In our series on Zanzibar, we take a moment to appreciate the efforts of one local brand, Zanzibar Serena Hotel, to preserve Stone Town’s rich history.

Karibuni!” the tall porter dressed in flowing robes greets us as we disembark from our local transport.

His posture is one of a man who carries himself with confidence. His knowing eyes hold an ‘I-have-seen-it-all‘ kind of wisdom which only comes from longevity in a certain place. He is clearly part of the fabric of the hotel. He ushers us through a thick door with an elaborate frame, one of the many that have been restored or installed here. It bears the hallmarks of the traditional ‘Zanzibari Style’ which we will become familiar with during our visit to Stone Town.

Zanzibar Serena Hotel, Shangani Street, Kelele Square

It is our first time in East Africa and our first exposure to the Swahili language. The distinguished looking porter leads us towards the receptionist. We suspect that he’s discerned that we are not from the region.

He finally asks the question hanging on the tip of his tongue, “Do you speak Swahili”? We reply in the negative. “Don’t worry; it is an easy language to learn”. “Asante Sana!” we say as he drops our luggage. He nods his head in approval and smiles as he walks away.

 

Welcome to Serena

We are in Zanzibar Serena Hotel, a boutique property located in the Shangani coastal area of Stone Town. Pausing for a moment to take in our surroundings, we are immediately transported into a scene from around the turn of the 20th century.

Main lobby at Zanzibar Serena Hotel, Shangani Street, Kelele Square

Beneath us there are polished and patterned ceramic floor tiles. Above us is a high ceiling with lattice woodwork. Around us, dark wooden panels contrast with the white walls to give the lobby a luxurious feel. Their intricate designs sing of the skill and craftsmanship underlying their creation. Decorative 18th century style Dutch plates and Swahili cultural emblems line the walls, adding an artistic touch.

Main lobby at Zanzibar Serena Hotel, Shangani Street, Kelele Square

In the middle of the lobby, the gentle trickle of water from a small ceramic fountain provides a calming effect. A light sea breeze wafting through a corridor helps to shift some of the sub-equatorial heat and humidity. At the end of the corridor, we catch a glimpse of the blue waters of the Indian Ocean and a solitary dhow traversing the waves. There is no need for distracting lobby music. The beauty surrounding us provides its own soundtrack.

Zanzibar Serena Hotel, Shangani Street, Kelele Square

[Check the rates for Zanzibar Serena Hotel]

Although a UNESCO World Heritage Site, much of Stone Town’s historic architecture is threatened by a disturbing lack of maintenance. However here we are in an oasis of time. Someone has clearly gone to some trouble to make this place a showpiece. We are especially pleased when the receptionist tells us that she can hook us up for a private tour later on.

 

Hammock time!

From what we’ve seen of the reception, we have high expectations for our room. The elaborate woodwork designs and furnishings remain a consistent theme as we climb the stairs to the third floor suite we’ve been allocated. Being a colonial building, they probably haven’t been able to modify the original structure to accommodate a lift.

Foyer at Zanzibar Serena Hotel

Our room turns out to be a corner suite! Although it is impossible to swing a cat in the ensuite bathroom and the king bed takes up considerable space, we understand the pragmatic design of the place and the need to balance conservation with ambitious modernisation.

Zanzibar Serena Hotel King Room

The double doors lead to a very spacious wrap-around balcony and we are immediately rewarded with views in multiple directions. On one side we gaze upon the rooftops of Stone Town. On the other side we see palm trees dancing in the wind to the sound of their own music. Below us is the beach and endless ocean.

Hammock at Zanzibar Serena Hotel

This is Zanzibar the ancient spice island with the cliché powder-soft white sandy beaches, turquoise waters and golden sunsets. Swinging from the dhow-shaped hammock on our balcony, we are simply grateful to have one of the best views in town.

 

An oasis of time

With time to spare before lunch, we decide to take the receptionist up on her offer for a tour of the property. Auspiciously, the Head of Housekeeping has some time between his shifts and is happy to show us around. Even better, being low season, some of the higher-end suites are vacant, granting us license to satisfy our curiosity.

Original artefacts at Zanzibar Serena Hotel

We tour the state, executive, prime and standard rooms, most of which have balconies with a sea view. The ‘Honeymoon Suite’ captures our imagination the most, with its generous balcony, hammock and Swahili bed. In this place, love is permitted to lose track of time.

The present day property is a combination of the old ‘Extelcoms’ building, originally built by the British in the early 20th century, and the Chinese Doctor’s Residence. The latter was an Omani Arab house said to predate much of Stone Town itself.

