LPTrendsEntrepreneurs: On Zanzibar’s Emerson Skeens by Susan Bainbridge. Levi-Strauss once said that all accounts of travel “create the illusion of something which no longer exists, but should exist.” And therein lies the dilemma of the consummate traveller; trapped into an eternal search for a world that should exist. This was written as part of an entrepreneurial story collection, a story of how one entrepreneur half way around the world is changing things where he lives.
After 45 years of extensive travel, I find myself constantly chasing that fleeting mirage on the horizon. This year I caught it. I experienced one brief moment in time when the universe unfolded as it should; in Tanzania, on the island of Zanzibar, in Stone Town, at the Emerson Spice Hotel.
The Emerson Spice is a result of one man’s vision and a fine example of how an entrepreneur should operate. John Locke would be proud. Emerson Skeens, the inn-keeper of this magical enterprise, portrays an ethical approach to business, proving that one can be successful, while instilling the same in his employees and the community at large. This is a place that should exist.
Skeens, a New Yorker, who was already scuba diving with his best friend by the age of 9, could never qualify as ‘typical’. So it stands to reason that his creations are unique also.
He set off to travel the world in his mid-twenties; and did just that until he found Zanzibar 20 years ago. Renovation seems to be Emerson’s first love but it may be that Stone Town simply requires so much restoration that Skeens finds himself constantly surrounded by works in progress.
When he first arrived on the island, he restored a glorious old building in Stone Town, filled the 10 bedrooms with a never-ending flow of visiting friends, and sat in his rooftop teahouse enjoying one of the most spectacular views on earth. But as any entrepreneur knows, life throws a few curve balls, and one evening as Skeens watched the global money markets and calculated his savings, he realized the honeymoon was over. He arose the next morning and announced to his guests, “This place is now a hotel!”
He’s never looked back. Emerson Skeens’ name is now synonymous with the hotel industry in Zanzibar. Not only for the meticulous way he restores buildings, and the specialized menus and services, but also for the sense of family that he has created among his staff and the respect he has gained from the local residents.
The Emerson Spice is his third hotel. When completed, it will host 12 guestrooms. The integrity of the renovations is impressive. Materials are all the same as the original Arab and Indian craftsmen used and holding to this design has meant a great deal of gutting and replacements along the way. Emerson has hired locals and when necessary he has trained both men and women in the art of restoration and crafts fast disappearing.
The work on this hotel is so multi-faceted: It’s a new, exciting boutique hotel. It’s an historical building being restored. It’s employing local people and training them in historical restoration. It blends into the community and streets of Stone Town in such a comfortable, unobtrusive manner that a newcomer could pass by it without a second glance.
When I entered my room, Violetta, at the Emerson Spice, I entered another era. All six shutter-framed windows were opened, and a cool sea breeze swept through the room. I stepped out onto the balcony which ran the length of the building.
A little girl peeked over the sill of the window across the street and I could almost stretch out my hand and touch her. I stood at the railing and looked down at the children playing in the narrow street below.
I felt something that I have been searching for all my life. I truly took a stride back in time, to an era of ships and trains, to a world of serene elegance and service. To a time of early European travellers and those great adventurers who sought out the mysteries of India and Africa, when the journey was far more tedious and dangerous. And I wondered how did they do it?
How did they adjust to these climates in their European attire? How did they adapt to customs so foreign, in times that were seemingly so much more uncompromising? I felt exactly like one of them, standing on this balcony. The feeling never left and I found myself spending every spare moment sitting in my new enclave and embracing times gone by.
Charms of Emerson Spice
That is one of the charms of the Emerson Spice Hotel. Guests enjoy all the amenities of a 5-star hotel, yet all the modern conveniences are subtly hidden behind antique furnishings, and original rooms that are hundreds of years old.
I arrived late in the day, so after settling in to my room I made my way up the magnificent staircases. The aroma of coconut and curry, vanilla and saffron increased at each landing and enveloped me as I reached the rooftop dining area known in Zanzibar as the teahouse. An open-air kitchen full of smiling chefs and waiters greeted me. Although it is a small area, each table offers privacy, yet there were some evenings when the clientele seemed to mesh into one big social gathering.
Each evening I made a point of talking with as many diners as possible and heard the same comments repeatedly. They were either local residents who said that it was simply the best dining on the island, or they were tourists who were not able to obtain a room at the Emerson Spice, but wanted to ensure that they saw the place and experienced the cuisine.
And cuisine it is! Emerson has taken African dining to a whole new level. Ceviche in bungo (a fruit native only to Zanzibar and the near coast of Tanzania), red Snapper in tomato, chilli, vanilla and star anise, passion fruit, wild bitter tomato in coconut and curry, chicken in vanilla, chilli pepper, heart fruit with saffron sorbet, mango and cardamom sorbet.
The list goes on, with several courses served each evening and different menus for each day of the week. The presentation equals any French dish or Japanese Kaiseki meal I have experienced. Everything is displayed in a colourful and playful Zanzibar style with tastes that blend and melt on the palette. Superb dining in superb surroundings!
As the days passed and I got to know and chat with the staff, one of Emerson’s secrets came to light. Without exception, each staff member has been with Emerson for almost their entire career. Most of the staff explained that they had been working with Emerson for 14+ years and even when he had to move locations, if he could not take all his staff with him then he found positions for each of them at other hotels until he could hire them back again. This is truly a family. Perhaps that’s what makes the place magic. It feels like home, and you’ve come back to visit.
Old World Service
Albeit a very special visit with very special treatment, each evening I would decide what time I would like breakfast in my room or on my balcony (standard service). Every day my personal butler would ask my plans and help in any way he could (standard service).
Whenever I left the hotel, I would take the cell phone from my room with me in case I got lost in the complicated streets of Stone Town so I could press ‘1’ and have the hotel staff come and find me (standard service). My room was tidied and prepared numerous times a day and yet I did not once see the room staff. Amazing!
Everywhere I went in Stone Town or on the island of Zanzibar, people would chat and ask where I was staying. When I replied “The Emerson Spice” the response was always the same. . . “Ahhhh, Emerson is special!”
Emerson Skeens is special; as are his creations. An entrepreneur who has chosen an obscure corner of the earth, to build his dream, yet always ensuring that he assists his staff (family) in building their dreams as well.
Emerson has found the balance between business drive and personal contentment. Between taking and giving. Can we fix the world? Of course we can! We just need fewer bankers and more entrepreneurs like Emerson Skeens.
What a glorious way to live one’s life! Building up enterprises that interest you and are also marvellous additions to the history and ambiance of your community.
While at the same time surrounding yourself with a large extended family of staff that is with you for life. In addition, as a result of this concern for the place and the people, gaining the quiet, deep respect of your community. The people of Zanzibar are quite right when they tell you “Emerson is special”.