From across the sea, the enchanting island of Zanzibar beckoned to us. The stunning view of endless palm-fringed beaches was the perfect appetiser for our two-day visit and the shrubbery at the airport welcomed us warmly with the words “SMILE U R IN ZANZIBAR”.
A walking tour of the markets of Stone Town began our exploration. The fruit stalls were interspersed with the spice stalls and the colours and scents mingled to produce a heady combination. The stench of the fish market was a far cry from the scent of the fruit and spice markets and was surpassed by the foul smell of the chicken market. We walked through the market as quickly as possible in a bid to escape and found ourselves in another century. The winding cobblestone alleys of Stonetown were lined with antique nineteenth-century residences and mosques, denoted by intricately carved doors and balconies.
We soon reached the area previously occupied by the Slave Market. A few seconds in the underground cell made me feel claustrophobic and grim thoughts of what had occurred there pervaded my tranquil state of mind. We headed towards the House of Wonders where the shortest war in history, exactly 45 minutes long, took place. Now a museum, it was so named because it was the first place in Zanzibar to have electricity and an elevator. The view from the top floor revealed different scenes on each side, the buildings and ruins of Stonetown on one side, the azure blue sea with the newly arrived cruiseship amidst the ancient dhows on the other and the recently renovated Forodhani Gardens on the third side.
After many pensive hours immersed in Zanzibar’s history, we emerged from the House of Wonders to embark on the plantation tour which began with a meal at a Zanzibarean home. The locals were warm and friendly, content in spite of the poverty that surrounded them. Their favourite expressions were Karibu (Welcome) and Hakuna Matata (No problem). Little children greeted us as we entered the humble abode and we sat cross-legged on floor mats and ate. We were served with Pilau rice, coconut curry, fried green bananas and potatoes. The meal was delicious and was topped off with fresh Zanzibar fruit.
At the spice farm, our nostrils were tantalised by the aromas of pungent spices just divorced from the ground, so different to the end products we received. The highlight of the Plantation tour was when a guide climbed a 30-foot tall palm tree, supported only by the rope around his ankles, while singing a traditional song for us at the top of his lungs. He broke fresh green coconuts and served us with the sweetest coconut juice. Our visit ended with a sampling of spiced teas and fresh fruits from the plantation and we left with full bellies and warm hearts.
Back in Stonetown, we took a walk past the house where Freddie Mercury lived, and enjoyed the last few hours of daylight al fresco at Forodhani Gardens. As evening approached, the gardens came alive with vendors setting up for the evening crowd. We watched in wonder as some barbequed barracuda and other exotic seafood, others squeezed fresh sugarcane juice and yet others conjured up delicacies like chocolate-and-banana pizza which was quite delectable.
Left with our last few hours in Zanzibar we didn’t hesitate before choosing to spend it at the perfect beaches which are synonymous with the name Zanzibar. We left Stonetown and began passing luxury resorts with exotic names until we stopped at Matemwe Beach Resort. Again, there were no entrance fees or barriers and we were allowed to just walk in and make ourselves comfortable under a huge thatched beach umbrella with charpoys. There were so few tourists around that we felt as though we were alone on the beach. We relaxed with our books, palm trees towering over us, as we watched the sun-bleached sands meet the perfect azure waters.
A solitary dhow, its sail billowing, stood in the water as the local women gathered seaweed till noon, to sell to the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. Add a serene spa serviced by local masseuses and one had the perfect recipe to de-stress. We spent a good few hours enjoying the resort facilities, wading through the kelp-rich seawater, walking barefoot through the nutrient-rich white sand and lazing with our books. I would have loved to spend days there but all too soon, it was time to leave for the two-hour ferry ride to Dar, as it is called by the locals. On our way out, we passed a myriad of surrounding islands that make up the archipelago, each with its own claim to fame but I guess we’ll have to leave that for another visit. Our idyllic time in Zanzibar had come to an end.
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This article was originally published in The Source UAE magazine.