What Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) forgot — Freddie Mercury’s Zanzibar roots

With the recent release of the Bohemian Rhapsody film selling out in cinemas across the world, I only thought it fitting to talk a bit more about Freddie Mercury’s childhood which was spent in Tanzania’s Indian Ocean archipelago, Zanzibar. Specifically, Mercury (then called Farrokh Bulsara) grew up in Stone Town, Zanzibar’s spice infused and characterful seaside town.

His early years were spent meandering through the cobbled streets of the rustic yet charming Stone Town. He lived in the centre in an Arabic townhouse overlooking the sea with his parents and his younger sister Kashmira. His family immigrated to Zanzibar from India before he was born, and they lived there until the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964 where many Arabs were killed, forcing them to flee to England.

They originally moved to Zanzibar so his father Bomi could work in the High Court as a cashier for the British Government (Zanzibar was under British protection at that time). Mercury was sent off to a prestigious boarding school in India (St Peter’s Church of England), but as his love for music increased, his grades declined and he ultimately chose to spend the last few years of his course in the Roman Catholic St. Joseph’s Convent School in Zanzibar.

Their house was an enviable one to live in on the island; as they were were well off they could afford a fantastic central position in the town. Inside his family home, his parents very much practised the Zoroastrian religion, as they were Parsees. Loosely and in very general terms, the religion focuses on there being one God (alike with Judaism and Christianity), and also revolves much around Dualism (the force of good and evil opposing each other within a person’s soul.) Unlike Christianity and Judaism though, Zoroastrians believe God’s power is limited and a person’s freewill is tangible (he is not omnipotent).

Some may assume that Mercury rebelled against his religion, due to the scripture’s demonization of homosexuality – he did after all change his name, and go down an extreme path of being the bohemian Rockstar we all know and love him as. As urbanisation increased in the 20th century, the religion adapted without losing it’s core principles of “good thoughts, good words and good deeds” – it could be true that this mantra stayed with Mercury throughout his life. The religion he grew up around is something which was not explored in the film, and we can only speculate on the inevitable impact it must’ve had on shaping him into the person he became.

With a rich history and an indescribable charm, it seems fitting that such a historic and influential character begun life here. Only 6 years after leaving this charismatic corner of Africa at the age of 17, did Mercury form Queen. When he was growing up, he spent much of his time learning and practising the piano in his home, a home which is now a main tourist attraction on the island.

Another big attraction for tourists and locals alike is Mercury’s Bar in Stone Town, which captures the spirit of Queen in an unlikely place. It is fun, lively and full of that Mercury and Zanzibari character and a great place to visit if you find yourself on Zanzibar. Taking a stroll around Stone Town really does give you a slice of Mercury’s history, and you can almost taste how his insatiable zest for life brewed on the streets of this charming town, and where ultimately this unconventional and truly free-spirited icon was born.

A view of Zanzibar’s Stone Town.
Out and about in the streets of Stone Town. One moment you are meandering around a quaint quiet little alleyway, and the next you turn the corner and are greeted with a huge variety of local bustle.

The new film seems to overlook Mercury’s childhood in Zanzibar, but luckily, we know all about it, and there is no denying that Stone Town is proud of shaping Mercury into the iconic figure he was. Below are a few of my absolute favourite places to base yourself on Zanzibar if you want to follow in Freddie’s footsteps. Although Stone Town is charming, there is a certain chaos in it’s charm! I would recommend staying in Stone Town for 2 nights, then moving on to the beautiful Zanzibar beach hotels for the remainder of your trip.

Kitty’s favourite Stone Town hotels

Zanzibar Palace is my number one pick for Stone Town. As I would only recommend spending 2 nights in the town itself, I would not recommend splashing out on serious luxury. The other hotels are big, rather soulless but more so, incredibly over priced. Zanzibar Palace offers a little boutique hotel right in the heart of the town. The rooms are authentically designed with beautiful big beds, and most of them have balconies which look out onto the little streets below.

TIP: Go for dinner at Emerson’s on Hurumzi rooftop restaurant — the food is delicious, the atmosphere amazing and you will feel well and truly immersed in the culture of Stone Town after an evening meal. You have to pre book as it does get busy, and when doing this you should say whether you would prefer to be on the Zanzibari cushions, or on a table (both are options!).

Suite Arabica at Zanzibar Palace.

Kitty’s favourite Zanzibar beach hotels

My favourite great value for money beach hotel on Zanzibar is Pongwe. It is so quirky and colourful — I just love it. It is a bit of a honeymooner’s haven, as for a really reasonable $172 per person per night, you get a private pool in your room. It is also on one of the best beaches on the island — most of the east coast of Zanzibar has tidal beaches, but Pongwe is in a little concave cubby so it’s beach is excellent throughout the day…

TIP: Go for lunch or dinner one day at The Island at Pongwe — it is a tiny hotel on a rock formation just off the shore, around a 5 minute stroll from Pongwe Beach Hotel. The food is incredible and it is a very cool setting.

Pongwe’s main pool and the beach.

My favourite mid-range hotel on Zanzibar has to be Zuri Zanzibar. Now usually I wouldn’t go for such a big hotel (55 room), but Zuri’s beach is incredible and by far the best on the island. The rooms give you a lot of luxury for your money and all in all, it is a fabulous pick, but it’s beach really does make it the most desirable hotel on the island.

TIP:Unless you want a jacuzzi in your room, do not be tempted by the “upgrades” in room types, as apart from the jacuzzi ones, there is absolutely no difference! It seems silly, and it is, but the Garden View room may be just off the beach and without a view of the ocean, yes, but then a sea view room may be set back far away from the beach and have a little gap where you can see the beach… So go for the cheapest option!

One of the rooms at Zuri Zanzibar

For all out luxury, there is nowhere more special, intimate and spoiling than Xanadu Villas on the east coast. It’s beach is beautiful when the tides are in (the only downside of this property is that the beach is a little tidal, unlike Pongwe and Zuri). Inside the complex of only 6 villas though, is absolute heaven. You will have a personal butler (which I found weird, but was actually very handy…For obvious reasons) and the food is delicious (their chef is ex-Michelin star..). The villas are spacious and all have private pools.

TIP: It seems as though this is going to cost a hell of a lot, and it certainly isn’t cheap. There is one villa though which can be requested, called Umande, which is quite literally half the price of the others at $400 per person per night. It is still of exceptional quality and you get the same great perks of staying at Xanadu, but for less. It seems a lot, but if you are looking for a really spoiling honeymoon, then Xanadu has to be the one.

One of the six Xanadu villas (just look at it… )
Xanadu main area

So there you have it — if you are a Queen and beach fan then Zanzibar I would really recommend Zanzibar. I hope my suggestions help anyone seriously considering a trip to Zanzibar ☀️