“Arusha welcomes you to the Geneva of Africa”, reads the sign greeting arrivals to the city’s local airport – a spare collection of buildings and a runway populated almost entirely by light aircraft.
Tanzania’s third city, Arusha straddles the imposing Mount Meru and has, in recent decades, become something of a diplomatic hub. There’s little by way of a traditional downtown, instead a vaguely urban sprawl punctuated by stretches of untamed greenery or neat coffee plantations – the city’s almost half million population seemingly existing in a kind of raucous staccato.
Where there’s activity it’s frenzied, with market stalls and storefronts clambering atop one another, competing for attention. Main roads are a jigsaw of hemmed-in vehicles and any non-occupied patches are quickly filled by daring pedestrians hoping to make a break for the pavement opposite.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
For the uninitiated then, Gran Meliá Arusha comes as a surprise. Within the walls of the sprawling complex the sound of horns gives way to birdsong while, indoors, slabs of polished marble are a marked departure from the city’s streets; porters are enviably creaseless – particularly in comparison to new long-haul arrivals – and a wide atrium creates a sense of scale and openness.
The property features 171 bedrooms and, though there’s a general veneer of luxury, thankfully it isn’t of the characterless variety. African prints are found in careful doses, from the laundry bags to the exterior of the bathroom bins – an unexpected talking point among guests, say the hotel’s team. The design is clearly rooted in the location but equally there’s an air of internationalism in the recognisably unfussy style that tends to say ‘5 star’, wherever one might be.
As a brand, Meliá Hotels places its social and environmental values centrally in its messaging and it’s refreshing to see this manifest in the details, as well as the wider corporate sweep. Rooms feature pencils fashioned from recycled newspapers, wooden toothbrushes and bamboo straws; it’s a struggle to find much that falls into the dreaded single-use category. Water is provided in glass decanters and bottled at the hotel’s own sustainability-minded water plant. Even the drinking goblets carry a story, made at the nearby Shanga, a social enterprise that employs Tanzanians with disabilities. It’s an inspiring project, worth a visit, and a laudable recipient of some of those tourist shillings.
For those staying RedLevel, on the executive floors, there’s the use of an exclusive lounge as well as a butler service. The former is ideal for those working on the go, while the latter is an elevated level of service within a hotel that already excels when it comes to those human interactions.
Beyond the generously sized rooms, of course, lies a generously sized compound, and while the stellar spa, gym and pool are definitely praiseworthy, it’s the Gran Meliá’s own tea and coffee plantation, as well as a compact urban farm, that are perhaps standout elements and far from typical hotel fare. It all adds to the feeling of a contained ecosystem, within which heads on pillows is only a part – although a pillow menu is provided for those who know exactly what they want for a good night’s sleep.
That fact that the hotel grows much of its own produce goes some way to explaining the quality of the restaurant offer. While being fed is a given, being satisfied isn’t, and Gran Meliá Arusha impresses. Executive Chef Kevin Marchetti joined the team after almost a decade in Asia and his experience working in a region with a robust and dynamic food culture shows.
There’s no hiding of Tanzanian cuisine under a bushel – or whatever the local equivalent may be – it’s abundantly showcased everywhere from the breakfast spread to the dinner menus; from the potent fried dagaa fish to the caramelised matoke, a close sibling of plantain and shockingly addictive. A refined Indian joint adds a little variety but, for surroundings, the rooftop hangout is hard to match.
With Mount Meru in one direction and a pitching, tree-covered landscape in the other, as the amber twilight detonates and the fog descends, it’s as close to a Gorillas in the Mist view as one could expect from a swish urban hotel – cocktail glass in hand.
Just shy of an hour’s drive from Kilimanjaro International Airport, and 20 minutes from the local strip, Arusha is sometimes thought of as a gateway city and while it makes a sound jumping off point for hiking the tallest peak in Africa or a Safari in the Serengeti, there’s also a decent array of on-the-doorstep activities. Many of these can be organised directly by the hotel, such as a dramatic Kili fly-by with Ruka Africa, a jaunt to the Maasai market or a tour of the Kimemo coffee plantation. With that in mind, the comparison to Geneva seems a tad misplaced – it isn’t half as dull.
Stay at Gran Meliá Arusha from $260 (£198). www.melia.com. +255 746 981 893
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.