Tongabezi just made it onto Conde Nast Traveller’s 2018 20 Best Hotels in the World and, given the gravitas of this accolade, I thought I’d let them paint a picture in place of our usual blurb:
‘The roots of this lodge run deep beneath the banks of the great Zambezi River, 15km upstream from the roar of the Victoria Falls. Almost 28 years since it opened, Tongabezi has grown organically, unhindered by corporate conventions. Its owners, Ben and Vanessa Parker, have lived and breathed this stretch of river since they married on nearby Sindabezi island in 1994. Their home is Tangala, a warm, thatched family house adjacent to the lodge, and Vanessa runs neighbouring Tongabezi Trust School. Right from the start, the couple set out to employ locals and empower them in pivotal roles. The result is one of the happiest places to stay in all of Africa.
‘There are no straight lines at Tongabezi, or at its African-fairy-tale sister camp on Sindabezi island. The original five waterfront cottages are curvaceous beauties, and the more substantial houses are built freeform, incorporating gnarly trees along the way. Most were entirely open to the elements, but glass-and-wood concertina doors have been added to all but the Tree House to placate those less enamoured with scuttling critters.
‘The Zambezi, which flows from Angola to the Indian Ocean, is one of the continent’s most sensational arteries; it has transported British explorers and Arab traders in dugout canoes, and sustained great numbers of Nile crocodiles and pods of grunting hippos for centuries. It, too, is the ever-flowing lifeblood of Tongabezi; the fecund, muddy smell of it, the joyful sound of splashing elephants, the call of lions coming down to drink at nightfall, and the sight of ever-patient fish eagles scouting for catfish. The whole of Africa is here on your doorstep; all that’s left to do is soak it right up.’
We were given the remote Honeymoon House high up in the treetops on the banks of the Zambezi river. Our huge private deck with a super-deep pool looked out across the river to Zimbabwe. We had an outdoor freestanding bathtub—regularly filled with bubbles and candlelit by our butler—and a treetop canopy with monkeys dancing from branch to branch. The thatched-roof chalet was a perfect blend of colour and harmony, think African artefacts with historical French-colonial books and artwork. A huge canopied four-poster lay at the far end, and with multiple sofas, armchairs, desks, washstands and seating areas dotted around—the interior was impeccable.
No request was too large or too small—I thought I knew luxury, but, alas, I knew nothing. Everyone we met, from the reception team (even that term feels wrong for somewhere like Tongabezi—there wasn’t a ‘receptionist’, but rather a coherent, incredibly happy group of people working together to make our stay amazing), to the owner, to the dining staff, boatmen, and our butler, seemed genuinely happy, and happy to have us there.
We were given a radio for our private butler; on call day and night and pre-empting our every need, he remembered every tiny detail. From checking what we might like for breakfast in bed and at what time, last thing at night, to the time I’d like my outdoor baths run, and how warm and how bubbly I fancied them.
He even, very gently, suggested he launder our large quantity of (fortnight-long-trip-through-Africa) clothes and return them perfectly pressed by morning. And not in the way some hotels have a laundry option to tick on a piece of paper in a file in a drawer, but in a genuine ‘Jeeves knows best’ sense. I’m rendered inarticulate by the standard of service at Tongabezi–this place is insane.
Tongabezi is a dream, but whilst dreaming, I went to heaven and discovered Sindabezi. Sindabezi is Tongabezi’s private island about 20 minutes boat ride down the river. Colonial chic at its finest, but without the colonial overtones—Tongabezi and Sindabezi are incredibly socially responsible— Sindabezi was straight from the pages of a fairytale. There were lizards the size of a spaniel, and nests of baby birds just chilling in the huts. The interiors were perfectly curated, no hut had walls, but drapes and more nets around the four-poster. Each hut is raised up on stilts with antique wooden washstands, open-air roll-top baths, outdoor showers and hammocks to watch fisherman raft by as you swing in the breeze.
My beloved boyfriend failed to shake off a bug he’d caught early on in our trip, taking a turn for the worse soon after arriving at Tongabezi. Having been advised by a London travel clinic to always fly back to SA to be treated, I can’t say I wasn’t more than a little concerned. Exhausted with worry and unable to sleep, I took a fretful 6am walk around the grounds, while he sweated and slept, teeth chattering, body shaking. I was approached by a kindly manager (again, terms like this just feel wrong at Tongabezi), and within minutes they were on the phone to the best doctor in Zambia. With an appointment within the hour, Tongabezi’s driver was ready and waiting and Mr Man was really, properly looked after by an international-standard medic. Tongabezi’s Dr Sanjay turned out to be so good, carrying out world-class malaria tests in his office, (the result was negative, thank God) and promising me his own dog if he was wrong about the diagnosis, he even carried on Whatsapping me back in London about his progress. And this was all well after we’d paid his incredibly reasonable fee.
