Sugar and spice and all things nice

Simon Calder visits Zanzibar, where gentle people go about their modest business - and moderation is the key

The interest value of any atlas declines quickly once you reach the gazetteer. But the butt-end of the alphabet is enlivened by three sharp syllables: Zan-zi-bar, so evocative a name that a dowdy old south- London pub has just changed its name from St Georges Tavern to Bar Zanzibar. The name belongs to an island that is well south even of Croydon. And it (the isle, not the pub) is perhaps the most entrancing place in the book.

All your desert-island fantasies come true as you approach Zanzibar. Indeed, all the fantasies you ever had about travel suddenly crowd around. The sea is preposterously aquamarine, the sand implausibly golden and the airport impossibly empty. Check the map in the in-flight magazine to make sure that you are not dreaming, and that there is indeed an island the size of the Isle of Man bolted on to the right-hand-side of East Africa - close enough to benefit from the richness of the continent and its people, far enough to have been regarded as a safe staging post by early colonists.

An empire was hardly worthy of the name if Zanzibar was not included as a conquest on the Imperial bedpost. Persians and Portuguese, Indians and Arabs all took turns at controlling the 20-by-50-mile patch of land poking out of the Indian Ocean. It was the Arabs who endowed the place with its sense of dreamy intoxication by starting the spice industry and bestowing the inevitable cliche of the Spice Island, assiduously milked by the tourist board.

Still, if your home smells as headily sweet as this, then you can forgive the marketing people anything. I visited Mr Madawa, a spice merchant who gives hands-on explanations of the wondrous fumes that waft randomly around the islands. As he slices a sliver of bark, the scent splashes deliciously into the heavy noon air. Then he takes you and a handful of aromas back to his modest home to take apart any preconceptions you may have about the unsophistication of African food. Lunch is labour-intensive, but then Mr Madawa has four wives. His team of spouses (or should that be "spice"?) conjure magical dishes from an island where few tricks are needed to grow effusive quantities of exotic tropical crops.

Mr Madawa has a plurality of wives because the brand of Islam that prevails on Zanzibar permits polygamy. Much of the social structure - as well as architecture - was imported from the most easterly Gulf state, Oman, in the last century. At one point, the Omani court moved 2,000 miles south to take advantage of the benign terrain and benevolent society.

British hegemony soon prevailed, adding another layer to the cultural veneer that makes Zanzibar so confusing. To confound yourself utterly, rent a bicycle from the thoroughly African market. It will probably be a Raleigh, based on an original idea from Nottingham. The plans, though, were long ago taken to India, where the upstanding Roadster flourished. This sturdy machine will take you through a maze of lanes as intricate as any Arab souk, until you reach the bleak block of flats where Freddie Mercury grew up.

The late, great Queen singer was born to a Shirazi family, of Iranian descent. Freddie Mercury was blessed with an upbringing on an island of plenty, where your neighbour was as likely to hail from Delhi as Dar Es Salaam. People go gently about their modest business in a climate where moderation is the key. Stress is merely something you put on the first syllable of Stone Town, the closest thing to a capital that Zanzibar possesses. As a shambles it is superlative, layer upon layer of humanity leaving its languid mark on the paraphernalia of government. The House of Wonders was the venue for the shortest war in history 100 years ago, when the British put down a little local difficulty in a little over half an hour. Now the House is a doddery old pile of quasi-Imperial clutter that looks as if it was under siege for 38 years, not minutes.

Most of Zanzibar is untroubled by urban life, and comprises a lolloping landscape where Mr Madawa's spices vie for light with arrogant palms. If you scrunched up the page of the atlas which deals with land use - all dark greens and deep reds, vivid blues and sandy yellows - then smoothed it out, the rumpled result would resemble rural Zanzibar. That spectrum coalesces at a single point at the tip of the island: the beach at Nungwi, where a placid village peeps out from the palms at a mile of virgin sand. The alphabet ends here - as does the traveller's quest for perfection.

You can reach Zanzibar via Muscat on Gulf Air, for around pounds 600 through discount agents; or arrive by boat from Dar Es Salaam, having flown there on a cut-price ticket on an airline such as Ethiopian Airways for about pounds 450 return; or take a cheap charter to Mombasa, connecting there with the Kenya Airways shuttle to Zanzibar. You will need a Tanzanian visa, obtainable relatively painlessly from the Tanzanian High Commission (0171- 499 8951). The most sensible guide book is the Bradt Guide to Zanzibar by David Else, price pounds 7.99.

The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
Life and Style

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past