Zanzibar, the African island with Middle Eastern mercantile heritage, is temptingly tropical and full of culture. Bernadette John reports on why it’s the ultimate holiday destination.
It has everything going for it – white sands; turquoise seas bloated with tropical fish, coral, and dolphins to spot; wonderful food based around the island’s bounty of spices, coconut and seafood. Its dry season coincides handily with the school summer holidays, and it’s only two hours ahead of GMT, so there’s no jet lag.
And yet Zanzibar has somehow fallen under the radar of the summertime hordes. Even the name is full of magical promise and intrigue, redolent with heady spice and derring-do. But visitors tend to be mainly those tagging a couple of days onto a safari package on the Tanzanian mainland, leaving plenty of space on the beaches, and keeping hotel prices keen.
Last summer as exasperated residents of Barcelona and Venice were scrawling graffiti telling tourists to keep away, we were greeted with ‘Jambo! You are welcome in Zanzibar’ by every passer-by. The culture is one which extends a warm welcome to visitors, treating them as honoured guests.
The island is ringed with fabulous beaches, and a good way to see it is to plot a tour staying in three or four locations. Taxis are reasonably priced for hopping around, and the roads are decent – the only hazard is the police. An officer in an ill-fitting uniform flagged down our driver and fined him for speeding; he wasn’t, but the form is just to cough up - sporadic pay for policemen necessitates creative money-making.
Be sure to include a trip to the island’s capital, Stone Town. An unofficial guide will attach himself to you within minutes, and it’s best to go with it. You would otherwise soon get lost in the Arabian style medina, with its maze of narrow alleys where your map will be useless, as there are no street signs. Our guide enriched it with accounts of the town’s dark days at the heart of the slave trade, and tales of the historical tussles by many nations to gain control of its lucrative gold, ivory, cloves and slave trade. He was able to reveal the messages in the carved wooden doors of the former merchant’s houses. The more elaborate, the higher the occupant’s status, and the carvings represented his trade - chains indicating slavery, vines for spices. Protruding brass spikes mean the family was Indian – placed to repel elephants, even though there were none on the island - while Arab merchants had ornamental studs instead.
The shops in the medina are treasure troves, spinning tales of the many who have sought their fortune here. There are antique ships’ compasses and assorted chandlery, coins, jewellery, wind up gramophones and other colonial nick-nacks, and covetable Zanzibar chests, made from hardwood and brass, complete with secret compartments. More suitcase-friendly are carved wooden bowls, salad servers, and animal carvings, and rich fabrics, including kangas - the bright designs women wear as wraps.
Stone Town can be too hot and frenetic for a family stay – instead opt for the Zanzi Resort hotel www.zanziresort.com a short ride up the coast, where your children will be thrilled by the sight of bush babies coming down for treats which the staff lay out at dinnertime, and accommodation in African style bungalows. Food here is a highpoint, as is a private sunset cruise on the hotel’s dhow.
On the east coast, Matemwe, Pongwe, and Jambiani are all good bases for families who like interaction with the local culture (if you do, avoid Nungwi and Kiwengwa, colonised by all-inclusive resorts). The offshore coral reef is great for snorkelling, but outside of high tide can make the sea too shallow to swim in, so a pool at the hotel will be welcome. Seasons Lodge www.seasonszanzibar.com at Pongwe has rooms with decks which hang over the ocean, while the Zanzibar Queen Hotel www.zanzibarqueen.com sits on Matemwe’s wide white sand beach. Maasai staff stand guard over the sunbeds, leaning on their sticks with beguiling stillness, and ensuring you are left in peace to read.
Walking along the beach invites engagement from the local people, but this isn’t oppressive. The Maasai know they look stunning – tall and whippet thin, their red robes vivid against the blue skies and white sands, and their good-natured salesmanship often starts with offering you a photo, before laying out their wares of beaded jewellery and carved animals and bowls.
Boat trips offering round island tours with snorkelling are well worth it. There’s a famous one known as Safari Blue – and several local operators sell a copycat version which we unwittingly bought. We had one of those parental moments of doubt when we loaded our kids onto a boat constructed of logs lashed together (rather than the fibreglass one in the firm’s brochure). But it was a magical day of snorkelling through kaleidoscopic colours, gorging on barbecued lobster and tropical fruits on a desert island, and sailing accompanied by the crew harmonising lustily to local hits playing on someone’s portable speaker while dolphins jumped alongside.
Trips in the interior include tours to spice farms, and to the Jozani Forest, where you can see red colobus monkeys. Head to Prison Island (one time holding place for slaves) to see giant tortoises.
Even arriving and departing feels like an adventure. Most flights come in from Nairobi, a hop which gives you a panoramic view of the Indian Ocean reefs, and a close up of Mount Kilimanjaro where the plane touches down.
No wonder we felt like pretty intrepid explorers. Until we arrived at our last stop. As we passed the families clustered around the pool our son piped up with the dread words: ‘Mum, that boy goes to my school.’
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