There is an undeniable mystique about Zanzibar. At the time of planning our trip to Africa we admittedly didn’t even know much about it, except we had to go. Technically it’s a part of Tanzania and shares the Swahili culture that extends down to Mozambique, but we quickly realized it is a world unto itself. With its history as the hub of the spice route, Zanzibar Island has been shaped by those on all sides of the Indian ocean. The mash-up of cultures, architecture, and cuisine, mixed with white sand beaches and vibrant reef made it one of our favorite destinations in Africa.
To this day there are no definitive maps of Zanzibar’s historic Stone Town. The narrow streets seem to wind into knots and fray in every direction. Case in point: We went into the police station to ask for directions, thinking these officials would be a reliable source of information, and these five men all had lively debate on the best way to approach our destination. With that, we started an easy exploration of the waterfront with a trip to the fantastic House of Wonders museum and the old Omani fort.
Braving the backstreets we got lost in the beauty of Zanzibar’s architecture, with its doors as the crowning feature of each facade. These wooden entrances were a cultural expression and status symbol of the family that lived there. Arabic doors have elaborately carved rectangular frames, Indian doors are paneled and with bronze spikes (said to keep elephants from charging), and the Europeans stand out for their simplicity.
In our wanderings we passed this irresistible street cart selling curried potato chapati rolls. We knew it was Ramadan at the time but what we didn’t realize was that the Islamic rules of fasting also applied to mzungus. As soon as Mike took a bite into his snack, it was if the whole town stopped. Everyone stared intensely to the point that a man actually said to us, “If you are going to eat, you better hide. You’re making everyone jealous.” After hiding in alley to scarf it down, we started to notice that all the restaurants’ patios had shut for the month for this very reason.
With no map, no reliable directions, and more town history than the Lonely Planet could ever sum up, we decided to get a tour guide. Eddie was a wonderful guide, showing us all the hidden gems and historic sites, including the Slave Market. Up until 1873, hundreds of thousands of people were bought and sold at this market and as reminder of this tragic past, the frightfully small holding cells have been turned into a museum. It was chilling but eye-opening visit.
Whenever we go to a new town we like to head to the market for dose of real local culture and Zanzibar’s market is amongst the most dynamic…especially come sundown of Ramadan (note: the above photo was taken in the early afternoon, essentially naptime before the madness). By dusk the place flooded with people, an army of ladies were hawking their home-cooked meals, the fruit carts were spilling over with mangoes and lychees, and schools of fish were strewn across the counters. Warning, if you ever come here, the butchery is not for the faint of heart.
On the touristy side of town, outside the House of Wonders museum, a night market also emerges. Lobster, crab, calamari, and any fish you dream of is ready to order and eat on the spot. More a food fair than a market, artists set up their paintings along the fringes, musicians play Swahili rhythms, and residents and visitors mingle in search of the freshest catch.
To fully appreciate the diverse landscape of the island–and to come to face to face with spices you may never see outside of jar–a visit to a spice plantation is a must! Walking through the lush forest and rolling farms, we got to touch and taste, fresh cardamom, curry, lemongrass, jackfruit, and about 15 other spices and produce growing on the grounds. After our tour, we even enjoyed a lunch of traditional pilau (spice rice) and grilled vegetables grown right on site.
Stone Town, check. Spice tour, check. Beaches…were next on the list of the great Zanzibar trifecta. And lucky for us we received an invite from the Zanzibar Collection to stay at their Baraza and Palms hotels on the southeastern coast. We drove an hour across the island and arrived at the white sand, turquoise water, and one of the most luxurious (and fun) resorts we’d stayed in.
Zanzibar has incredible beaches but what lies below is even more exciting. At low tide we rode our bikes on the sand along the exposed coral cliffs and arrived at the best snorkel spot. Tourists were paying $50 a head to take a boat out to this bit of reef but we just tiptoed our way past a few sea urchin patches and swam there ourselves. Coral in dozens of varieties, swaying seaweed, and countless tropical fish kept us underwater for nearly four hours.
After thoroughly enjoying our time at Baraza, we strolled next door to the Palms for a more exclusive stay at the six-villa resort. We loved that the Palms was totally romantic and relaxing yet if we felt like being more active, we still had access to Baraza’s slew of facilities: yoga classes, spa, kayaks, beach volleyball and anything else you could imagine on the sand or sea.
For all its mystique and allure, Zanzibar lives up to its name and already has us dreaming of our return some day.