Ever since I first heard that there was a place called Zanzibar I have wanted to go there simply because the very name conjures up an exotic and exciting far-flung land. Despite it being on my bucket list I never really learned much about it apart from how to find it on a map. Several years ago I quizzed a good friend about it after she spent her honeymoon there but all I really got from her was that it was very hot and that she loved it. In any case I was happy to see that it was an optional 3-night excursion included within my Africa Overland itinerary but I have to admit I still didn’t bother to do a whole heap of research until just before I got there when I found that it has a fascinating history.
Zanzibar is semi-independent from Tanzania. A bit like what Puerto Rico is to the USA or what the British Virgin Islands are to the UK. It is a predominantly Muslim country and has been since Persian traders began using the island many centuries ago as a link between Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The main city of Stone Town quickly became an important Indian Ocean port and the first mosque in the Southern Hemisphere was built there with the majority of the existing Bantu population converting to Islam over time.
The Portuguese took over rule for a few hundred years from around 1500 and it is said that whilst they found a largely Arab population there were no real political or nationalist ties to the Middle East. A bloody conflict between the Portuguese and a Sultan from the African mainland eventually resulted in Oman taking over Zanzibar so that it was under the rule of the Sultan of Oman until German and British colonists arrived in Africa during the 1800s. During Oman’s rule the slave trade flourished with Stone Town becoming a key port through which slaves were moved between the African continent, the Middle East and Asia. Many were retained on the island to work on spice plantations for a local Sultan who is said to have owned 10,000 slaves whilst he profited from the ivory trade when it was moved from the African interior to various countries around the world via Stone Town.
At this time the Sultan also controlled the nearby African coast but this was soon taken over by Germany (who took Tanzania) and Britain (who took Kenya) yet he managed to retain control of Zanzibar and continued to profit from slavery. Eventually his brothers joined the growing tide of people in the 1800’s who found slavery a cruel and disgusting practice to profit from so moved to end slavery in Zanzibar. Britain supported this so worked with the brothers to blockade the port of Stone Town to prevent the movement of slaves and this eventually led the very short-lived Anglo-Zanzibar war that lasted a whole 38-minutes with the British winning.
With slavery outlawed Zanzibar became a self-governing protectorate under the British in 1890 and stayed that way until the early 1960’s when Britain steadily left all of its African colonies to independence and for a short time Zanzibar was ruled independently under a Sultan until he was overthrown in the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution. Shortly after that the nation merged with Tanganyika and they decided to merge their names to form Tanzania. ‘Tan’ from Tanganyika, ‘Zan’ from Zanzibar and I’ve been told that the ‘ia’ stands for ‘independent always’.
Stepping from the ferry onto the shore at Stone Town is a bit like traveling back in time. It is easy to imagine how it would have been hundreds of years ago despite a couple of horrible-looking high-rise hotels and a lot of motorbikes. For the most part all you see are incredibly old buildings, narrow winding streets and local Muslims dressed pretty much how their ancestors were hundreds of years ago. Although the small harbor is filled with rickety fishing boats I was immediately reminded of land-locked Marrakesh although Stone Town is perhaps a little less grand and definitely on a smaller scale.
Our small group made our way through the narrow streets to our hotel that was firmly in the old part of town. Again I was reminded of the Moroccan Riads in that our hotel was sandwiched between houses with views right into people’s apartments and the rooms were surprisingly large, cool and airy inside.
We had a short time to freshen up before heading out to a small local restaurant for lunch. It was an interesting combo of Middle Eastern and African food with some curry thrown in for good measure. In fact the cuisine perfectly reflected Stone Town’s history as an international trading port. And again I was reminded of eating with the locals in Morocco with the restaurant having the same kind of feel; lots of bench seats around tables that contained lots of men drinking tea and gossiping.
After lunch we started our guided tour of a spice plantation. It was an interesting drive through the small suburbs to the plantation that was located just outside the city. Although I have an interest in cooking I’d never given much thought to the plants and trees that spices like peppercorns and cinnamon come from so that alone made it an interesting tour. Our entertaining guide picked cocoa, coffee, peppercorns and vanilla right before out eyes whilst weaving in the history of Zanzibar and explaining how daily life is for people now.
The planatation has a school and provides a lot of peripheral employment for people who dry spices and make soaps and perfume to sell to visitors. After an hour or so of wandering around the plantation we had the opportunity to buy some of these products before heading back to town. I wasn’t feeling too great that day so whilst the others went on to do a walking tour of Stone Town I was dropped near the hotel so that I could have a long hot shower and a nap. They did report that it was a really worthwhile tour that included a lot of the tragic history of slavery in Zanzibar.
