LYING some 40km off the coast of East Africa, Zanzibar is a little slice of paradise still relatively untouched by the throngs of tourists who have ruined so many other tropical islands.
Its Arab-African-Indian-European cultural fusion, combined with a picturesque coastline, create a sense of exoticness where locals go about their business as if time doesn’t matter.
Zanzibar, known locally as Unguja, and neighbouring Pemba are the largest islands within the Zanzibar Archipelago: a cluster of islands in the Indian Ocean that form part of the United Republic of Tanzania.
As famous for its spice plantations as it is for its past illegal slave trade, Zanzibar is slowly becoming a popular destination for backpackers and luxury holidaymakers alike.
The tropical oasis oozes style, charm and culture. Boasting world-class diving, ancient architecture and compelling history, it is the perfect place to laze on the beach, soak up the sun and tuck into local produce.
This is in stark contrast to Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam, where hundreds of locals harass tourists to drive them somewhere or carry their bags to the ferry, which goes to Zanzibar.
Many travellers use the island as a recharge destination after conquering Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro or going on safari in the famous Serengeti National Park, and newlyweds take advantage of the privacy offered by the few upmarket hotels scattered across the island.
Yet there’s more to Zanzibar than pristine beaches and palm trees. Originally controlled by the Omani Arabs, Zanzibar was East Africa’s main slave-trading port.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, thousands of black Africans were shipped to the island, where they were paraded for sale like cattle at the slave markets in Stone Town, Zanzibar’s bustling centre within its capital, Zanzibar City.
It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century, after the British Empire took control of the island, that the slave trade was abolished.
However, illicit slave trading still continued in secret underground chambers hidden throughout the island.
Zanzibar was granted independence from Britain in 1963. After the Zanzibar Revolution a month later – which involved the overthrowing of the Sultan of Zanzibar, leading to the killings of thousands of Arabs and Indians – the Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba was established.
Zanzibar and the Tanzanian mainland (a former colony of Tanganyika) were renamed the United Republic of Tanzania, of which Zanzibar remains a semi-autonomous region.
Even though the slave trade is long gone, there are many reminders of its dark past.
After the abolition of the slave trade, an Anglican Church was built on the site of the old slave markets. Next to it is a history museum, a monument to the slaves and St Monica’s Hostel, which was built over slave chambers now open for public viewing.
Stone Town is the cultural heart of the Zanzibar Archipelago and its name reflects the extensive use of coral stone in local construction.
In 2000, Stone Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Comprised of narrow winding alleyways, lively markets and hundreds of tiny shops decorated with exquisite hand-carved wooden doors, it is best seen without using a map.
Often referred to as the Old Town, it features many historical buildings that reflect Zanzibar’s diverse cultural influences: the Portuguese, Indians, Egyptians and Chinese have all settled on the island at some stage throughout its
The Beit el-Ajaib – or ‘The House of Wonders’, because it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electric lighting and a lift – was built by Sultan Barghash in 1883 as a ceremonial palace. The most prominent building on the island, it is now the Natural Museum of History and Culture.
The Old Fort is a magnificent edifice on the water. Built by the Omani Arabs as a defence against the Portuguese, it is now a cultural centre where music and dance performances take place.
The Darajani Market is the most vibrant part of the island, and is where locals go to buy fresh produce, coloured khangas (worn by the local women) and other items they can’t find in their own village. It is best visited in the morning, before it gets too busy and while all the produce is still fresh.
The Zanzibar Archipelago is often referred to as the Spice Islands due to its abundance of spice plantations.
Much of the world’s clove supply comes from Zanzibar, as do other spices including cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, vanilla, ginger and saffron.
Tourists can visit the plantations and taste the assortment of spices by signing up for a spice tour at one of the many travel agents in Stone Town.
Those who have had enough of absorbing Zanzibar’s dramatic history can venture out of Stone Town and travel to one of the tiny beach towns dotted around the island.
Nungwi, an old fishing village on the north coast, is the island’s busiest beach destination, with many backpackers making it their base for the duration of their visit.
More beach bungalows, bars and restaurants are gradually developing due to increased tourism, and many locals have made a business out of selling paintings, shirts and handmade jewellery or taking their guests out on a dhow (a traditional wooden boat).
Other locals have established water sport businesses and Nungwi offers a handful of activities for more energetic tourists such as diving, kite surfing and kayaking.
Between Nungwi and Pemba lie some of Africa’s best deep-sea fishing waters.
Tourists are able to book half or full-day fishing trips and those lucky enough to catch a fish may be able to take it back to shore and ask one of the local restaurants to prepare it for dinner.
Other beach destinations worth visiting include Kendwa (a tiny fishing village 4km south of Nungwi) and Jambiani on the east coast, which offer tourists a slightly more private and relaxing atmosphere compared to livelier Nungwi.
Even though Zanzibar is still in the early stages of tourist development, there is a range of accommodation to choose from. This includes hostels and more upmarket guesthouses in Stone Town, simple beach bungalows, and luxury hotels in Nungwi and Kendwa.
There are many forms of transport for etting around the island. Tourists can hire taxis for a small amount (usually about US$3) to take them to Nungwi or Kendwa, and many travellers often share a minivan to split the cost.
Various airlines fly from Perth and Sydney to Dar es Salaam, with a stoppover in Johannesburg or Dubai. Fares start at US$2300 return, subject to travel dates.
There are daily domestic flights to Zanzibar from Dar es Salaam, Tanga and Arusha for about US$55 one way. For the more adventurous, there are daily ferries linking Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. This two-hour trip costs about US$30, depending on the ferry company chosen.
By Helena Bogle