There's nothing like a tree-house to excite the adventurous traveller.
Chole Mjini Lodge: Our full report
Chole Mjini is one of the most original small lodges that we know in East Africa. It stands on Chole Island, just off the coast of Mafia Island, which is a peaceful and charming hideaway in an area that sees little tourism.The lodge was built to be environmentally sound, and to give real benefits to the local community. Built among 19th century ruinsm, it's all quite Indiana Jones: it's the ultimate eco-lodge, built before the term became so commonplace and over-used.
Arriving at Chole Mjini, you're instantly seduced by the enchanting atmosphere that blends history with pure Robinson-Crusoe. After dark, hermit crabs scuttle over the sandy paths, lit by solar lanterns.
South African-English couple Jean and Anne de Villiers established Chole Mjini with a very clear ideology, which contributes hugely to its atmosphere. For a while they took a back seat in the running of Chole Mjini, but we are delighted that they have decided to take over management once again. They have carried on the excellent work that the team at Chole were doing in their absence.
A walk through the nearby village will show you how much Chole Mjini has contributed to local life – including building a local dispensary, a primary school and an adult education centre. Out of the cost of your stay, U$10 per person per night goes directly toward funding community projects.
Chole is a beautiful, spacious lodge, in a historical location. Its communal areas, set in lush tropical gardens, are linked by winding paths that lead past the intriguing ruins of Chole town (the meaning of Chole mjini. The island was settled as early as the 16th century, and it was an important trading port as late as the 19th century. The ruined walls and buildings of the old town can still be seen dotted around the lodge's gardens and in the small area of the port, tangled in vines and wrapped by the roots of giant fig trees.
A large open-sided, thatched banda serves as Chole's lounge and dining area. Here you will find comfy sofas of polished cement, strewn with cushions. The thatched roof and polished cement floors help to keep the area cool, as does the sea breeze. Odd bits of African furniture mixed with Swahili and Arab antiques give Chole a beautiful yet simple coastal style.
From the lounge you can look out over the mangroves at the sea beyond, lose yourself in one of the books from the shelves, set your camera up to snap the endless display of birds by the birdbatch or perhaps indulge in a game of bao. Boards of this favourite East African game are dotted around the lounge: it's fun to learn, and the staff will happily teach you how to play.
Above the lounge and dining area is a small bar, with more sofas, built into the rafters of the thatched roof, where guests usually congregate for pre-dinner drinks.
A short walk from the lounge is a small inlet, where the lodge has a number of dhows for excursions and some diving equipment.
Back at the old port, facing Mafia Island, is the Red Herring Bar, which is owned by Chole Mjini and has Wi-fi. This is where the boat from Mafia Island drops you, and it's the perfect place to watch the sunset and have a few pre-dinner drinks.
Six of the rooms at Chole Mjini are tree houses, set on platforms high up in baobab trees. The seventh, slightly more conventional, stands on the ground.
Chole's wooden tree houses were built to a very high standard by local craftsmen whose skills were honed building dhows. Although each is slightly different, some being on two storeys, they all share one trait: their general lack of modern conveniences.
The lodge operates with solar generated electricity and each guest is issued with a little solar-powered lantern; the loos are composting long-drop toilets rather than flushing ones; and showers are heated by a small but very effective paraffin burner that you light yourself. There's no air-conditioning, of course, but the rooms do have solar-powered fans for those still nights when the open-sided, tree-level rooms don't catch a natural breeze – which is happily the case for most of the year.
Read more about the tree houses in general here...
Helped by Chole Mjini's owner, Jean, we've made a few notes here on some of the quirky individualities of the rooms, and added a few pictures:
If you like the sound of these rustic features – then staying in a tree house at Chole Mjini is an experience you won't forget. It's worth noting that much as the tree-houses all have their quirky idiosyncrasies, you can't guarantee which one you will be booked into unless you make a premium booking well in advance. Please ask us about this. Otherwise, you can always ask to be moved to another tree-house - though very few guests are disappointed whichever one they are staying in.
Some visitors are almost fanatical in their devotion to Chole Mjini, but if you need your mod cons, then look instead at one of Mafia Island's more conventionally comfortable lodges: Pole Pole, Kinasi Lodge or Shamba Kilolejust across the water.
