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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spices, Scents and Secrets Of Old-World Zanzibar

Zanzibar. Is any name more evocative of the exotic? From the narrow stone streets and peeling facades of its old town to the white sand beaches of the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar is seductive and intriguing, redolent with history, culture and spices.

For many years, it was a major crossroads for Arab and European traders and explorers. Now Zanzibar is experiencing a surge in tourism, as Tanzania emulates neighboring Kenya in its bid for world tourism dollars.

Zanzibar is actually a collection of small tropical islands off the coast of Tanzania. Its main island, Unguja, including Zanzibar Town, is almost perfect, with something for everyone.

Landing at the airport, you are catapulted into a world where yesterday and today mingle chaotically. Black-veiled women inspect health certificates and customs officials rifle through baggage on tables that look at least 100 years old. Backpackers in blue jeans, men in flowing white robes, small elegant women in saris and African women in colorful kangas all pour through this small gateway.

From the airport most visitors will head to Old Stone Town, the original, ancient center of Zanzibar Town built by Omani Arabs. Stone Town remains Zanzibar's heart and main commercial center. Stepping into it, you step back into history. Streets are filled with veiled women scurrying about their business. Old men and young children sit in the doorways of courtyards protected from prying eyes by thick stone walls. Zanzibar does not give up its secrets easily.

As you pass through narrow passages, small dark shops sell a heady mix of spices, richly carved wooden items and colorful textiles. Cobblers make and sell shoes from the doorways of small shops. Hawkers jostle and call out as they haul their wares of fruit, fabrics or baskets through the crowd.

There is a rich and timeless rhythm of life that courses through the old town as the Moslem call to prayer marks the hours of the day. Life in Zanzibar still revolves around religious ritual.

Arriving from the airport you enter Stone Town from Shangani Street and come upon the Serena Hotel. A small luxury hotel, it is part of the Serena chain, owned by the Aga Khan, whose Trust for Culture is involved in the restoration and preservation of old Zanzibar.

The Serena is a breathtakingly beautiful hotel housed in two meticulously restored historic buildings. The century-old Extelcoms building and the Chinese Doctor's House have been combined to house the recently opened hotel. The Extelcom was an integral part of an extensive underwater cable system which connected Zanzibar to the rest of the world.

The hotel is furnished in the style of wealthy Zanzibari merchants a century ago. Intricately-carved furniture and rich carpets have been brought from Afghanistan and Pakistan to decorate the rooms and public areas.

Spacious balconies overlook the sea and the ferries heading to Dar es Salaam. There is also a lush, landscaped terrace with a poolside cafe and bar -- the perfect place to enjoy afternoon tea or evening cocktails.

Leaving the Serena and proceeding along Shangani Street to the waterfront, you come to Tembo House Hotel, a more modest inn, also housed in a restored 19th-century building. The beach behind the hotel is a popular spot to board dhows for a day sail or sunset cruise to the smaller islands.

Follow the waterfront up Mizingani Road to the Jamituri Gardens as you snack on local cassava chips -- a sort of African potato chip. Watch young boys dive into the ocean, showing off for the tourists and each other.

Visit the Old Arab Fort across the street and maybe have lunch at the excellent Bu Bu Bu Bar and restaurant. Enjoy a spicy fish curry or a cold drink in the shade of the old fort, built by the Omani Sultanate in the 18th century.

In this area is also the lavish People's Palace built by the reigning Sultan in 1911. It is filled with imported furnishings from India and China.

Finally, you will reach the magnificently restored Ismali Khoja Dispensary. The building was presented to the city's Ismaili Moslem community on Queen Victoria's jubilee, and now houses a small museum of old photographs, small shops and a modern pharmacy.

Crossing through the old town heading inland you will come to Mkunazini Street and the site of the Old Slave Market. In the basement are two small, airless rooms where as many as 50 slaves where kept chained together awaiting the auctions that would decide their fate. Sadness still lingers in those two dim, dusty chambers.

St. Monica's, an Anglican Ccthedral, was built on the site of the Old Slave Market in 1874. The red marble of its floor symbolizes the blood that ran from the backs the slaves. There is also a shrine to the missionary-explorer David Livingstone, who planned his last expedition from Zanzibar. A cross was fashioned from the branch of a tree that grew where his heart was buried in Zambia.

