– by Mark MacDonald –
The crimson sun sets behind the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and already the pale moon is shining in the dark blue sky as local women wade in the water, sweeping their long net beneath the surface to catch small fish. There is no dissonant noise of motors or engines, only the faint din of music echoing out from the beach bar; a thatched roof hut made of bamboo, wood and straw. In the distance, dolphins jump into the air, as if they too were filled with mirth, having found this paradise called Zanzibar.
22 miles off the coast of Tanzania, home of the Ngorongoro Crater and Mount Kilimanjaro, lies an archipelago rich with beauty and history, home to some of the most renowned spices in the world. The historic Stone Town (a World Heritage Site) embodies the myriad of cultural influences prevalent on the islands, most notably Swahili, Arabic, Persian and Indian.
In the bustling markets of the city, one discovers the unique cuisine of the island: a fusion of traditional Bantu, Arabic and Indian recipes. Biryani, Octopus and Cassava, Lobster and Durian fruit are favorites, along with the local Urojo or “Zanzibar mix,” a mishmash of bhajias and crispy fritters in a curry gravy. The island’s production of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and black peppers provides an array of spices that are combined together to produce wonderful flavors one should surely not leave the island without tasting.
Trading Outpost, Both Good and Bad
A Spice Tour showcases the history of the island; from Greco-Persian traders in ancient times, to the Portuguese Empire and the Sultanate of Oman, Zanzibar established itself as a key trading settlement, becoming a leader in the spice trade as well as the slave trade before British abolition. A revolution in 1964 brought an end to the Sultanate and merged the island with mainland Tanzania, an event celebrated every year with a public holiday.
With tourism a major sector of the economy, locals are friendly to travelers and many are fluent in English. The pristine beaches in the north near villages like Nungwi and Kendwa are breathtaking, and the accommodations can range from quaint to lavish depending on your budget.
The scuba diving is some of the best in the world, with the warm waters of the Indian Ocean home to a wide variety of fish as well as stingrays, octopus, sharks, dolphins, sea turtles and, during certain months, even humpback whales, whale sharks and manta rays. On land, rare red colobus monkeys can be found in the lush tropical vegetation along with a wondrous array of birds, and rumors persist of an elusive Zanzibar leopard lurking in the forests.
A two-hour ferry ride from mainland Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar island is a must see, especially for those traveling through Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or to go on safari in the Serengeti. Tanzania’s uses Tanzanian shilling (TZS) as a major currency, though the US dollar is also widely accepted.
Hotels such as the lavish Royal Zanzibar Beach Resort or Essque Zalu in Nungwi can cost upwards of $300 a night, but they give a new meaning to the word “opulence.” Fortunately, there are plenty of options for those on a tighter budget that still offer great accommodations, such as Smiles Beach Hotel, Kendwa Rocks and Silver Sands Beach Hotel which range from $70-100 per night.
For backpackers or those on a shoestring budget, Paradise Beach Bungalows and Bagamoyo Beach Bungalows cost as little as $40 per night.
Flights to Zanzibar usually include at least two stopovers in either Germany or France and likely Ethiopia, and cost around $1,500, though you can save some money and potentially a layover if you fly to Dar es Salaam and take the ferry from there.
From unique cuisine to rich history, exciting wildlife and break-taking scenery, there are so many reasons to visit the islands it’s no wonder David Livingstone wrote: “This is the finest place I have known in all of Africa…”