Why Go? Three syllables: Zan-Zee-Barrr… The name flicks and zings off the tongue like strange, scented fruit. Zanzibar. A universal shared shorthand of all that’s spicy, sensuous, exotic.
When to go?
July and August. Winter in the Tropics. The evenings are cool and sultry, without the restless fever-dream hot nights of December and January.
Zanzibar’s beaches eclipse the promise of the glossy postcard.
They dwarf the hand-held phone frame of Instagram. They’re viscerally beautiful. The banded colours of the ocean; cerulean blue, topaz, that change and shift through the day like a sea-bound sunset in aqua. It really is that deep blue, that transporting.
“The postcards lie. It’s more. Bigger. Wow.”
Where to have a drink?
Besides the obvious ocean vistas, sundowners on the parapet roof of Emerson Hotel is something not to be missed. You’re at the second highest point in Stone Town– the clock tower of Sultan of Oman’s 18th-century palace being number one. Coppery dusk sunlight on your skin, and the lulling call of the Malindi Mosque muezzin from the East, segueing into the chimes of the Christ Church Cathedral to westward. You feel at the fulcrum of an ancient compass of the two spires, witness to an endless moment, out of time.
How to get around?
Stone Town is best explored on foot. Step into the alley ways and flow of street life, a babel of voices, and palimpsest of textures and sights. If you’re insulated from this all in the air-conditioned silence of a taxi, peering at the panoply through tinted windows, you might as well have stayed home and watched TV.
Driving across the island?
The swirling goulash of Zanzibar road traffic is sardined with car, scooter, livestock and pedestrian traffic trying to get anywhere but here fast. Driving a rental car in this inferno would shred the nerves of a First-World driver in 100 yards.
“Locals lunge into the giddying melange of traffic with a blithe disregard to the rules of the road, or the most brutal laws of Newtonian physics, all with a serene fatalism that imparts a towering unshakeable belief in the afterlife.”
Inshallah. Take a taxi for any trip longer than you’re comfortable to walk.
Where to shop?
Hawkers and trinket stalls abound. While these may satisfy your need for a gaudy T-shirt or gauche fridge magnet for a less-favoured friend or relative, the real treasures of Stone Town shopping are a little more elusive. Entered through a narrow, non descript “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” doorway, the Zanzibar Curio Shop holds four floors packed to the ceiling with centuries of antiques, furniture, and objects of desire. Tribal art, Persian jewellery, antique Royal Navy telescopes, astrolabes, Indian lamps- a wondrous, numberless collection of curiosities and fascinations. The glimmering, silted flotsam of centuries of African, Arabian, and British Empire are packed to the ceilings of this enchanting emporium.
Where to stay?
Stone Town has a score of good hotels: thick walled, sky-ceilinged atriumed oases that provide cloisters of calm from the haggle and heat of the dusty streets. Emerson on Hurumzi welcomes you with chilled tamarind tea, and the smiling staff, high ceilings, Arabian art and exotic hues are everything the beige boutique hotels of the first world are not. High ceilinged, filigree wooden blind windowed bedrooms recall the pages of Arabian Nights, and the deep, plush four poster beds bring on sleep like a lullaby whispered from Scheherazade.
The lesser known south east shores of Jambiani are blissfully uncrowded, and the panorama of quiet slow daily life is like a whispered secret.
Dhow fishing boats and seaweed farmers go somnolently about their days.
It’s a calmer, more social rhythm than the ‘doof-doof-doof’ thud of house music or whine of jet skis or ski boats that much of the north of the island, such as Nungwi or Kendwa Rocks offer, or are plagued by– depending on your sensibilities. If the thronging hedonism of beach party life is more your diversion, perhaps rather book an EasyJet flight to Ibiza.
Epically dazzling as they are, Zanzibar’s beaches can be sun-blinding after too long. Jozani National Forest is a lush green balm to the senses. A walk among the silent, knowing mahogany trees several centuries old and the wind whispering green canopy overhead, is an energising respite, a breathing in green.
“Zanzibar is real, authentic, wondrous and flawed. Keep your wits about you and your heart open and curious.”
A palimpsest of the old and the brash, bright and scratched new. For many, it is a piquant, heady, acquired taste. Like a great novel, a good film, or a tempestuous love affair, it never leaves you the same way it found you.