In Zanzibar, legend has it that Popo Bawa, a one-eyed demon with the body, ears and talons of a bat, swoops down on unbelieving males and rapes them, usually in times of upheaval.
The myth, which persists even now, tickled hotelier Emerson Skeens, and he placed a giant Japanese samurai kimono in the shape of the feared creature above one of the guest beds in his Stone Town hotel.
“It was a jokey thing for Emerson to do,” laughs Russell Bridgewood, the English manager of Emerson Spice, one of Africa’s most romantic and eccentric hotels.
“We don’t tell guests when they arrive, we tell them when they leave.”
It is a tantalising glimpse into the character of the man behind Emerson Spice, which has built its reputation on sumptuous and sensual interiors. Every room is a tribute to a great feminine icon, such as Aida, or the actress Katherine Hepburn, and is designed in its own unique style, but the stain-glassed windows, recherché fittings and Zanzibar antiques are a feature of all.Skeens, a New Yorker and psychologist, relocated to Zanzibar in the late 1980s, and with his American partner, Thomas Green, a dancer, opened the famed Emerson and Green in 1994, converting a towering old Arab Sultan’s palace into a hotel with 20 foot ceilings and marble flooring, the décor reminiscent of something out of the Arabian Nights.
The two men parted company in 2003, and under Green’s stewardship, the hotel faded. It would later be bought and refurbished by a consortium of partners, friends of Skeens’.
Known now as Emerson on Hurumzi, it is located a few minutes’ walk from Emerson Spice, the crumbling merchant house that Skeen’s bought in 2006 and converted into a luxury boutique hotel over five years.
The original hotel was, Skeens would say, the more masculine of the two. Emerson Spice was, by contrast, “more feminine, smaller and more beautiful – as he put it,” says Bridgewood, a long-time friend of the hotelier, who died in 2014 from cancer.
“His motto was: if you’re going to pay to stay somewhere, you should have fun by just staying there,” he says.
“So every room has a lot of fun, whether it be hammocks on the balcony, or an outdoor shower, or a swing within a pagoda. It was always a bit quirky.”
“The bathtubs were very much his signature – the bathtubs always had room for two.”
The Zanzibar archipelago is in the Indian Ocean about 16 miles off the Tanzanian coast. Once an important Arab trading post, it is famous for its rich history, spice-laden bazaars, and white beaches.Tourism has taken a hit in recent years, but as the security and political situation starts to settle down, there’s little reason we can think of not to visit.