Both buildings were in a serious state of decay before extensive but painstaking restoration work, using local and regional craftsmen, began in 1995. The architectural influences are a combination of Arab, Indian, Swahili and European which find expression through Zanzibari craftsmanship resulting in what is known as the ‘Zanzibari Style’.

Original furnishings such as a ‘samawat’ (stove) and some truly ancient telecommunication equipment have been lovingly restored and are strategically placed around the public spaces, enhancing the distinct character of the property and allowing visitors to literally touch the emblems of history.

Zanzibar Serena Hotel, Shangani Street, Kelele Square

Our guide casually points out that Serena Hotels have recently received two World Travel Awards: Africa’s Leading Hotel Brand 2016 and Zanzibar’s Leading Hotel 2016. We later learn that Serena Hotels also swept awards for the best boutique hotels in Rwanda, Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania. If the effort they have put into preserving a slice of Stone Town’s history is any indicator, it is not hard to see why.

 

Experiencing Swahili cuisine

It is time for our friendly guide to go back to his duties. “Asante Sana…Kwaheri”, we bid him goodbye. We already know where the main restaurant is located and we make a beeline for the place hoping to tuck into some decent Swahili cuisine.

Swahili Cuisine at Zanzibar Serena Hotel

The Baharia Restaurant is one of two restaurants at Zanzibar Serena Hotel and from what we gather it has quite a decent reputation in Stone Town. The expansive space is lined on one side by service facilities and on the opposite side, window shutters open up to reveal a sea view.

Beef at the Baharia Restaurant, Zanzibar Serena Hotel

The à la carte menu appears and after some deliberation, we settle on the samaki wa kupaka (boneless fillet of sea fish simmered in coconut and Zanzibar spices) as the gluten free / pesceterian option. The more carnivorous of us heads straight for the beef option, nyama ya ng’ombe.

Samaki wa kupaka, boneless fish, Baharia Restaurant, Zanzibar Serena Hotel

Service is swift although it takes a few attempts to elicit a smile from the waiter. When both dishes arrive, they are well presented and like every meal we have had in Zanzibar, generously spiced. The fish is fresh while the beef is especially tender and has a distinct smoky flavour. The waiter explains that the beef is imported from Nairobi. If food brings cultures together, then beef from Kenya infused with Zanzibari spices is a prime (pun intended) example of regional East African integration!

 

Beauty means the same in every language

It turns out that Zanzibar Serena’s hotel’s beachfront is open to the public. Although some guests might prefer the insulation of an easily accessible private beach, we think the hotel demonstrates inclusiveness by sharing this space with the local community. The locals seem to appreciate this as well and make good use of the beach in the evenings.

Sea view simming pool at Zanzibar Serena Hotel

The next day, because we will be spending time on beaches on the east coast in a few days, we decline an offer to visit the hotel’s own private beach located north of Stone Town and a 40-minute drive away in Mangapwani. Instead, we spend most of the day exploring Stone Town. We return to the hotel to enjoy the large seafront pool and have a relaxing dinner at the rooftop Terrace Restaurant as a local Taarab band plays music in the background.

Hammock in King Room at Zanzibar Serena Hotel

[Check the rates for Zanzibar Serena Hotel]

A Swahili proverb goes: ‘Kipenda cha moyo ni dawa’ meaning ‘What pleases the heart is medicine’. By the end of the day, our souls feel refreshed by the tonic of relaxation. Retreating back to the hammock on our balcony, we witness a spectacular African sunset; one more oasis of time. We may lack the right Swahili vocabulary to express our thoughts but in our hearts, we know that beauty means the same in every language.

 

Zanzibar Serena Hotel is located 7 km from Zanzibar International Airport. For bookings at Zanzibar Serena Hotel Direct contact reservations on +254 732 123 333 | Email: Zanzibar@serena.co.tz or contact your local tour operator. Standard room rates start from US$345 per night including breakfast. Discounts can often be found during low season.

Disclaimer: Accommodation and meals were provided by Zanzibar Serena Hotels. However, all views and opinions remain ours and we were not paid to publish this article. Our sincere thanks go to the management and staff of Zanzibar Serena Hotels especially the local F&B Manager, Mr. Lameck Kimaru  who looked out for us and made sure we experienced genuine Swahili hospitality.

 

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Zanzibar Serena Hotel An Oasis of Time

Co-Founders & Curators at HDYTI

Eulanda & Omo Osagiede are London-based freelance writers and award-winning social influencers who run the popular travel, food, and lifestyle blog HDYTI (Hey! Dip your toes in).