Colourful, chaotic and more than a little crazy, Zanzibar is an irresistible mélange of cultures and influences.
Perhaps nothing captures the strange magic of Zanzibar so well as its full-moon parties. Imagine walking down to a beach and climbing aboard a dhow (sailboat). Almost immediately, the dhow hits a sandbar exposed by low tide. You can see everything in the moonlight: figures building a bonfire; somebody arranging a stereo. Meanwhile, more dhows are arriving. Suddenly, the sandbar is thronging with bodies. People start to dance and they continue for hours, until the tide turns and the water begins to rise again. They dance ankle-deep in water until the sandbar disappears and they seem to be dancing in the middle of the ocean.
Zanzibar is like that: beautiful, beguiling, a little deranged. “For a person who’s creative, it’s a great place to get inspiration,” says Doreen Mashika, a local fashion designer who can be spotted walking around Zanzibar in a Panama hat and blue zebra-print outfit (which she calls her “Serengeti jumpsuit”). “Sometimes I get a little too inspired and have to tell myself, ‘Stop! That’s enough.’ ”
Located just off the coast of Africa’s Tanzania, Zanzibar is an archipelago; its two largest islands are Pemba and Unguja. Pemba is known for its diving and untrammelled beaches, though most visitors go to Unguja, which is often simply called Zanzibar and sometimes the Spice Island.
Historically, Zanzibar was a major outpost of the African spice trade. At various times, it has been in thrall to the Persians, the Portuguese and the Omanis. Then it was the British who made it a protectorate. Cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and saffron have been grown in its fertile plantations and shipped all over the world. Tens of thousands of slaves once passed through its markets.
The presence of all these influences means Zanzibar is something of a hodgepodge today; as rich and complicated as a good masala. Muslims, Christians and Hindus coexist with a thriving expat community of Europeans. One of these expats is Lén Helén Hörlin, a Swede who came to Zanzibar by dhow in the late 1980s. Hörlin recalls seeing “this fairytale town rising from the seas, and the smell of cloves because the factory was still running then”. She’s talking about Stone Town, on the western shore of Unguja. Hörlin fell in love immediately – “totally, totally, totally”, she says – as many do when they first visit this unusual place.
Stone Town is only a tiny part of Zanzibar City, though its reputation can make it seem like a vast labyrinth of stucco and tin. With its mix of rough houses and Islamic architecture influenced by Swahili culture from the mainland, this is the kind of place that’s best explored by wandering, leaving discovery to chance. There’s a series of ornate wooden doors opening onto private courtyards. There are boys playing football down echoing alleyways and men socialising on steps, rubbing their feet through gnarled sandals. From time to time, a muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, competing with a thousand hawkers selling mangoes, paintings and tourist paraphernalia.
The glut can be claustrophobic but it’s not hard to understand why UNESCO declared this place a World Heritage Site in 2000. “Stone Town is like a shantytown,” says Mashika. “But then you can have a millionaire right next door. It’s mixed. From the street vendor to the politician, nobody is bothered here. There is no segregation.”
One place to test this theory is the sprawling Park Hyatt Zanzibar, which opened in 2015 in an old home once owned by a merchant – though “palace” seems like a more appropriate term. Because this part of the hotel is heritage-listed, almost all of the details are authentic, from the 90-year-old mango tree to several spiked doors designed to dissuade elephants. (“When the Indians came, they did not know we have no elephants here,” explains the assistant manager.) But the most interesting thing is out back: a sliver of stunning beach being used by hotel guests and locals, everyone cavorting together in the sun.
Just down from the hotel, at the seafront, is Forodhani Gardens, which at night blooms into a raucous street-food market with traditional Zanzibari cuisine. It’s impossible to walk through the fray without noticing the House of Wonders, just beyond, which looks like a cross between a plantation house and a mega-church. Built by a sultan in the 19th century, the house got its name because it was the first building in East Africa to have electricity and the first to have a working elevator. Rumour has it there’s a good museum inside, though you have to use your imagination because the house is now closed due to safety concerns. “Nothing has been done for 50 years,” a local whispers with embarrassment, gesturing at a sign outside that says “Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar”.
