Where tradition and entertainment meet
Stone Town has a new must go place, a most unusual al-fresco restaurant in a lushly landscaped hidden ruin – a rare example of a truly authentic conservation.
Called Secret Garden, the newly extended and refurbished restaurant is part of the legendary Emerson brand, and offers fine dining & cocktails on two levels. It lies adjacent to the iconic Emerson Spice Hotel, a grand former Indian merchant palace, towards Darajani market.
“This was not an ordinary mid-season spring-clean“, said Len Horlin, director of the Emerson Group. “It was a labour of love, involving a major upscaling.“ Her task was to leave the crumbling walls of the mystery patio untouched – speaking of history, dreams and drama during the Sultans’ era – while creating safe and comfortable seating areas for about 70 guests.
An inlaid staircase handmade by Zanzibar bespoke furniture maker Scanza now leads to a covered balcony looking down on the original courtyard. From above as from below, audience and diners have a good view of the stage where live music and other cultural shows are presented twice weekly. Lavish chandeliers, art, peacock murals and original old porcelain decorate the place.
Time tunnel in Stone Town
The Secret Garden feels like a time tunnel and has a magic aura – but what actually took place here historically? The courtyard is said to have been a market place as monsoon winds for centuries brought traders from Arabia and India to the shores of Zanzibar. Broken ivory cutting tools have been found in the rubble. At one stage, during the British protectorate of Zanzibar, the yard is said to have housed teachers of the King George School, which later became Lumumba school, when Zanzibar and Tanganyika formed Tanzania after the 1964 revolution. The well in the small courtyard is among the first ever recorded in Zanzibar Stone Town.
History has it, that at the beginning of the 19th century, Indian traders were still largely outnumbered by Arab traders in Stone Town and most of them of “limited means”, as local historian Abdul Sheriff puts it. But gradually the Indians moved up the ranks of merchant classes, building elegant houses with carved balconies and coloured glass windows – just like Emerson Spice and the Secret Garden. The colourful windows and blue-washed neeru walls now provide a dramatic backdrop for the al-fresco restaurant. The premises are the brainchild and legacy of Zanzibar pioneer Emerson Skeens, a resident of Zanzibar for more than 25 years, who died on his beloved island at the age of 65 in 2014. With love and understanding for a multicultural society, the American opened one of the first private hotels in Stone Town in 1989 and placed the island – which had been locked behind the iron curtain for 25 years – on the travel map. The two hotels carrying his name, Emerson Spice and Emerson on Hurumzi, are still thriving.
Nowadays, at the Secret Garden, customers find Zanzi-Beer on tap at the bar, quirky cocktails and a rich Zanzibar-influenced à la carte menu. “Here the timeless blends with the mystical”, first visitors commented.