One luxury hotel on a rough camping trip

We were going to sleep in the Dhow Palace Hotel, a luxury hotel in Zanzibar, and a massive change from camping near lions and frying baked beans on campfires. Despite our beards, board shorts, unwashed singlets, and Crocs that didn’t fit our feet, they were happy to give us keys to their rooms.

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Elegant and traditional, the Dhow Palace had plain whitewashed walls juxtaposed with rich red floors, square black and white tiles, dark wooden beams and staircases, chandeliers, Persian rugs and Masaai paintings and Islamic antiques. It had the feel of a wealthy nineteenth-century African merchant’s house. It was five stories, with an open rooftop lookout, and a central open-air courtyard hiding a tiled square swimming pool.

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All five stories of hotel rooms overlooked the courtyard, each one boasting a timber balcony, red, yellow and blue stained glass windows and unique Persian-style door arches. In the middle of the day the sun would beam directly down onto the pool, but mostly, it was hidden in shade. The inside of the rooms echoed the decor of the hotel; heavy, intricately carved wooden doors, big wooden beds with carved headboards, antique mirrors and cupboards, timber floors and woven rugs.

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We split to freshen up, took a few minutes to lie down on real beds, then met up at the pool again. Jan (owner of the 4WD we’d been travelling in) wanted to hear all about our stories so far, so we walked over to the bar at the Serena Hotel, another five-star Zanzibari hotel. We were getting a tour of fanciness on Zanzibar. The bar was on a large balcony with a pool, overlooking a sparkling ocean. We looked downright scruffy and out of place compared to the other well-dressed clientele. We ordered a round of gin and tonics and told Jan what we had been up to so far. A lot had happened so far and we were practically bursting with stories to tell. Jan seemed to enjoy hearing them and hearing about how the car was going, as we drank a few more rounds.

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At the Serena, we made dinner reservations for later that night. On the way back to the Dhow Palace we bought a bottle of cheap gin and some cans of tonic. Back at the Dhow we went for a swim in the pool and checked our emails; the Dhow Palace had the first internet we had been able to use in weeks and we were keen to let people at home know where we were and that we were safe. Most of our friends and family expected we would face some kind of problem in Africa – road accidents, tropical diseases, wild animal maulings, local militia waving guns in the air, kidnappings, getting lost in the desert – but Africa was definitely not like that for us.

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We poured home-made gin and tonics by the pool. While we swam, Jan napped, and we wandered up to the rooftop to check out the sunset. The courtyard on the roof kept climbing up and up, and was likely one of the highest points in the entire city. The view was great, and as the sun turned red and began to melt into the sea, we listened to the echoes of Islamic prayer funneling up from the mosques. The prayers amplified and resonated across the rooftops, with no competing sounds except the waves, spreading a sense of calm as the night fell.

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A group of American tourists joined us on the roof. We talked for a while and they suggested checking out the Africa House for some drinks; we said we’d check it out tomorrow. Dinner that night was at the Serena. The table was on another balcony, above the bar, overlooking the water. The water view looked great even at night. There were only a handful of tables, so each one received special attention. Jan, a notorious boisterous character, chatted and joked with the waiter, tested his knowledge of the menu and made us the most looked-after table on the balcony.

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In the morning Jan had an early flight. He didn’t stay long in Zanzibar, because of a business meeting to attend back in Kenya. My room was next to the front desk and I heard Jan checking out. I went out to say goodbye and Jan told me that he’d booked the three of us in for another night, in the presidential suite on the top floor. I said goodbye and shook his hand, thanking him for bestowing a few nights of luxury on we three shoestring travellers. He left and I went to check out the free breakfast at the restaurant by the pool. I poured myself a cup of hot coffee and stacked my plate high with bacon, eggs, croissants, sausages, hash browns and fruit. The others were still fast asleep upstairs so I ate breakfast alone by the pool. After a while the boys came downstairs and I greeted them with a raised cup of coffee. They had breakfast, then we headed back out into the streets of Zanzibar.

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