Zanzibar has captured the imaginations of travellers for decades. The clear waters, the distinctly Arabic feel, the call to prayer echoing through the streets of Stone Town, the heat and the typical island vibe are enough to make anyone want to stay forever.
To get to Zanzibar, you can either get the ferry from Dar es Salaam, on the coast of mainland Tanzania, or you can fly with Precision Airlines from Dar, Nairobi, and several other airports within East Africa. The ferry is generally the cheapest option, but is a relatively uneventful ride until you draw near the port of Stone Town. Looming over the top of the low-rise building is the Anglican Church, once housing the holding cells for hundreds of slaves being smuggled to Europe and the US.
Stone Town is mind-boggling. The alleys (you can’t possibly call them streets, they’re far too narrow for a car!) twist and wind and go on forever. All the buildings start to look the same, and it’s incredibly daunting. Throw away your map, and embrace the feeling of getting lost. Women should note, I recommend avoiding wandering alone, especially at night.
The Anglican Church is built on the original slavery market grounds. There is a memorial there now, and a small museum set up. The underground holding cells have been refurbished and are open to the public, and definitely worth seeing to put the plight of the slaves into perspective. It’s claustrophobic, dark, small, and it smells. Unimaginable that we held people in these underground rooms, with no light, no food, no clothing, no water, and against their will.
The night markets are lively and there are always a good mix of locals and tourists alike looking for a cheap street food dinner. Try the Zanzibari pizza – not a pizza at all, but something between a pizza, a pancake and gozleme.
Built by Sultan Barghash, the Persian Baths have been around since the late 19th century. While no longer functioning, they were the first public baths in Zanzibar, and as such hold an insight to a different history. Ask the caretaker across the alley to unlock the gate for you, you may need a small tip to coax him.
Sultan Seyyid Said built the Mtoni Palace as his residence in the early 19th century, and although it is now in ruins, in it’s heyday it was a beautiful building with a large balconied exterior, an observation turret and it’s own mosque. A conservation project is now in place, and guided walking tours can be arranged locally.
Spices no longer dominate Zanzibar’s economy as they once did, but there are some plantations dotting the centre of the island. You can book a tour through any of the tourism outlets in Stone Town, and visit to learn about what cloves, vanilla, and other spices look like in the wild. Tours should cost between US$15 and US$20 per person at time of writing.
The beaches are where Zanzibar really comes into it’s own. Sensational sunsets, impromptu volleyball games, dhows anchored offshore, fresh seafood and cold beer. There is something for everyone on the northern beaches, so head north and get into the water. Snorkel, swim, take a boat ride to Prison Island to visit the tortoises.