Where to begin? Breakfast in our treetop house was so incredible I’m drooling just writing about it. Every day I opted for a sort of open BLT panini with rocket and aioli. Then lunch could be taken in the restaurant, the terrace, The Lookout, The Hangout or, I think, your house or cottage.
And supper, my goodness. On the first night this was prepared for us on a free-floating raft, halfway between Zambia and Zimbabwe in the middle of the Zambezi river. We witnessed several hours of boatmen carrying things back and forth by canoe from our sofa in the Lookout. Watching in awe as the magic took shape, until finally, we were boated out to a candle-lit, starched white table-cloth dream, all alone under the dark, dark sky scattered with the brightest of African stars. Course after course of haute cuisine and fine, fine wine arrived by canoe, until, out of the blue, a rickety wooden boat appeared in the distance, dulcet tones on the breeze getting closer and closer, to be serenaded by what I can only describe as an African barbershop quartet; so talented, and so harmonic—think sirens leading sailors to shipwreck—it was impossibly magical rather than cheesy.
On our second night we took dinner on the top deck of The Lookout hut, up a wooden ladder. Again, all alone, and looking out across the river with sounds of mythical beasts splashing below, we were brought three incredible courses by candlelight. After the Sampan raft the night before this is a close contender as the most magical supper I’ve had.
On our third night, supper was on our private island of Sindabezi. With the island all to ourselves and a staff to guest ratio of about 10:1 we supped right on the riverbank, with the sound of elephant stampedes in the distance and hippos grunting nearby.
Who goes there?
Tongabezi has five private houses, and six river cottages, laid out so guests have utmost privacy when they want it, but also has open areas like the restaurant with indoor and outdoor options, The Hangout—a wonderfully comfortable drawing/sitting room, with sofas, armchairs, uplighters, coffee table books and reading lamps dotted about and overlooking the expansive Zambezi river. There’s also The Lookout hut right next door, with its large ground floor dining table, and raised mezzanine dining area for smaller romantic suppers, and the shared rockpool swimming/ diving pool. There’s a definite preference for privacy here—with a much more obvious presence of staff than guests, even when fully booked so we didn’t have a huge amount of contact with anyone other than staff.
Other than the odd other couple in The Hangout, we were enjoying our Honeymoon House and all it offered far too much to talk to anyone else. But, Tongabezi and Sindabezi are ideal for anyone wanting total seclusion and 5, no, 10-star luxury, in one of the most incredible locations in the world.
The worst thing:
My fever-stricken boyfriend thought it’d be a fun (read, ludicrous) idea to taunt the monkeys—the fairly large and entirely wild monkeys—with a banana, waving it around on the deck, dancing, singing ‘I’ve got a banana, na na na na na’.
Suffice to say, they formed a union, surrounded the deck and chased him back into the chalet, shrieking like a little girl.
The best thing:
The story above.
No, but really I’m too hard pushed to choose any single high point. In no particular order I’d have to say: the insanely personal and attentive service; the floating raft candlelit for our private supper under the stars in the middle of the dark, dark Zambezi river; everything about Sindabezi, but especially the stunningly curated, colonial décor—think hammocks next to four-posters, next to roll-top baths and Georgian washstands, all open to the river that surrounds them; the sunset boat rides to deserted islands, with a full picnic laid out and bar erected with starched white tablecloths and tiki torches as a surprise for our arrival; our huge and impeccably decorated Tongabezi Honeymoon House with its four-poster bed, private pool, full-time butler, vast bathroom, open-air candlelit bathtub and large private deck high in the treetops; the immense and epic thunderstorm on our second day—huge crashes, bangs and shards of light above a hot, biblical rainstorm; the crocodiles, elephants and hippos our Zambezi-veteran boatman took us right up to; the faultlessly quick and efficient medical care when Mr Man was unwell; the beautifully genuine French owners; the proximity to Victoria Falls, its spray visible even at times from Tongabezi; the way no request was too large or too small; and the way the whole place was wonderfully architecturally sensitive—super luxurious wooden huts blending seamlessly into the jungle and riverbanks— all laid out to give each guest a sense of total isolation and privacy.
The cost of our three night stay is around £3,500. Two nights for two people in the Honeymoon House at Tongabezi is around £2,500 and an additional night for two in the Honeymoon Chalet on Sindabezi is around £1000.
Tongabezi Lodge, Private Bag 31, Simonga, Zambia; +260 21 3327468; www.tongabezi.com