ZANZIBAR, also known as the Spice Island, lies just two hours via ferry off the coast of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Unique to mainland Africa in almost every way imaginable, Zanzibar was the main hub for the East African slave trade, a one-time Sultanate of Oman and a major port for the exporting of spices such as clove, ginger, turmeric and more.
Dark places and exotic sensations
Zanzibar’s main city of Stone Town is an historical gem, with plenty of activities and museums to fill your hours.
The best way to start is by organizing a day tour to the Spice Plantations. This tour begins at the Cathedral Church of Christ, built on top of the old slave market. After being offered cake and a lovely, traditional juice of avocado and passion fruit, you will descend into the dungeon of the church. The dampness fills your senses as you are taken into a small space and made to feel claustrophobic, though there are only a handful of you here. Then you learn that the space was meant to hold 50-75 slaves, with just one small window to the outside. The guide, in his broken English, explains how the slaves were treated, where they came from, and how they “lived” in this cramped space.
Ascending gratefully from the dark you are taken on a short drive to a nearby spice plantation where, before the tour begins, you are offered a lunch of traditional Zanzibari cuisine on the floor of the home of a villager. The dishes are comprised of flavors that tickle the senses and open your palate, and the cooked potatoes and beef stew are like you’ve never tasted before.
After a refreshing drink, you are led to the beginning of the tour. The plantation, owned by the government, is used to grow cinnamon, clove, lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, ylang ylang, vanilla, tea and coffee. This experience is fully hands-on, and you are encouraged touch, smell and taste almost all of the plants. At the end of the walking tour the guide offers fresh tea, jackfruit, breadfruit, grapefruit and other exotic fruits that you can’t find in your local produce market!
Homes of sultans and a rock god
Arrive back in Stone Town, you realize that our time on the island has just begun! With such a mix of cultures and history, wandering around the winding streets of Stone Town is the best way to spend your time here, noticing the intricate wooden doors and lintels on most buildings.
The three main sites to visit are the Old Fort, built in 1700AD and located just on the waterfront, now housing a craft market where you can find cheap Tinga Tinga paintings, jewelry, bataks (paintings or drawings on thin canvas) and other trinkets. There is also a small bar here with a pool table, so if you’re up for spending time with some locals, this is an option! From here you can wander to the Palace Museum, once the home of the Sultan of Zanzibar. There is existing furniture in some of the rooms, and for a small fee a guide will explain the importance and uses of each room, the additions made by the Sultan and the restoration that has been done.
Almost next door to the Palace Museum is the House of Wonders, gorgeous building housing historical information through the ages and providing a wonderful explanation of the culture, beliefs, religion and transformation of the local people and the island. The building itself is magnificent, with detailed balconies, doors and stained-glass windows. The first elevator on Zanzibar was housed in this stunning building.
Other sites include the apartment where Freddie Mercury of Queen was raised, and the House of Culture, now used to house a travel agency and administrative offices.
Meet the wildlife
A must-do activity is snorkeling at Prison Island. A guide will arrange your mask and snorkel fitting before showing you a small boat which will take you the 25 minutes to the small island.
Here you can hand feed tortoises that are up to 150 years old, pet them and interact with them, all in an area that was once used as a quarantine area/prison for immigrants coming to Zanzibar. The boat then takes you about 10 minutes from the island for an hour of snorkeling in the clear blue water, where you see fish of all shapes and sizes, starfish, coral and more. In Zanzibar’s sweltering heat, it’s a refreshing and wonderful experience!
A sumptuous feast
To end the day, head to the night market in front of the House of Wonder along the water front for dinner. Here you can try an infamous Zanzibar pizza, made of dough, egg, mince, onion, tomato, mayonnaise and cheese, cooked right in front of you. Or try the sweet version with mango or banana and Nutella. There are also offerings of fresh seafood, local soups, freshly squeezed sugar-cane juice, kebabs, sandwiches — the range is truly bewildering and settling on just one is no easy task. If your fingers aren’t dirty and greasy at the end of your meal you weren’t trying hard enough! A full meal can cost as little as $2/person, with a splurge for fresh lobster or prawns.
With plenty to see and do, spas and services to pamper yourself, cheap food and activities, if you are in the neighbourhood, plan a few days and nights in Zanzibar. Dining on the water front every night is something that’s easy to get accustomed to.