In fact, there’s a great deal on Zanzibar that is broken, decaying, falling apart or mouldering in the sun. But that’s part of the charm. The Hamamni Persian Baths haven’t worked for years but they’re worth a look to see Shiraz-style architecture so elegant that it will have you redesigning your own bathroom. Thankfully, the old slave market is no longer in use either, except by visitors interested in the darker aspects of world history.
You’ll see Stone Town at its best from the rooftops and there are several vantage points worth exploring. The Zanzibar Palace Hotel carries scars from 1896 when the British bombed the sultan – those cannonballs in the gardens are genuine – and its bar offers a view of the sea and Hindu temple next door. The nearby Palace Museum is still filled with furniture, as if the ruler might return at any moment.
Even better for views is Emerson Spice hotel, founded by a now-deceased American psychologist who once treated musician Kurt Cobain and liked to travel the world with a cargo of Louis Vuitton suitcases. “He was mercurial but fantastic,” says manager Russell Bridgewood as he waves his hands to activate the sensor on a fountain.
Before going upstairs, it’s worth pausing for a moment in the lobby of Emerson Spice to examine a shrine to Princess Sayyida Salme, daughter of the first Omani sultan to rule over Zanzibar. “She taught herself to write by copying calligraphy from the Koran onto a camel’s shoulder blade – it was like a slate,” says Said el-Gheithy, a local historian who arranged the exhibit and is Salme’s No. 1 fan.
Indeed, Princess Salme is something of a celebrity on Zanzibar. Entire tours devoted to her old haunts turn out to be a terrific way to sample the island past Stone Town. Zanzibar Different Tours will pick you up and whisk you off to her beachfront palace, more Persian baths and a spice farm, where a guide points out everything from cinnamon roots to a fascinating tree growing “lipstick fruit”. “Pretty boy!” he says, rubbing the red liquid into his lips and pouting, as if waiting for a kiss.
Emerson Spice is in an old house that belonged to a merchant and was intended for three wives, 14 children and 47 servants. Its vertical sprawl resembles an Escher drawing, with stairs and doors leading off in every direction, and the stunning garden was once a Swahili market. At the top of the hotel is a tea house inside a fluttery, coloured tent; it offers an extraordinary, almost hypnotic vista of the town. You can’t stop peeking into all the windows.
It’s here, high above the island, that Bridgewood and Hörlin discuss the comings and goings of the world around them.
“We’re a small community and we like to try to keep each other insane,” says Hörlin.
“No!” She touches her temple, searching for the right word in English. “Keep each other sane.” ￼
The writer was a guest of Bench Africa, which offers bespoke travel packages to Zanzibar. Visit benchafrica.com.
Where to stay
With sand the texture of icing sugar, the beaches on Zanzibar are beloved for good reason. In the north, the white stretches of Nungwi, Kendwa, Matemwe and Kiwengwa are popular and it’s possible to arrange snorkelling expeditions in a local dhow. In the south-east is Bwejuu Beach, said to be one of the best in the world. Its reef is a renowned dive site.
Well positioned to take advantage of this natural splendour is Baraza Resort & Spa. Built right on the edge of Bwejuu Beach, this extensive compound of palm trees, tropical flowers and brass lamps caressed by flowing curtains is modelled after an Omani palace.
The 30 private villas are superb and almost ludicrously indulgent. Styled like an Arabian hammam, the candlelit spa has a crystalline lap pool and offers frangipani-scented treatments.
Baraza is a destination in itself so include it on a longer trip that allows time to take in the rest of the island and Stone Town.
To dive on the reef, visit Rising Sun Dive Center at nearby Breezes Beach Club. The hotel can also arrange kitesurfing and daytrips.