The Complete Guide To: Zanzibar

The exotic name says it all: these islands off the east coast of Africa are a heady mix of coral beaches, weird wildlife, spicy history – and voodoo, says James Palmer

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The Independent Travel

Why does it sound so exotic?

Zanzibar: a cymbal clash of Zs followed by a peaceful sigh. The name itself evokes the magic, the mystery, the idyllic beauty, and even a whiff of the violent history of these Indian Ocean islands. To the modern ear, Zanzibar is synonymous with coral beaches and lagoon-like seas dotted with dhows, as described by returning honeymooners and backpackers. In fact, the name stems from the words used by early Arab traders to describe the whole East African coast: zinj el barr, or "land of the blacks".

In the centuries before the infinity pool was invented, it was ivory, tortoiseshell and – most significantly – spices and slaves that enticed foreigners to these parts. The interaction of the Arabs and the Bantu-speaking Africans gave rise to the Swahili civilisation, with Islam at its core and Kiswahili as its tongue. Zanzibar stopped being the name for the whole coast only in the late 15th century. Since then, it has been (politically, at least) the name for two large islands off the coast of Tanzania – Unguja (also known as Zanzibar Island) and Pemba, its less-populated sibling to the north-east, plus a number of smaller islands. In 1964, Zanzibar put the "zan" in Tanzania, when it united with mainland Tanganyika to form a republic.

When did the Arabs arrive?

Mariners began plying the monsoon-wind route down from the Persian Gulf as long ago as AD150. The Persians arrived around the 10th century, and the Portuguese in the early 16th century, with the British hot on their heels, but it was the Omani Arabs who exerted the most influence in Zanzibar – at first they let the indigenous line of Mwinyi Mkuu (or "great kings") run local affairs while they set up trading posts, clove plantations and, in 1811, a slave market. But in 1840, the Omanis moved in, lock, stock and barrel: such was the importance of the slave and spice trades that Sultan Seyyid Said transferred his capital 3,000 miles away from Muscat to Zanzibar Town, on a western peninsula of Unguja.

It was from here that the Scottish explorer Dr David Livingstone launched his final expedition into East Africa in 1866. His house, on the north-east side of Zanzibar Town, is now the headquarters of the Zanzibar Tourist Corporation, although it's not the best place to go for information, as opening hours are notoriously irregular: you can usually find all you need at your hotel. Close to the international airport and with a seaport that serves daily ferry crossings to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Zanzibar Town is where most tourists begin their journey.

Stone Town, I presume...

Or Mji Mkongwe (Old Town), as it's known in Kiswahili. With its labyrinth of lanes, waterfront palaces, and high, coral stone walls that glow amber in the sunlight, it is easy to see why the capital that sprung up under the Omani sultanate in the 19th century became known as Stone Town. The name refers only to the historic part of Zanzibar Town, to the west of the city's main artery, Creek Road. To the east lies the poor and sprawling new town, Michenzani. If your time is short, hire a guide from a local tour company, such as Suleiman Mbukuzi of Zan Tours (00 255 24 223 3116;; $20/£11 per person excluding entrance fees, for a private tour for a minimum of two people) who will fill you in on the history as you stroll around all the important sites.

Admire the many large, carved doorways concealing opulent courtyards within: this was the way wealthy Zanzibaris chose to show off their importance. Browse the shops and stalls selling local crafts and curios – bronze-relief plates, colourful tinga tinga paintings, baskets of spices, kangas (the versatile headscarves worn by local women), and African jewellery. Some of the ebony carvings on display are representations of shetani, spirits that take on animal or human forms in Zanzibari witchcraft (Unguja and, to a greater extent, Pemba are renowned centres of voodoo). Join the crowds at Darajani Market, halfway along Creek Road. Stop at a baraza (stone bench), where men sit for hours to play bao, involving a board with 32 wooden cups, from which you attempt to capture as many of your opponents' counters (kete) as possible.

On the waterfront?

South of the port, along Mizingani Road, is where the Omani Arabs made their most ostentatious architectural mark. The House of Wonders, or Beit Al Ajaib, is Stone Town's impressive frontispiece – a colonnaded edifice tiered with balconies on all sides. It was built as a ceremonial palace for Sultan Barghash, who was Sultan of Zanzibar from 1870 until his death in 1888, and got its name because of the hi-tech wizardry inside: it was the first building in Zanzibar with electric lighting, and one of the first in East Africa with a lift. Since 2002, it has been the Museum of History and Culture (open Monday-Friday, 9am-6pm; Saturday-Sunday, 9am-3pm; during Ramadan, Monday-Friday, 8am-2.30pm; closed weekends; admission 3,500 Tanzanian shillings/£1.60).

