Zanzibar is a low-lying coral atoll just off the coast of Tanzania, measuring 80km x 35km. It is both vibrant and peaceful, with beaches that rival anywhere in the world. The laid-back Swahili culture envelops you as you set foot on the island – the aroma of spices on the warm breeze, traditional dhow boats bobbing on the sea, the smiling faces of the locals. Stone Town, the island’s capital, is in the south west of the island. It’s a buzzing, lively place – a matrix of winding, narrow streets with authentic markets and plenty of rustic charm.
Ringed by some of Africa’s best coral beaches and blessed with one of the most mellifluous names in the world, Zanzibar (Unguja) is the archipelago’s main island. Sitting at its centre is Stone Town with its quasi-medieval medina, balconied merchants houses and grand House of Wonders. Drive out of town through the avenue of mango trees – said to be planted over the bodies of past lovers of a 19th-century sultan’s daughter – and there’s plenty else to explore. To the south, the road
cuts through the primeval Jozani forest, home to the rare, red colobus monkey and tiny aders’ duiker. Off Kizimkazi, pods of dolphins play and shoals of luminous fish graze over Chumbe Island’s pristine coral garden, while to the east rural villages snake up the coastline from community-minded Jambiani through the surf-and-party hub of Paje to traditional Matemwe, where locals harvest seaweed (most abundant from December to February) and dhows set sail with divers for the lambent coral reef of Mnemba.
At the northern tip of Unguja, Nungwi and Kendwa are the epicenter of tourist activity. Flanked by long, sandy beaches they are well supplied with burgeoning budget and luxury accommodation, restaurants, bars and dance-til-dawn full-moon parties. While there’s no denying their buzz or picturesque beauty, choose your spot carefully here as increasing development threatens to mar the area’s ineluctable magic and overwhelm fragile community resources.
You’ll find the main beaches along the north and south-east coastlines. A typical Zanzibar beach is the type you see in a paradise holiday brochure – softest white sands fringed with coconut palms, leading out to colourful coral reefs and a gin-clear turquoise sea. Some beaches are secluded, others are colonised with villages close by, so you are likely to see locals fishing and collecting seaweed. For total privacy, go to the east coast coves or one of Zanzibar’s private islands, such as Mnemba Island. Zanzibar archipelago is one of the world’s prime locations for diving and snorkelling – when you see the coral reefs for yourself, you’ll understand why.
Stone Town – A Slice of Swahili Culture
You will most likely arrive in Stone Town for the start of your holiday. This Swahili city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is buzzing with life and steeped in history – a stark contrast to the tranquility of the beaches. Walk along the labyrinth of narrow streets lined with market stalls, mosques and ancient Sultan’s residences. Look out for the many antique wooden doors, intricately carved and decorated in gold. Market traders are selling their wares, from spices to jewels to artwork. Taarab music fills the streets. The sights, sounds and smells of Stone Town reflect its vibrancy and culture. It’s a wonderful place to spend a night or two.
Zanzibar’s Mysterious History
Originally, Zanzibar was inhabited by Bantu speaking Africans. Persians arrived in the 10th Century. From as long ago as the 15th Century, Zanzibar traded with the Arab world. The Portuguese ruled Zanzibar for 200 years, until the island fell under Arab control again in 1698, led by the Sultanate of Oman. It was the Omanis that built Stone Town, once the centre of a prosperous slave, spice and ivory trade up and down Africa’s east coast. 25,000 slaves passed through Zanzibar each year. With the abolition of the slave trade in the 19th Century, Zanzibar became part of the British Empire until it regained independence in 1968. Today, Zanzibar is a free market with its own parliament and president, and part of the United Republic of Tanzania. You can see many ruins on the island – Omani palaces, Persian baths, underground slave chambers, hidden tombs, forts – it’s a fascinating and mysterious journey through time.