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Spice It Up In Zanzibar
Set off the coast of mainland Tanzania, Zanzibar is an ancient island full of flavor, spice, and history. Over the centuries, this small island has been dominated by Persian, British, and African cultures, and the result is a intriguing feel of old-world colonialism with a tropical vibe.
Zanzibar gained prominence mostly for its ideal location with access to the trade winds and its proximity to Africa and the Middle East. It became a major trading hub legendary for its spices. Cloves, cinnamon, vanilla, lemongrass, and countless other fragrances fill the air, wafting down small alleys and between the crumbling buildings of Stone Town.
In addition to its distinction in the spice trade, Zanzibar was also under colonial rule for quite some time and was a major port on the African slave route. Thousands passed through various markets on the way to places including Britain, Oman, Persia, and other Asian destinations.
The resulting Zanzibari culture is one of a true melting pot. Swahili is easily intermixed with English, Arabic, and even Portuguese all over the island. Cuisine is quite varied, ruled by spiced dishes such as rice and sautéed vegetables and meat.
Popular with locals and tourists alike, the night market at Forodhani Gardens in Stone Town is filled with chefs in white coats and hats grilling up fresh seafood from the day and local delicacies like a Zanzibar Pizza (more like a quiche filled with meats, cheeses, and spices). At an average of one or two dollars per item, it’s quite a steal!
Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the oldest part of the island and the commercial and tourism hub. Domestic and international flights come in and out of the small island airport and several fast ferries link Stone Town to Dar es Salaam on mainland Tanzania, about two hours away.
Historical sites like the House of Wonders (former home of previous sultans ruling the island) and the Old Fort can keep visitors busy for a few hours, but most spend their time just wandering the maze of old stone buildings in the compact center of town. Zanzibari leaders have made efforts to preserve the architecture and building techniques, but the area remains a jumble of repair work cobbled together over the years. The haphazard feel of the winding streets adds to the island’s charm and even though you may feel lost, you are never more than a few streets from the waterfront or main thoroughfare.
As the sun begins to dip below the horizon, groups flock to the Sunset Bar at The Africa House, one of the oldest hotels in Africa. Once serving as the Old English Club, the hotel and bar has been a respite for explorers such as Livingstone and Stanley before venturing out to mainland Africa.
Even for being an upscale renovated historical property, drinks at the bar still remain a good value and the balcony is a spectacular spot to photograph a dhow lazily cruising by in the late afternoon light.
On a musical note, Zanzibar is the home of Queen frontman, the late Freddie Mercury; several buildings around town pay homage to him and there’s even a restaurant (Mercury’s) with an outstanding waterfront view and Queen memorabilia on the walls.
Spice tours are a popular outing for both day-trippers and guests spending more time on the island. Guides lead groups to local spice farms to see how cloves, vanilla, peppers, cinnamon, pineapples, breadfruits, coconuts, and more are locally grown and harvested. Their procedures are painstaking and thorough to ensure the best quality. Sampling is mandatory along the way and you’ll get to enjoy a burst of real fresh peppercorns and some of the sweetest pineapple on Earth.
Most spice tours also include lunch at a local home. A typical lunch might feature spiced rice (with ingredients right from the trees) and various sautéed vegetables and sauces. Hunker down on the floor like a local and enjoy this simply prepared home-cooked meal. Local chefs show off their mastery of balancing several spices at once, coming a result of generations of instruction.
For those seeking a more tropical and remote feel, the northwest coast of the island offers spectacular scenery and an even more laid-back approach. About an hour north of Stone Town is the little map dot of a town called Nungwi. Ocean breezes are consistent and relatively calm here and brilliant turquoise waters are the prized view out of most hotel rooms.
Water in more shades of blue than you can count is in stark contrast to the brilliant white sands of the beaches and bright green palm trees. There’s not much to do in this region besides swim, snorkel, dive, fish, lounge and eat, which is exactly why most people like it.
The intense biodiversity of sea life and pristine coral reefs is what attracts most divers to this area and they are rewarded with some of the best conditions in the world. Warm, clear waters are filled with countless massive hard and soft coral gardens, tons of large sea turtles, stingrays, huge tropical fish, and carpets of sea anemone. This area is not nearly as visited as other popular dive sites such as Thailand or The Red Sea, and as a result, the coral is far less damaged.
Up-market properties such as The Z Hotel and Langi Langi Guesthouse cater to a more affluent crowd with spa services and luxury rooms overlooking the water. Budget travelers have choices as well with many self-catering and full-service bungalows lining the coast.
The dream of Zanzibar for most people is an imagined far-off exotic destination unlike anything else they have ever seen. The island doesn’t disappoint. You will feel like you have been transported back in time to a place where things move at their own pace — pole pole, which translates to “slowly slowly” in Swahili. It’s a favorite expression on Zanzibar, and really, why would you want to hurry through such a mesmerizing locale? AIMEE CEBULSKI
IF YOU GO:
* Zanzibar is linked to Dar es Salaam through several fast ferry companies, book directly at passenger terminal or any travel agency; most hotels also book tickets for guests. $35-$40 USD/passenger, depending on type of ticket
* Flights to and from Dar es Salaam and other major hubs (Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilimanjaro Airport) can also be booked through agents and hotels; major carriers are Precision Air (www.precisionairtz.com), Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com), Zan Air (ask an agent or hotel for current schedule), and Fly540 (www.fly540.com)
* Zanzibar has declared itself 99% Malaria-free, but talk to a travel doctor before visiting the area to determine your personal precaution needs
* The island is technically part of Tanzania so you will need to purchase a Tanzania visa ($100 USD/12 month, multiple entry) upon arrival if you don’t already have one