Spice island

Zanzibar, a charming city that lies off the coast of Tanzania, offers a wealth of history, culture, scenic spots and sporting activities. Andrea Bailey is captivated after visiting the legendary Stone Town

 

There is something deeply magical about the island off the east coast of Africa. It reminds me of 1,001 Arabian Nights in all its exotic splendour. It’s a place where a warm breeze carries piquant aromas so intense you almost feel giddy.

You will lose yourself in the bustling, colourful marketplaces which have an interesting history. Omani merchants arrived here on ships many years ago to trade spices, leaving their indelible mark on this flavourful island forever.

My tryst with Zanzibar begins in a 12-seater aircraft that takes off from Arusha airport on mainland Tanzania and flies east over the Zanzibar channel towards the island. White clouds envelop the plane as it moves closer to the island of spices. It is a short journey over the water as the island is only 30 km from the mainland. Being inside the aircraft is hardly an experience to write home about. There is not much space inside the plane and I jostle with my neighbour for leg room. An amber sun is setting and its rays are blinding as they burst through my window when the plane dips towards the teardrop-shaped island.

Zanzibar rises above the surrounding sea in the darkening twilight and hundreds of lights begin to twinkle all over the island. I am transported to a time when Omani spice traders mingled with Indians and Africans in busy marketplaces, forging a wealth of cultures that Zanzibar is well-known for to this day.

After a quick exit from the airport, it is a short drive to Tembo Hotel in the heart of Stone Town – a place that is simply bursting with life and character. The hotel is quaint and interesting, to say the least – charming artefacts adorn the walls, old fans turn lazily from the ceiling and small water fountains lie sprinkled at different areas of the open corridors.

The hotel’s friendly staff welcomes me with the Swahili greeting, ‘Jambo’, followed by a speedy check-in. My room is stunning with a large traditional Swahili bed, antique armoire and a fantastic view of the beach. All my tour plans and maps will have to wait till the morning. Exhausted, I fell into bed to dream of ships laden with spices arriving on Zanzibar’s shores.

The next morning I wake up to sunlight streaming through the long drapes in my room. It promises to be a beautiful day. Large tables are set for breakfast and overlook the crystal clear blue waters of the Indian Ocean. With my guide book in hand I set off to explore Stone Town. A Unesco World Heritage Site, Stone Town is the only remaining ancient town that is fully functioning today in East Africa.

My feet lead me through the busy main street although I find them occasionally drawing me down quieter pathways filled with old stairways, balconies and mosques. As I meander through a maze of streets, it is easy to get a glimpse of the past. Over the passage of time, Zanzibar has been home to many varied nationalities including British, Dutch, Portuguese, Egyptians, Indians, Chinese, Arabs and Sumerians.

A walk through history 
With treasures such as the House of Wonders Museum and the Old Dispensary, I brush aside the cobwebs of time and come away enlightened.

The Old Dispensary was originally commissioned by Sir Tharia Topan, one of Zanzibar’s illustrious residents of the time. Housing a dispensary, pharmacy and a doctor under one roof at the time, the Old Dispensary today is one of the most popular centres for the town’s cultural events.
The rich history of this island nation is reflected in the House of Wonders Museum. Bearing testament to the melange of African, Arabian and Indian cultures, the museum’s focal point is the Mtepe, a traditional Swahili boat. The buildings by the seaside are uniquely quaint. What is not widely known is that Zanzibar was where Swahili – the most widely spoken language of East Africa – was born.

The other interesting fact about Zanzibar is that it houses the largest number of wooden doorways in all of East Africa. The streets of Zanzibar are filled with massive brass-studded beauties creating a rich plethora of historic entryways. According to legend, the intricate carvings on the doors were evidence of the owner’s wealth and status in the community. The doors are truly colourful reminders of a romantically arabesque past.

 In the marketplace

It is nearing noon. The sun is directly overhead and I begin to feel the woozy effect of the intense island heat blazing down on me. More of Zanzibar’s colourful history unfolds when I walk past an unmarked gate and into an open stretch of land. A few metres ahead, standing under a vividly blue sky and forever chained to the spot are a set of statues of slaves. They stand in a pit about 8 feet in depth as they have for countless summers and winters. Their stony faces are a picture of anguish. I am told that the island was at one time a hub for the slave trade.

In fact evidence of slave trade dates back to as early as the 9th century. The old slave market is a vital part of Zanzibar’s history. This is where slaves were bound and sold to the highest bidders. You can tour the dank dungeons where the slaves were housed. A few visitors look around the dungeons as I make my way to the open ground above. I weave my way into the noisy streets once again arriving at the main market.

The marketplace is bustling and the air is redolent with rich aromas of spices and fruits. The farm produce are displayed by vendors in colourful mountains on small carts. Zanzibar
was at one time the largest producer of cloves in the world. Over time Indian traders arrived in ships laden with ivory and spices.

Evening at the beach

With some of the most spectacular coral reefs, Zanzibar and Pemba islands prove irresistible to the keen diver and snorkeller. Sitting on soft white sand, I watch the sun sink into the sea, painting the once blue sky varying shades of fiery orange. As the moon begins to rise, I reluctantly uncurl my toes from the soft sand and make my way into town.

The perfect ending

My day ends with dinner at a restaurant on the rooftop of an old house. Red and orange drapes sway dreamily in the cool evening breeze. The food is fantastic, the music mellow and the stars twinkle in the inky sky, drawing the curtain on an exquisite day.

Underwater wonders

The next morning, I have a date with the underwater world. Joining a group of snorkellers, I head out to the ocean for a morning snorkelling session. The water is calm and clear. Sunlight penetrates the slightly rippling blue water. With my snorkel gear in place, I plunge in and instantly enter another world. Zanzibar and Pemba are well-known for their stunning coral reefs. I swim alongside colourful schools of fish darting inside caves and among the corals. For 45 minutes we are privy to the beauty of a natural Atlantis. The refreshing snorkelling excursion is my final activity on this mesmerising island.It is time to leave the water and head back to shore.

This final outing seems a fitting end to a wonderful journey on the magical African island with an Arabian past.

 

This piece originally appeared in Gulf News, the UAE’s leading newspaper

http://gulfnews.com/leisure/travel/spice-island-1.1255

 

Andrea Bailey

Andrea Bailey

Andrea Bailey is a Dubai based travel writer. She is also a travel consultant with Travel Counsellors and specializes in cruises, family holidays and honey moons. When she’s not out and about discovering destinations and different cuisines of the world, you would probably find her busy with her 3 daughters and her other passions involving art and music.

As a mosaic artist, she has travelled to Italy and studied ancient Roman techniques of the art form and as a jazz flautist she has had the opportunity of performing across various Dubai venues.