There is a place where you can belt out The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea” without a lick of irony, a smidgen of skill, or any regard for your neighbors’ eardrums.
A place where you can “sleep with the fishes.” Where you literally sleep with fishes darting all around you. Except, if you’re like me, you won’t be “sleeping with fishes” at all because the whole experience of watching fish swim around your room all night while lying in bed makes sleep completely impossible.
I’m talking about the underwater room on Pemba Island, one of the islands that make up Zanzibar right off the coast of Tanzania.
Let me start by telling you a bit about Pemba Island. It is lush and green. It is surrounded by impossibly clear aqua waters, teaming with coral and fish. Pemba is also the leading producer of cloves, according to Brittanica.com.
Pemba is very, very off-the-beaten path. According to one tourism source, Pemba’s sister island, Zanzibar has 150 hotels. Pemba has just seven (including a couple that may be more B&B style lodging)
It is very remote – you can take a small plane from Dar Salaam on the mainland to tiny Karume airport in Pemba’s main town of Chake-Chake. Then you’ll need a driver to take you on the hour-and-a-half drive through Ngezi Forest Reserve and up to the Manta Resort on the far northern part of the island.
Along the way, you’ll pass by thatched huts, the only other traffic on the road is the insistent mosquito-like drone of a scooter or two.
Manta Resort is pretty remote. You won’t be venturing out to any neighboring villages to grab a drink or dine in an area restaurant. There aren’t any. Nor are there any TVs, telephones, gym. Wi-fi is only really available at the lobby/reception area and it is spotty at best. I pretty much gave up on checking email or Instagram after the first afternoon.
The accommodations are spartan – small, private stucco villas with open bathrooms and no air conditioning but stunning ocean views. It’s an all-inclusive setup and there is no menu. You’re server (or “fundi”) gives you two options at each meal and you pick one. But it’s all very fresh and healthy, and there’s almost always a fish option.
The entire vibe at Manta Resort is unpretentious, laid back and friendly. It’s clear that the resort is community-focused and gives back in many ways – jobs, schooling, fishing and coral conservation. Their foundation, the Kwwanini Foundation, has several initiatives aimed at sustainable economic development with an eye towards preserving what makes the island unique.
But what really makes Manta Resort unique and is, quite honestly, the main draw is its’ underwater room.
Located about a kilometer off the beach, Manta’s underwater room is a free-floating, three-story “room.” Kinda like a house boat, but without an engine. Or any creature comforts.
If you plan far enough in advance and are willing to open your wallet very wide indeed, you can really live your Robinson Crusoe-“Castaway” dreams and deprive yourself of even the modest luxuries of a flushing toilet and warm water shower.
I kid, but not really.
After lunch on our designated day, we took the motorboat over to the underwater room and explored our new home. We were given instructions on how to flush the boat toilet and operate the outdoor shower (cold water only). Our dinner and breakfast would be brought over in coolers by boat. We were told that we had it until 11 am the following day, but, if we got sea sick (which apparently happens to guests pretty often out there), we had a satellite phone that we could use to call for an early pickup.
With that, we were left alone, abandoned on this little floating cork bobbing in the ocean. It’s a pretty simple setup really. There was a u-shaped lounging/dining area on the main floor, along with a small bathroom and the outdoor shower off the back. A tiny alcove with a mini-fridge (more like a cooler, really), some plates, utensils and glasses, and a plug-in kettle for making tea or instant coffee.
It felt like time completely stood still out there. You felt so disconnected. I even thought at one point, “If something major were to happen to the world, like, a natural or manmade disaster were to hit Pemba Island, we’d be out here, all alone and nobody would even know.” Kinda creeped me out.
You do find things to do, even without any electronic distractions or other people to talk to. We spent the afternoon snorkeling, reading and playing dominoes. We watched the sunset from the roof deck with gin and tonics in hand (we had brought drink fixings over with us). After the sun went down, the boat brought our local seafood feast, which tasted pretty amazing. I can’t vouch for how it looked since our little lanterns didn’t give off much light. The staff performed minor maintenance and housekeeping while we ate, waiting to take our dishes and leftovers back to the beach by boat.
After another brief stint on the rooftop deck to look at the nighttime sky, we couldn’t wait to settle into our underwater room – in no small part because it actually had a small air conditioning unit. We each made our way down this teeny-tiny little ladder shaft and into the literal underwater room.
Underwater lights outside the room illuminate the entire room a spooky yet tranquil blue while nosy fish peaked in or kissed the window glass. Even if you turn the lights off with the small remote provided in the room, you can see fish swimming past all night long, Silvery schools of hundreds of small darting ones kept streaking past like ghosts, leaving all kinds of organic matter (aka, marine snow) floating and glowing all around them.
Neither one of us slept much in the underwater room, a pretty common occurrence from what I gather. We kept nudging each other and saying, “Hey. Are you awake? Did you see that? What about that? Those fish over there? What kind are those? Man, this is so wild.” It was like being on safari again, except this time, in the ocean.
After breakfast, we did a bit more snorkeling. The water definitely was choppy out there, which made snorkeling a bit difficult. I could see how people get sea sick.
Eventually, our time in the underwater room came to an end and the boat came to pick us up. I wasn’t totally reluctant to leave – I was looking forward to a warm shower with toilettries – but I was sad to leave behind all my new little fish friends. You know, because “baby, it’s better, down where it’s wetter, take it from me.”