Mafia is salvaged by misunderstanding.
Once the droll references to Sicily are finished and
the misguided references to Hemingway are corrected,
Mafia Island is then dismissed as the Zanzibar for those
trying to be different.
And different it is. Admittedly lacking
in the historical charms of Stone Town, there is still
an equally-charming ruined town of creeper-choked temples
straight out of Indiana Jones. The beaches, it must
be said, are not quite the white, picture-postcard swathes
of Zanzibar, but then Mafia makes up for it's (merely
excellent) coastline with its sandbanks, glaring apostrophes
of pure sand that punctuate the horizon a mere half-hours
boat ride from shore.
Above water and below, Mafia balances
its attractions with a gentle grace - no one feature
outstandingly dominant, but each one important in defining
the whole composite charm of the island. Beaches, mangroves,
historical sites, marine parks sit together within a
thriving, effectively self-sufficient, community of
fisherman and farmers, continuing with life whether
people bother to visit or not. Free of the touts and
hassles, the commerce and the kitsch, where the only
thing you are asked for is the news of your day, the
only thing that you are sold is fresh seafood and the
closest you get to high-rise is a ruined jail strangled
with foliage, Mafia continues with its differences.
Mafia's hotels are all located in one bay on the eastern
side of the island, close to Chole island and the Marine
Park, but as they are only three and all are very friendly,
their proximity has never really mattered.
Mafia Island Lodge
The former government lodge was recently taken
over and currently represents the best value of
any beach property in the country. Large but family-friendly
and located on the best stretch of beach on Mafia,
the overall advantages are difficult to ignore.
A small, Italian-owned property of intimate atmosphere
and subtle décor, PolePole (the Swahili for
slow/relaxed) is the best-rated of the Mafia properties.
There are eight groomy, hand-crafted bungalows facing
out over the sea, and a dining area and central
public space that is straight from Robinson Crusoe.
Here is served a fusion of Swahili and Italian cuisines,
complemented by excellent wines that seems the most
fitting tribute to all that goes on around you.
First class lodge, perfect for couples, honeymooners
and those of a sybaritic bent.
In the heart of the ruins of the Chole settlement,
past the liana-strangled Hindu temple sits Chole
Mjini Lodge, a treehouse lodge of incomparable
eccentricity and charm. Perched in the eaves of
the baobab trees, above the mangroves and beach,
the houses are open on all sides, with artfully-carved
furniture and comfortable beds as the sole concession
to hotel status.
Perhaps most impressive of all - aside from location,
style and form - is the community projects that
are funded by the revenue from this property.
This is a genuine community conservation programme,
benefiting the villages and instigating a respect
for tourism and visitors that should be held as
a shining example to tourism across the continent.