Before heading to Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous island set on the Indian Ocean, 25 kilometres off the coast of Tanzania, I had several preconceptions. First, I imagined a travel agent ad-worthy wealth of beautiful sandy white beaches: the ones I’d heard friends gush about after visiting from Dubai. Second, I was expecting to see a strong Omani presence, after being told it was the country’s capital in the early 19th century. Finally, rather unfortunately, I was a little concerned about the boat trip to the island, after one sank just weeks before my trip.
Reassured by former Dubai residents now based in Tanzania, I decided to take the plunge and arrive by boat anyway, after flying into the Tanzanian capital Dar Es Salaam (‘Abode of Peace’ in Arabic). The trick is, apparently, to stick to the official ferries and, if possible, invest in the VIP seats for approximately Dhs147. These are large, leather, and located in an indoor cabin (you could possibly get blown away on the top deck), in air conditioning (take a hoody). Episodes of Top Gear were even showing on LCD TVs during my crossing. Luxury indeed.
One word of warning before you step foot in Stone Town, the island’s main city: keep your wits about you when it comes to fees. Sadly, Tanzania is the third poorest country in Africa. While one doesn’t feel unsafe as such, it’s difficult not to lose patience when it seems that everywhere you turn people are trying to sell you something. Some products, however, are well worth snapping up, such as the pretty beads made from paper or the local art prints (you’ll be told they’re originals, painted by the shop owner’s brother, before spotting them all over town). Then there are the sneaky additional charges. For example, don’t expect the hotel taxi pick-up from the airport to come as part of the room fee; it may well cost Dhs37 on top.
Fortunately, the delightfully dilapidated Omani architecture of Stone Town makes a far more powerful and memorable first impression than the unexpected service charges. If you’ve ever visited Oman from Dubai, the familiarity will strike you immediately: the white paint, the arched windows, the intricate heavy doors and doorways… During a few days here you’ll also spot some Omani residents and many Zanzibar locals sporting traditional Omani attire. But the two places are by no means the same. While Stone Town has a strong sense of history, it also suggests fallen grandeur: the city was, at one point, one of Africa’s richest, and buildings such as the House of Wonders are impressive, yet clearly not as stunning as they once were.
Indeed, House of Wonders (or ‘Beit-al-Ajaib’ in Arabic) is a good first stop. Built in 1883 for Barghash bin Said, the island’s second Sultan, it remains Zanzibar’s tallest building, located by the seafront, and was apparently built with an entrance wide enough for the Sultan’s elephant to walk through.
The palace faces the Forodhani Gardens, where you can go for fresh grilled fish from the busy fisherman’s market each evening (though watch out for touts trying to steer you in and hit you with a mark-up). As well as mooching through the shops and alleyways while dodging buzzing mopeds, other Stone Town must-dos include visiting Mercury House, where Freddie Mercury lived until he was eight, and taking advantage of new boutique hotel Maru Maru’s daily happy hour on its rooftop, and its sunset views of the city.
It’s easy to book a half-day Spice Tour in a nearby plantation while in Stone Town: in fact it’s quite hard not to, with the number of people that approach you and offer to help you book one. For around Dhs60 per person you can buy a tour, mini-bus transport and a knowledgeable guide, as well as lunch cooked using the spices you’ve gathered on your walking tour. Educational and fun, you’re asked to guess what the spices are simply by smelling them, and are informed about surprising facts. For example, did you know that nutmeg can put you in a funny mood, lemongrass cures nausea when boiled in water and cinnamon satisfies sugar cravings? One word of warning: watch out for the hard sell on spice-related goods at the end (though the lemongrass soap was only Dhs7 did smell rather lovely).
Other tours include a visit to the Jozani Natural Forest Reserve in the central east region, where you can spot rare red colobus monkeys, or a boat tour to Kizimkazi fishing village, where you’ll likely spot bottle-nosed dolphins. Kizimkazi is also the site of the earliest evidence of Islam in East Africa: a 12th-century mosque.
Finally, one of the most hyped tours on offer is a boat trip to Prison Island, just off the coast of Stone Town. Circled by coral reef, it is said to be ideal for snorkelling, as well as home to a family of giant tortoises, imported from the Seychelles in the late 19th century.
For an entirely different experience, grab a cab and head away from Stone Town for some time on the island’s bigger beach resorts. With a distinctly Thai vibe, beaches in the north cater well for Western tourists, but remain comfortable and not overly busy – yet. Just next to popular Nungwi beach you’ll find Kendwa: a quieter, slightly less well-known spot with a relaxed atmosphere, a handful of restaurants and a few watersports merchants. Once a month, however, it changes personality completely, and hosts full-moon parties on Saturday nights (www.kendwarocks.com).
Tip: If you’re staying in Stone Town and visiting a beach in the north, be sure to sort a taxi home before sunset, as you’ll find prices rise sharply as it gets darker. Also, take enough cash for the day, as it can
be tricky to locate an cash machine once you’re there.
Beaches, history, and lots of personality – hopefully reading this has fuelled your preconceptions.
Need to know
Where to stay
Maru Maru, a modish boutique hotel in the centre of Stone Town, is less than a year old, very stylish and offers great service. Rooms from Dhs348 for a double.
www.marumaruzanzibar.com (+255 2422 38516).
The population of Zanzibar is 99 percent Muslim. Therefore, if visiting during religious holidays such as Ramadan, cover your shoulders and legs down to the knees as a sign of respect. You’ll note that very young local girls cover their hair.