Next door are the castellated battlements of the Arab Fort (open 9am-8pm daily; free), built by the Omanis who ousted the Portuguese from Zanzibar in 1698 (remnants of a Portuguese church still exist). Another waterfront showpiece is the Palace Museum, or Beit al-Sahel (open Monday-Friday, 9am-6pm; 9am-3pm at weekends and holidays; entry Tsh3,500/£1.60), a large castellated, whitewashed building with a room dedicated to the life of the beautiful daughter of Sultan Said, Princess Salme. Salme lived a fairy-tale life: in her Memoirs of an Arabian Princess she recalls being massaged to sleep by slaves every night, and massaged awake again each morning. After helping Barghash in a failed plot to overthrow their brother Majid (who was Sultan from 1856 to 1870), Salme eloped to Hamburg with a German merchant whose child she was secretly carrying.

Not a killer queen, then...

No, but Salme is enshrined in the bohemian rhapsody of Zanzibari history, along with Freddie Mercury. The late Queen frontman was born on the island in 1946 as Farouk Bulsara. His father worked as an accountant in the House of Wonders when it was used as offices by the British colonial government, and the family lived on the Kenyatta Road. A number of bars and restaurants celebrate the fact, including Mercury's on Mizingani road – a great spot for a sundowner (00 255 242 233076; open 10am-midnight every day). Young Farouk left for boarding school in India when he was eight. He was later to discover global stardom, and never returned to Zanzibar.

Where should I stay?

Some historic buildings are now Stone Town's best hotels. The Serena Inn (00 255 24 223 3587;; doubles from $200/£105 per night, including breakfast) on the city's westernmost promontory, on Shangani Road, is a beautiful conversion of the External Communications building of the early 20th-century British colonial administration, and a much older house next door, known as the Chinese Doctor's Residence.

A little further along Shangani Road to the west is the Africa House Hotel (00 255 77 443 2340;; doubles from $85/£44 per night, including breakfast), which used to be The English Club, a popular expatriate and Royal Navy members' club from 1888 until the end of the colonial period. It remains popular to this day, thanks to its sea-facing Balcony Bar.

At 236 Hurumzi Street there's a magical boutique hotel called simply 236 Hurumzi (00 255 77 742 3266;; doubles from $185/£96, including breakfast). Its tower-top restaurant is one of the highest buildings in Stone Town, and provides diners seated on floor cushions with stunning views of the city's spires, minarets and corrugated roofs, and the glittering ocean beyond. If you prefer to eat at street level, visit the night markets at Forodhani Gardens, where slave dhows used to unload their human cargo. By the light of home-made kibatari oil lamps, you can dine on seafood, goat meat and chilli sauce, and stuffed chapattis (known as "Zanzibari pizzas"), for just a few Tanzanian shillings.

Tell me about the slave trade

To reflect on the million African lives that were traded in Stone Town in the 19th century, visit the site of the former slave market beside the Anglican Cathedral, near the junction of Creek Road and Sultan Ahmed Mugheiri Road. The altar of the cathedral was built on the spot where the whipping- post once stood. Outside, a sculpture of chained slaves in a pit acts as a grim memorial, but a tour of the underground chambers where hundreds of slaves were crammed prior to auction gives the starkest idea of the conditions they endured (open 9am-6pm daily; admission to the cathedral and slave cells, Tsh12,000/£5.50).

The slave market was finally closed in 1873 by a reluctant Sultan Barghash, following years of pressure from the British. But slave u o trading continued covertly in Zanzibar for many more years. Head for Mangapwani, 20km north of Stone Town on the west coast, to visit two chambers that facilitated the illicit trade. One is the Coral Cave, a deep natural cavern with a steep staircase leading into the damp darkness. The other is 2km away: the Slave Chamber – two man-made cells carved out of the coralline rock. Visits to Mangapwani are usually tagged on to a spice tour, for around $15 (£8), including an afternoon at Mangapwani's gorgeous beach where you can meditate on how such barbarism happened somewhere so idyllic.

Let's spice things up

The other pillar of Zanzibar's 19th-century economy was its spice trade. Cloves were introduced to Zanzibar in 1818 from other Indian Ocean islands – and they flourished. Cloves remain an important export, and are one of the many spices and fruits plucked proudly by guides for tourists to smell, taste and store in a basket on one of the government-run spice farms. Spice tours are offered by most hotels and tour companies, from $10 to $20 (£5.50 to £10.50) per person, including lunch. Look out for the "lipstick plant", the seeds of which can be crushed to produce a rather fetching tincture (handy if your make-up bag was confiscated by the security staff at Heathrow).

Any monkey business?

For a brush with the local wildlife, visit the Jozani Forest Reserve (open daily, 7.30am-5.30pm; Tsh9,500/£4.20, including a guide), 20km south-west of Zanzibar Town, and home to a variety of monkeys including blue Sykes and, most notably, Kirk's red colobus, a species unique to Zanzibar and one of Africa's rarest monkeys. These red-coated, white-whiskered primates perch in groups grooming one another, and adopt aloof poses for visiting photographers. Once, they thrived on the island but their natural forest habitat was destroyed by the expansion of the clove plantations. Today, fewer than 2,000 are thought to exist, most of them in the protected Jozani Reserve. Other groups can be found in the smaller, but no less wonderful, Ufufuma Forest Habitat, a few kilometres north-east. Both forests also include extensive yet endangered mangrove habitats.

