The archipelago of Zanzibar is a semi autonomous region made up of several islands; the most important are Unguja and Pemba. It’s a paradise that unfolds amidst incredible poverty, a paradox that shows the traveler how the scarce resources available support one of the richest ecosystems in the Western Indian Ocean. The islands have attracted foreign powers throughout their rich history. The Greeks, Romans, Persians, as well as the Portuguese and British Empires, have tried their hand at controlling the trade routes that cross this small territory of only 1,000 square miles.
Even for those who have had previous contact with the reality of Africa, the arrival at the airport in Zanzibar City results in a clash, given the country’s dire economic situation. Arrivals and departures are marked with chalk on small boards, the locals ask for tips in shillings, the local currency, or in dollars, simply for having placed your suitcase in the cart or accompanied you to the taxi and, if you arrive at night, you will probably have to wait in Dar Es Salaam (mainland Tanzania), until the general power outages on the island come to an end and electricity is restored. Karibu, my friend, is how locals will greet you. Your journey has only just begun.
The ride from Zanzibar City to your destination turns into a learning experience about the lifestyle of the local population. The sight of children running half naked from one side of the road to the other, miraculously dodging the trucks that pass inches from them, and the hundreds of wooden huts that line the single unpaved dirt road that surrounds the island, will undoubtedly make a strong impression.
As you move along, you will also find small shops barely supported by four beams and scarcely covered with an awning, which offer candy, vegetables, tobacco and, with luck, the catch of the day. Again, if you travel by road after nightfall, you will notice the road is dimly lit by a few lanterns, and the visibility is greatly reduced.
Stone Town, the cultural center of the capital city of Zanzibar, has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the locals claim it is the oldest functioning historic town continuously inhabited in Africa. A stroll through its streets will reveal the combination of cultures, evidenced by the most important buildings: the Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph, built by French missionaries in the 19th century, coexists with the Aga Khana Mosque (Islam is the predominant religion in Tanzania), the Victoria Gardens, the Palace of the Court (of Portuguese and Arabic origin) or the Sultan’s Palace, a museum that depicts the history of the Sultanate on the island.
If you walk along Kenyatta Road in Shangani, or Gizenga Street behind the Old Fort, you’ll be able to buy the typical Zanzibar fare: spices (clove, the most popular), wood carvings and sculptures, busts, souvenirs, textiles and fresh fish (the sale of endangered species, such as some sea shells and turtles is prohibited).
Tourism is the main source of income for Zanzibar. In 2011, the island welcomed more than 100,000 visitors. The area of Mangapwani, quiet and remote, is not as busy with tourists. But the extensive beaches of white sand and pristine waters allow the guests to see the corals, starfish, and sea urchins from the coast. This makes a darling option for travelers searching for coastal relaxation, but the Nungwi Peninsula, to the north of the island, is the most popular destination.
Essque Zalu hotel is considered the most luxurious in Nungwi. If you choose one of its seafront villas for your sojourn, your day will begin with an ocean view from your window or private terrace, and the buffet breakfast, on demand, will include delicious vegetables, omelets a la carte, fresh out-of-the-oven pastries and exotic fruit smoothies, mango, lychee, papaya… in the purest French style. Better if it is taken under Africa’s most magnificent tree, the Baobab, overlooking the infinity pool that stretches towards the horizon, creating a perfect microclimate.
Morning strolls along the beach, taking advantage of the low tide, are ideal to observe the local women who gather, crouching offshore, looking for the seafood that will be sold at the market just a few hours later. Upon your return, and after a relaxing massage at the Spa (one hour massages for honeymooners are courtesy of the hotel), lunch awaits at Jetty, the hotel’s restaurant. If you want to try the lobster (most recommended), you must reserve it a day in advance.
Surely, you’ll want to go back to Stone Town to finish your shopping, go to Kizimkazi to swim with dolphins or do some scuba diving nearby. After all the hustle and bustle, relax with a cocktail next to the Baobabs, listening to live music by some of the country’s famed groups, a cacophony of sounds and beautiful voices that clearly define the incredible experience that is Zanzibar, a delight for each and every one of the senses. Close your eyes and enjoy! ■