Zanzibar – The “Spice Island”
For centuries the economic and political powerhouse of the region, this quiet little island today offers an unsurpassed tourist experience whether beaches, or culture and history are the the main attractions for the traveler.
The main island in the archipelago, Unguja, is commonly known as Zanzibar, while the other major one, Pemba, is rarely visited by foreigners, and has little tourism industry. It’s nevertheless said to be a pretty sight, so I’ll try to pass by there on my next trip.
Stone Town was home to the Zanzibari Sultans, and was the regions’s major trading point for spices and slaves . At one point in time, 90% of the world’s cloves came from the island, and more than a million men and women captured from the African mainland were sold in Stone Town during the slave trade.
Stone Town is today a World Heritage site. Unfortunately, most tourists only go there for the beaches, and only pass briefly through Stone Town.
Stone Town is the self-declared capital of the Swahili culture. Historically, it’s a cultural melting pot, with strong Persian, Indian and Arabic, as well as Portuguese and British influence. The date of its foundation is unknown, but it has been around for at least 3 centuries.
Stone Town features the same Swahili architecture as Lamu and Old Mombasa – a mixture of Indian, Arabic and African styles – with the characteristic wooden doors and enclosed wooden verandas, and the narrow, curved streets.
Starting downtown, the Forodhani Gardens are the natural starting point for any exploration of Stone Town. By night, this park turns into a huge open-air buffet barbeque where local fishermen sell fresh fish, squid, mussles, crabs, lobster and other seafood from improvised stalls. Food is then grilled as you wait, ready for immediate consumption at one of the nearby benches. This is a remarkable, recommendable and tasty feature of Stone Town.
Facing the sea next to Forodhani Gardens is a restaurant with live music in he evenings and many tables in a toe-dipping distance from the water. Food and drinks are good, so this place is worth a visit.
Facing the Forodhani gardens is also the Sultan’s Palace, aka. the House of Wonders. This is perhaps the most characteristic of all the buildings in Stone Town. Once the regional centre of power, this is now a museum of the Swahili civilization. The museum is impressively content-rich and interesting, so make sure to plan for enough time when visiting this place! The upper veranda also offers a nice view of the Stone Town seaside.
Just next to the Sultan’s Palace is an Omani fortress, a reminder of the previous Omani dominance of the island. Apart from being a historically interesting building, it has nothing particularly interesting to see. Inside, there are just some curio shops that sell the exact same things as other such shops on the island, but at inflated prices.
Northward towards the port, the restaurant Mercury’s (named after the singer Freddy Mercury who was born on Zanzibar) is one of my personal favorites in Stone Town. The place has good food and nice drinks, and an atmosphere you won’t forget. Tables facing the beach may be difficult to get, so advance booking is recommended. Live music is quite frequent but not every evening. The place also has Arab-style sheeshas.
Zanzibar being a predominantly Muslim society, alcohol does not have a central position in the local culture, although it is tolerated. Binge drinking and public drunkenness are not! Although most locals are too polite let insensitive tourists know even when they are blatantly violating local customs, such behavior is quietly frowned upon, and considered extremely offensive. There are some few nice bars though. In Stone Town, the Serena Hotel has one of the, and Mercury’s in another. In the villages along the coast, the hotels serve drinks, and in Nungwi, the tourist hotspot, there are plenty!
Spices was once a cornerstone of the Zanzibari economy. The former sultanate was once the world’s biggest exporter of spices, and the industry still provides work to many people on the island. The old Spice Market still stands as a witness to the important role the industry once had on the island.
The horrors of the slave trade are fortunately a closed chapter in the history of Zanzibar. The Slave Market, that would have stood as an important historic reminder, has unfortunately been razed. The basement where slaves were held captured awating their auctioning has however been preserved.
Stone Town offers a lot of great opportunities for curio shopping. Of course, most things you get there are the exact same things as you get in curio markets elsewhere in the region, and if you have the opportunity, postpone all such shopping until you get to the Maasai Market in Nairobi.
The Swahili cuisine is a colorful and tasty experience. Like many other aspects of Swahili culture, this is also a rich mixture of Indian, Arabic, Persian and African influences. Seafood is predominant, and the cuisine features a broad variety of spices and fruits. Fish in coconut sauce, and prawns piri-piri are perhaps among the most famous Swahili dishes. In Zanzibar, the cultural conscience is very strong, and even modest and unassuming restaurants take pride in serving delicious and feature-rich dishes. When venturing outside of Stone Town, you will undoubtedly notice small local restaurant huts along the beaches where the owners do their utmost to get you inside. This can be a surprisingly good idea, but it’s advised to advance book and choose your meal at least 2 hours in advance. In these places, quality matters a lot. Time, not at all!
A popular attraction is the Spice Tour. This one can be booked through most hotels and is half a day well spent. Many of the operators offer full-day tours where the afternoon is spent on the beach. That’s an afternoon wasted, as beaches close to Stone Town are nothing compared to those a bit further out on the island.
Spice production and trade was previously a cornerstone of the Zanzibari economy. The spice plantations are still in use, but today serve the added purpose of tourist attractions. On this roughly 3 hour long sightseeing, travelers get to see how cloves, cinnamon, cardamoms, pepper, ginger, saffron and nutmeg are actually grown, with plenty of opportunities to taste the fresh spices, as well as some exotic fruits that even experienced travelers have hardly ever heard about before.