Time for some barefoot luxury

Eventually, most visitors retreat to the stunning north-east coast of Unguja. A fringe of reef keeps the aquamarine Indian Ocean as flat as a mirror, north of the mangrove swamps around Chwaka Bay, right up to the tip of Ras Nungwi, and there are resorts of varying degrees of size and serenity around the fishing villages along the coast. Large Italian-owned package resorts have sprung up around Kiwengwa, where enterprising Masai from the mainland come to tout paintings and tribal artefacts on the beach – often in fluent Italian. But you only need to walk a short way north to find a more peaceful setting.

Perched on a cliff with an outstanding infinity pool overlooking the reef and beach, the Shooting Star is a laid-back yet sociable lodge with a gregarious Tanzanian host, Elly M'Langa (00 255 777 414166;; doubles from $165/£87, including breakfast). For 2008, Elly has expanded his empire with two luxury suites that have private swimming pools and rooftop bath tubs with sea views from behind kitsch turrets (doubles from $430/£226 per night, with breakfast).

Further up the coast is the quintessential Swahili fishing village of Matemwe, Matemwe Retreat (with three luxurious villas) and Matemwe Lodge (a group of suites with thatched roofs) (; doubles from $490/£258, full board). The excellent diving shop here will drive you up the bumpy road towards the tiny Mnemba Island for some of Zanzibar's best diving sites.

Can I stay on Mnemba Island?

If you have the money – this is Zanzibar's most exclusive resort, run by the Conservation Corporation Africa (020-8133 1592;; doubles from $1,500/£789, all inclusive). The romantic Mnemba is a 1.5km ring of pristine sand encircling a jewel of dense palms on a coral atoll. Accommodation consists of 10 huge Zanzibari bandas with direct access to the beach. Each banda is constructed out of woven palm leaves, and has an en-suite bathroom and a spacious veranda. Fresh fruit, fish and shellfish are served daily, and candlelit dinners on the beach can be arranged.

When should I go?

The dry seasons are from December to March (during which Ramadan falls) and June to October. The monsoon season runs from April to May, and the short rains come around November.

How do I get there – and around?

Most visitors fly into Zanzibar Town from either Nairobi, Kenya or Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and then join a scheduled flight operated by Coastal Aviation (; Precisionair (; or ZanAir (, which also connect to Chake Chake on Pemba. An alternative is Gulf Air via Muscat, the place from which so much of Zanzibar's culture originated. You can also take one of the daily ferries from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar Town's port.

The specialist tour operator Imagine Africa (020-7622 5114; creates bespoke itineraries for trips to the islands. Ground operators such as Zan Tours (00 255 24 223 3116; provide air-conditioned cars and minibuses for transit around the island, and can organise all tours. Other reliable ground agents include Sama Tours (00 255 24 223 3543; and Eco & Culture tours (00 255 24 223 0366;

If you prefer to explore Zanzibar independently, the traditional and cheaper way of getting around the islands is by daladala, small converted trucks, or by public minibuses, which link most towns and villages on both Unguja and Pemba for Tsh1,000 (50p) a ride or less. Don't expect a timetable, however: just ask when you get to a bus or daladala station.

Pemba: island of peace, reef diving and cheerful children

Fundu Lagoon is the most luxurious place to stay on Zanzibar's second-largest island, Pemba, and a popular honeymooners' choice (; doubles from US$550/£270, all-inclusive). It's an escape in the original sense, in that getting there from Unguja involves a 30-minute twin-prop plane ride to Chake Chake airport, a 20-minute minibus ride through lush rainforest past mud-hut villages, to Mkoani port, and finally a 30-minute speedboat ride.

There are 14 rooms, consisting of designer tents hung from makuti (thatch) roofs on wooden decks, each set into the luscious hillside with a view of the sea. Vervet monkeys swing around the palms in front of the verandas. The hotel's infinity pool is set high in the forest, and offers relaxing spa treatments. Fundu also arranges walking tours of the local villages, where you're sure to encounter the most cheerful children on the planet.

Pemba is great for divers and snorkellers, who get the chance to explore the reef of Misali island and beyond from Fundu's watersports centre, which also has its own dhow for a sunset cruise with a chilled bottle of wine.

The hotel can arrange trips into the Pemban capital, Chake Chake, and on odd occasions to the north-east of the island, to Wingwi, where you may witness one of Zanzibar's quirkiest traditions: Iberian-style bullfighting. This is apparently a hangover from Portuguese rule during the 16th century, but has developed a charmingly humane twist – no bulls are killed, instead they are praised by the fighters.

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