I have to be pretty ill to turn down a night out so later that evening I joined the group for dinner at a waterfront restaurant called Mercury’s. I assumed it had that name because Zanzibar is so bloody hot that you could easily be forgiven for thinking you might in fact be on the planet Mercury. However as I was inspecting the menu I found a long blurb about the late great Freddie Mercury and it turns out he was born in Stone Town. Although this was a western-style restaurant I enjoyed the view of the harbour, the drinks and the food wasn’t bad either. There is an incredible night market in Stone Town but for various reasons we never made it there however I have been told it is well worth a visit.
Most of my tripmates headed off to a nearby island the next morning on some kind of snorkelling trip that sounded awful to me because I have an irrational fear of both jellyfish and sharks. They returned in good spirits and we headed off in a mini-van for a roughly one hour drive to the very North of the island where we spent two nights at the Sunset Kwenda Beach Hotel. The beach was beautiful and the property was more of a resort than a hotel that I thought was great value.
I’m not going to spend a whole heap of time covering it simply because I find that whilst I love a few days on a palm-fringed sandy beach there isn’t a whole heap to write home about. When you are at a tropical beach resort you could be pretty much anywhere in the world with any variations mostly limited to what nationality the staff are, what type of song and dance the ‘cultural’ show includes, how tacky that show is and how much you get harassed to buy stuff or visit a certain club/bar on the beach. Whilst I was on an island in the Indian Ocean I could easily have been in the Caribbean Sea or the Pacific. In any case we had a relaxing couple of nights there before heading back to Stone Town to catch the ferry to Dar es Salaam, an event I wrote about in my previous blog post. I’ll finish up with a few travel tips for those thinking of making their own trip to the Spice Island.
Stone Town or Beaches? I have seen and heard a lot of conflicting views on this with some people even suggesting travelers completely bypass Stone Town in favor of getting to the beaches more quickly. I’ve heard similar arguments about Cuba with the great Havana vs Varadero debate. I grew up with weekly trips to the beach so for me they aren’t a reason to schlep all the way to Zanzibar. I’m much more interested in the history, culture and architecture of a fascinating place like Stone Town. However, if beaches are a rare treat for you and you have had enough of crowded cities then you might feel the opposite. I think that unless tropical beaches are the only reason you are going to Zanzibar then you should do at least one or two nights in Stone Town.
Getting There: There are direct flights from a surprising number of places to Zanzibar and you can click here for the latest list. It is really easy to combine a safari in places like South Africa, Kenya or Tanzania with a beach holiday in Zanzibar. We took the fast ferry from Dar es Salaam. It took a couple of hours on a very modern boat although there were limited facilities on board so don’t expect a restaurant or any entertainment. You’ll mainly be traveling with locals along with a smattering of tourists. Beware that these are catamaran ferries so although fast they can be a bit stomach-churning even in a moderate swell. We were fine on the way over but numerous people lost their lunch on the way back.
Accommodation: There are numerous choices to fit any budget that you’ll find with a simple online search. I am going to give a shout out to Safari Lodge Hotel where we stayed in Stone Town. It was cheap, clean, friendly and you couldn’t ask for a better location.
Safety: I felt safe in Stone Town although as a female western tourist I did feel like I stood out like a sore thumb. I think it would be a place where you would take the normal precautions but be extra careful of pick-pockets just because the nature of crowded narrow streets and squares with people rushing past on motorbikes makes it easier for people to do that kind of thing, not because I necessarily think there is more crime there. Apart from a few surly immigration officers I found everyone friendly and helpful.
Culture: It is a moderate Muslim country meaning that you should dress conservatively and respectfully in public but you can still buy alcohol in some restaurants/bars, women don’t need to wear a head scarf and nobody minds if you are in swimwear at a beach resort. Swahili is the local language but I found English to be widely spoken and I also heard a lot of French.
Immigration: Even if you are coming from Tanzania you will need to clear immigration and should have a Yellow Fever Certificate available but don’t show it unless asked for it as that can create more delays. I’m not sure if this was more about customs or security but I remember almost every passenger having their luggage searched by hand in both the Dar and Stone Town ferry terminals, both of which could be chaotic so allow plenty of time and pack plenty of patience.
Stone Town & Spice Plantation Slideshow
Kwenda Beach Sideshow