Activities are very much a part of most visitors' time at Chole Mjini: this is a place to do things, as well as relax. All the ideas are very flexible, and a lot depends on the tide, and what the various guests want to do, as you will often be sharing, especially where a boat is required. We were amazed at how much there was to do on such an apparently sleepy island.
The Chole team usually organises a complementary dhow trip each day. This typically sails to a remote sandbar, perhaps twenty minutes away, where you can relax on a beach surrounded by the sea. You can also go to a coral reef on the way to snorkel if you wish. We really enjoyed these trips, and the lack of a private beach next to the lodge was never an issue. Note that you will need to hire masks and fins to take part in the snorkelling.
With a day's notice, Chole Mjini can organise diving in conjunction with the Sea Point Dive Centre on Mafia mainland, just a short boat ride from Chole island. All the waters around Chole lie within the Mafia Island Marine Park – and Chole Bay itself is ideal for novices, with relatively protected and shallow waters (mostly less than 20m), yet with some good coral and marine life.
More advanced divers head out on an old sailing dhow to explore outside the bay – where various reefs, passes and wall dives go down to about 30m, with even more spectacular marine life. Having dived both here and all around the Zanzibar Archipelago, we regard the diving here as some of the best in Tanzania – and probably the best for sightings of large individual fish. We've seen potato cod, giant grouper, barracuda and white-tipped reef shark on recent dives here.
But it’s not just diving that’s great here. Guests can explore the Kua Ruins, visit Chole Village, snorkel in the blue lagoon on the neighbouring island of Juani, go on sunset cruises, and at certain times of year arrange humpback whale-watching, snorkelling with whale sharks and trips to see turtle hatchings.
Back at the lodge, Chole Mjini's close relationship with the village means that it's a great base from which to explore – either by yourself or with a local guide. Wander off in the late afternoon and you'll usually see a huge colony of large Comoros fruit bats starting to wake up before the nightly foray to their feeding sites on Mafia Island. You'll pass by the local hospital, various Tanzanian political party headquarters, and the village square with its community TV room.
Our viewChole Mjini is the perfect environmentally sound getaway and it has a wonderful community atmosphere that comes from genuine engagement with its neighbours on the island. This is a high-quality lodge, that pragmatically eschews many of the bells and whistles of modern hotels that we so often take for granted. That means it won't be for everyone, but it makes it very distinctive, and we think it's all the better for it.
Ideal length of stay: Four days or more – especially if you are a keen diver or really want to unwind.
Directions: It is a 30-minute flight from Dar to Mafia island and then a 15-30-minute drive to Utende Beach on the east coast of the main island, depending on how long it takes to get your marine park tickets at the office on the main road. From there it is a short 15-minute boat ride across Chole Bay to Chole Mjini. Please note that there is no jetty at Chole – you will need to wade a short distance in water, so wear clothes and shoes that you don't mind getting wet.
Accessible by: Fly-and-Transfer
Owner: Independent / Owner Run
Staff: Jean and Anne de Villiers
Food & drink
Usual board basis: Full Board
Food quality: The food at Chole is very good and was delightfully fresh and imaginative when we last visited in 2016. On your first night you will be invited to join Jean, Anne and other guests for dinner. Then on subsequent nights you have the choice to dine separately if you like.
Breakfast is very flexible in its timing to allow for individual activities, so most people have breakfast in their own groups. Expect fruit, plain and sweet bread, and (usually) yoghurt made by the lodge team. Eggs can be served in a variety of ways, but they don't offer bacon or pork sausages.
Lunch is light and tasty, usually a buffet of salads, vegetables and a meat dish – all you would wish for on a hot day – and generally eaten at the communal table. On our last visit we had an interesting mix of dishes, including fish, rice with dates, and several other tasty offerings.
Dinner is a sociable, three-course affair, with a dinner-party atmosphere. There is usually a set menu – taking dietary requirements into consideration – with table service by the staff. Private dinners can also be arranged for honeymooners, or for anyone else who requests their own table. On our 2016 visit, we had octopus salad, followed by very good barbecued chicken with cinnamon roast sweet potatoes.
