful to have if I got lost in the maze that is Stone Town.
My personal favorite rooms were North and Zenana at Emerson on Hurumzi, and the Camille and Belle rooms at Emerson Spice. Though they all seem to be everyone else's favorites as well and tend to get booked up quickly.
Food is a bit of an event at both properties, and I feel lucky to have enjoyed most of their dining experiences. I had breakfasts on my room terrace, lunches on the rooftop Tea House at Emerson Spice, drinks at sunset at the rooftop Tea House at Emerson on Hurumzi, and dinners at the new Emerson Spice Secret Garden. And while I din't always know exactly what was listed on the menu — which always incorporates seasonal and local foods — it was always delicious.
The rooftop Tea House restaurants at both properties are slightly different. The one at Emerson Spice has a table and chair setting, while the restaurant at Emerson on Hurumzi offers seated cushions on Persian rugs, with a "shoes off" policy. Another bonus of the rooftop dinners was the live music from a local band. For both restaurants, I highly recommend you call ahead and make reservations because they are very popular and fill up quickly. Dinner typically is served promptly at 7pm, but make sure you get there at around 6pm to watch the sunset with a cocktail and make the most of the experience.
THINGS TO KNOW
1. The walls are thick and concrete, so the wifi is not always available (or strong) in the rooms. This wasn't too much of a problem for me since it worked perfectly well in the cozy lobby and rooftops.
2. While there are no pools at either hotel, they both have incredible views that overlook all of Stone Town and give you a glimpse into the daily musings of the neighborhood. When going up one morning for breakfast, I caught a young boy dancing on a rooftop nearby with his headphones in without a single care in the world. I smiled at him, he winked at me, and kept on dancing like he was still all by himself. So beautiful.
3. Since both hotels are in the thick of everyday life, there are mosques, churches, and temples nearby. If you're a light sleeper or have a room with an open balcony, there's a strong chance you'll be woken up by early morning calls to prayer or ritual bells ringing. I strongly recommend you use the earplugs provided by the hotel (or bring your own) to avoid an unexpected wake up call. Trust me, I had the misfortune of not taking my own advice one morning and instantly regretted it.
4. Neither properties have an elevator, so if you have difficulty walking, it will be a bit of an exercise when climbing up the traditional wooden stairs or getting to the rooftops — although there is always a staff on hand to help you with anything.
All in all, my time at both Emerson properties was my best hotel stay while in Zanzibar. It was literally what dreams are made of and I loved how impeccably designed and community focused it was. If you're looking for an experience that slows down time and leaves you breathless in Stone Town, look no further.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Emerson Spice and Emerson on Hurumzi for a portion of my stay - though all opinions, photography, and words remain my own.
Photography by yours truly
Photos of me taken by Yagazie Emezi
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