Towards the end of the stuffy hydrofoil crossing from Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, to Zanzibar Island, I stepped out onto the deck and was momentarily blinded by the brilliance of the turquoise Indian Ocean throwing the rays of the mid-afternoon sun back in my face. Blinking, I saw an island rising out of the waters to starboard, a dazzlingly white lighthouse and a huge palm-thatch roof towering above rocky cliffs and a dark green tangle of forest. It looked like Sydney Opera House on Robinson Crusoe's island.
When I arrived in Zanzibar, they told me the apparition I'd seen in the middle of the sea was Chumbe Island Coral Park, an eco-reserve and education centre for local schoolchildren. Now when I was a schoolkid, this kind of title conjured up images of a dank portakabin, fly-blown wallposters about leaves and soil formations, and dull nature walks through rainy fields.
Luckily for the nutmeg-coloured hordes that scamper down the streets of Zanzibar, Chumbe Island is nothing like this. Despite an impressive list of environmental credentials - Tanzania's first Marine National Park, winner of the British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow Award, home to 400 species of fish and 200 species of coral - Chumbe has no hint of worthiness. And luckily for the rest of us, Chumbe is not just an education centre. It's also a tiny luxury hotel, the ultimate ‘Castaway’ fantasy - and we're not talking stroppy, wool-clad English folk shouting at each other about compost in the Orkneys.
The rather unlikely combination of romantic barefoot luxury and primary education came about in the early nineties when Sybille Riedmiller, a sociologist and conservationist originally from Germany, began her campaign to develop Chumbe as a marine sanctuary and free education project. Back then, an economic boom meant mass tourism projects were springing up all over Tanzania and the government wasn't interested in conservation, only large-scale development. Riedmiller was forced to sell her idea as a tourist development, and after seven long years of struggling with bureaucracy and raising funds from around the world, Chumbe is now recognised as one of the world's most forward-looking and successful eco-tourism projects.
My second view of Chumbe was slightly less prepossessing than the first. As the small boat they'd sent to fetch me chug-chugged its way towards the island, black storm clouds began to form ominously above it. As we got nearer, the sea got choppier and large, warm drops of rain began to fall. By the time we arrived, I was soaked to the skin, the palm trees were swaying in the wind like demented dancers and, stumbling up the beach, I felt like Robinson Crusoe washed up on an unknown shore. Standing dripping under the shelter of that magnificent roof, I learnt more about the structures on Chumbe - the lighthouse keeper's house, now converted into the visitor's centre, a crumbling mosque, still used by the island's employees, and, of course, that lighthouse, put there by the British in 1904 and still functioning. The visitors' centre has a classroom with gaily-coloured paintings of fish, rows of tiny rubber shoes for walks in the forest and letters from previous visitors saying things like, 'I hope your coral is still OK, love Fatima aged 8'.