Dining style: Group Meals
Dining locations: Indoor and Outdoor Dining
Drinks included: Drinks are not included – they cost around $3 for a local beer, glass of wine or a large shot, and $2 for a soft drink.
Further dining info: There is no room service here – apart from tea and coffee in the morning.
Family holidays: The quirky originality of Chole Mjini feels quiet but social, and it's perfect for Tanzania family beach holidays with older children. Most kids love its six wooden tree-houses, the ruins to explore and activities like dhow trips and snorkelling in Chole Bay.See more ideas for Family holidays in Tanzania
Honeymoons: Chole Mjini offers an unusual but totally magical and remote honeymoon to Tanzania, ideal for honeymooners who want something different and who are not afraid to go without some of the usual fittings of international hotel rooms. Stay in a romantic open-sided treehouse, and enjoy the privacy and peace of Chole Island.See more ideas for Honeymoons in Tanzania
Beach holidays: The best beaches near Chole Mjini are on isolated sandbars, uncovered by the tide and surrounded by coral reefs of the Indian Ocean. Beaches don't come more magical, untouched or remote than this, making it one of the best beach experiences in Tanzania today.See more ideas for Beach holidays in Tanzania
Diving & snorkelling: Scuba diving in Mafia Island Marine Park is superb, and if you come here between October and March you may get the chance to swim with whale sharks.See more ideas for Diving & snorkelling in Tanzania
Cultural experiences: Chole Mjini was built to benefit its local community, with local people helping to build the lodge. It is a great place to visit if you value being able to interact with village life. Don't miss the walking tour of the village, and feel free to wander around on your own.See more ideas for Cultural experiences in Tanzania
Wellbeing: Chole Mjini is a peaceful haven that works closely with the local community. Surrounded by nature, birds and stars, it is soul food if you're looking for something that is eco-conscious.See more ideas for Wellbeing in Tanzania
Attitude towards children: Children over the age of two years old are welcome at Chole Mjini. This restriction is primarily due to the open-sided tree-houses, which would not be safe for very young children.
Property’s age restrictions: No children under the age of two are allowed to stay at Chole Mjini.
Special activities & services: Childminding can be arranged – though parents should be aware that a childminder would be a local islander from the housekeeping team, and would not have any child care qualifications.
Generally recommended for children: We would not recommend Chole Mjini for very young children – the tree houses are a slight hazard – but for more independent and adventurous spirits, this is a magical getaway.
Power supply: Solar Power
Power supply notes: Batteries can be charged in the ‘Red Herring’ bar between 10:00 and 17:00.
Communications: There is intermittent mobile phone reception at Chole Mjini and Wi-Fi at the ‘Red Herring’ bar when the power supply is on (10am-5pm).
TV & radio: There is no TV at the lodge, but there is a popular TV spot in the village where the locals congregate.
Water supply: Borehole
Water supply notes: The water used for the showers is pumped from a well and heated by self-service kerosene heaters. Bottled water is provided for drinking. At the end of the dry season you'll notice some of the foliage around the lodge droops - they're very sensitive to over-using precious community supplies.
Health & safety
Malarial protection recommended: Yes
Medical care: In the event of any medical problem, the dive centre on Mafia island has first aid trained staff, and for serious cases clients would need to fly to Dar es Salaam. There are first-aid kits on all of the boats and there is a clinic in the village for first response.
Dangerous animals: Low Risk
Security measures: There is a large wooden lock box in each room for valuables. There are also askaris (guards) around the lodge.
Fire safety: All the buildings at Chole Mjini are open sided – so in cases of fire it would be straightforward to exit any building. Fire extinguishers, buckets of water and sand are also provided in every tree-house.
Disabled access: Not Possible
Laundry facilities: Full Laundry Service – Included. They use a charcoal iron so please don’t bring your finest silk clothes.
Money: Chole Mjini does not offer any currency exchange.
Accepted payment on location: Because of Chole's remote location, they prefer guests to pay in cash, using US dollars, pounds or euros. There is a 5% charge for Visa, MasterCard and Amex credit cards. This uses 3G so please notify the managers before departure that this is how you would like to pay.