What do Freddie Mercury, cardamom and cholera have in common? At one time or another, all of them could be found on Zanzibar. 30 minutes by plane and 90 minutes by ferry is all it takes to get from Dar Es Salaam to paradise. Once you set foot on this charming island, you’ll no longer feel like you’re in Africa.
Banana and palm trees cover the lush countryside with the Indian Ocean seemingly everywhere. Occasional rain helps to keep it so green. And the people, mostly Muslim, are very warm and friendly, even if they constantly ask if you’re married (and why not) and have kids (and when will you). [I’m always intrigued by the information that different cultures need to identify you.]
Engage your local taxi driver in conversation, and you’ll find a deal on the many activities to occupy your time should you choose to do something other than plant yourself in the burning hot sun. Take in a charming spice tour at one of the many family run farms, where you’ll be sure to get a sample of all that grows on the island. You can touch, smell or taste vanilla, coffee, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, ginger, lemongrass, allspice, cloves, mango, watermelon, pineapples, coconuts, avocado, jackfruit, the basis for red and green curry, and of course yellow and green bananas.
And you should at least spend a few hours wandering around Stone Town, aptly named because the houses are all made of stone. Here you can take a picture of the door to Freddie Mercury’s house (yes, he grew up here). Although entering the house was forbidden, you can, however, visit the House of Wonders with its glorious porches, the Old Fort and amphitheater, and the Palace Museum, all of which are a bit run down but of note. If you only tour one place, make it the former Slave Market, now the site of an Anglican Church, where you will be thoroughly educated on the horrors that humans can inflict upon each other and how it only takes one person to make a difference. Across the harbor of yachts is a small isle that’s known as Prisoner’s Island, although it housed victims of cholera instead of inmates. Now you can have lunch or snorkel there.
Although many recommend spending two days in Stone Town, I thought half a day was sufficient to get a feel for the place (the riots a few days before I arrived over corrupt police didn’t make me want to stay much longer anyway). But then again I had enough adventure for this vacation, so instead I chose to grab an authentic Thai massage and relax back at the pool and beach of my hotel, Melia- which I HIGHLY recommend (my in-room outdoor shower was AMAZING!).
Even if you’re major time consumption is drinking fabulous mojitos and soaking up the rays, definitely manage to go snorkeling or diving, preferably at Mnemba Island, at least once. I’ve never seen so many different types of fish in one reef. Blue starfish, parrotfish, sea urchins, sea snakes, stingrays, dolphins, reef sharks, angelfish, stonefish, tuna, and tilefish to name just a few. It was truly stunning, and our guide from One Ocean actually took the time to point things out instead of let us swim around and hope to spot camouflaged fish. I’d also have tried my hand at kite surfing again, but I was too worn out from the climb.
And my body was in need of some serious protein. Fortunately, the food was incredible, utilizing all the local spices, with a ton of options. I ate exclusively at my hotel- uncharacteristic for me, but somewhat essential if you’re not staying in Stone Town. The meat was superb, from lamb to chicken to beef. And even if I did get a little bit of food poisoning, it was nowhere near as bad as I’d have had if I bought some of the giant fly-covered octopus for sale at the fish market in Stone Town. And it’s to be expected at least once during a 14 day sojourn in a foreign country when you daringly try rare meat. But that didn’t sour my impression of the island even if it soured my stomach a bit. So if you get a chance to visit this lovely land, definitely plan on a week to relax, sightsee and engage in some water activities. My only regret was not staying an extra week.