Most travellers to Tanzania come to conquer Kilimanjaro or watch wildlife in famous Serengeti National Park. But afterwards everyone heads off to relax on Zanzibar. Jeremy Jowell soaks up the sun.
Crumbling yellow buildings with broken balconies rise above me as I amble around the maze of narrow twisting streets. Black-veiled women dressed in colourful kangas hurry mysteriously past. Muslim men skin sugar cane and sweat in the humid heat. Three shy schoolgirls smile at me from the entrance of an intricately carved wooden door while small children in a darkened classroom recite verses from the Koran.
This is Stone Town, the centre of all trade and transport on Zanzibar and the most mythical must-see destination on the East African coast. Normally I pride myself on my sense of direction, but here in the snaking alleyways I’m hopelessly lost and walk around in circles, mesmerised by the magic of the Stone Town world.
All travellers to the island idyll of Zanzibar spend some time here, caught up in a whirl of sightseeing and shopping. Take time to admire Stone Town’s famous wooden doors and the unique blend of Arabic, Indian, African and European architecture while bargaining your way from one curio shop to another. But if you discover an interesting shop, go inside immediately, because chances are you'll never find the same place again.
At the end of a hot sweaty day, the best place for sundowners is Africa House. Relax on the balcony with a beer as you watch the golden sunset and white-sailed boats called dhows drifting slowly by. For dinner, Stone Town has a wide variety of good restaurants. But for a meal with a difference, wander down to Forodhani Gardens at the waterfront for the biggest seafood buffet in the world.
Every evening after sunset, good-natured vendors set up their stalls filled with meat and chicken kebabs, mounds of kingfish, calamari, marlin, tuna, barracuda, crabs, lobster and prawns, all barbecued on the coals. Then to wash it down, try a glass or two of sweet sugarcane juice, manually squeezed out with the use of an archaic machine.
In the mid 19th century, Zanzibar was the centre of east Africa’s slave trade with nearly 30 000 slaves passing through Stone Town’s market every year. Today, the Anglican Cathedral stands on the site of the slave market but tourists can still visit the holding chambers underground.
There are several popular day tours to take outside Stone Town. One is a trip south to swim with the dolphins at Kizimkazi. Another is a spice tour to see plantations of cloves, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg, for which Zanzibar is famous. All day trips can be arranged through any tour operator or hotel.
Several islands that make up the Zanzibar archipelago, many of which are ringed by coral reefs. If you have time on your hands and a taste for adventure, take a trip to Pemba Island, a pristine paradise 50 km to the north. Pemba is lush and hilly and offers some of the best scuba diving in the area.
Chumbe Island, just 30 minutes by boat from Stone Town, is also well worth a visit. This exclusive island has been declared a marine national park and the snorkelling on the pristine reef is the best I’ve ever experienced.