A short distance from the cathedral is the city's central market. Vendors peddle their wares almost as they did a hundred years ago. Huge tuna and kingfish lie on thick stone slabs ready to be hacked into portions at the direction of veiled housewives. Outside the fish and meat halls are the fruit and vegetable sellers with mounds of large ripe avocados, green mangos and tart, yellow mountain mangos. Scents collide -- sweet, spicy, pungent, and the beginning of the day's decay. In the intense tropical heat, it can make your head spin and send you back to your hotel for the country's customary afternoon nap.

It's only a short walk back to Emerson's House, three old stone townhouses which have been converted to a luxuriously quirky hotel. Emerson's has been furnished with authentic Zanzibari antiques and boasts a famous rooftop bar and restaurant.

Leaving Stone Town you can see the true wealth of Zanzibar: the spice plantations. Cloves, vanilla, lemon grass, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, cardamom, pepper and ginger all grow abundantly.

Spice farmers will gladly show the vanilla vines, or dig up ginger root or turmeric for you to sample.

The nutmeg tree droops with heavy apricot-like fruits that conceal the precious nutmeg wrapped in red mace. Clove trees sprout yellow clusters, which will later be dried on rooftops and then sent around the world. Groves of lemon, banana and coconut trees grow lustily in the verdant earth.

On the way back from the spice plantations our guide showed us the ruins of the Persian baths at Kidichi, built for 99 concubines by Sais bin Sultan in 1832. Even today, the crumbling remains bespeak a royal decadence.

As wonderful and interesting as it all is, all the touring and viewing becomes tiring and it is soon time for a relaxing day at the beach. This is Zanzibar's main drawback as an island vacation. The beach, the magnificent white sand beach you've come to enjoy, is not easily accessible. Stone Town, with all its history and nice hotels, is on the west side of the island. Although it has small beaches, it encompasses Zanzibar's working port and fishing area, with all the accompanying pollution and garbage.

The good beaches are on the east and north sides of the island, an area that is much less developed and has only simple bungalow hotels. The pleasant Tamarind Hotel at Uroe is typical. It has 14 rooms in seven bungalows on a quiet, powder-white beach. It has a bar and a pretty good restaurant and that's about it. You can sail, snorkel or dive, but forget any other entertainment or amenities. Still, if a secluded beach and natural beauty are the priority, then hotels like the Tamarind are the best way to enjoy the island's beaches.

The beaches on the north are the best. At Mateme you will find protected coves with silky, translucent water. The swimming is heavenly. Unfortunately, the accommodations here are basic: small, plainly furnished rooms in low whitewashed buildings. A private toilet and open shower are considered the height of luxury. There is no choice of restaurants, and the food is not always great.

More disturbing were the reports of hotel owners becoming abusive with guests who were not willing to purchase all services offered. This is a very isolated area and this type of behavior is not reassuring. Sadly, it might be wise to save Mateme for a day trip until conditions improve. There are plans to build resort hotels on the north of the island in the future.

Another beach option is an excursion to Prison Island, a short boat ride from Zanzibar Town's port. Prison Island was once used as a prison for defiant slaves. Now it's a refuge for giant tortoises and turtles. There is also a nice cove for swimming.

Zanzibar is a wonderful melange of cultures, people, and activities. It's a small island, and you can quickly feel at home. The people are warm and friendly and will welcome you to their very different world, where you will have one foot in this century and one in the last.

When to Go

June through September, to avoid the rainy season and excess humidity. April 1 to June 30 is low season and prices are substantially reduced.

We stayed at the deluxe Serena hotel, with full board, and the food was wonderful. The low-season rate was $141 a day for two, tax inclusive.

Getting There

Aeroflot, British Airways, Air France and KLM all fly to Nairobi. Fares range from $880 to $1,060, in low season. Lufthansa also flies to Nairobi, but the fare quoted was much higher.

Kenya Airlines flies daily to Zanzibar, $360 round-trip. American Express Travel was helpful in booking the connecting flights.

Highway Tours is also helpful in making travel arrangements in East Africa. Phone: 207-7991/8683

Where to Stay

Emerson's House, phone 30609/32153; Serena Hotel, 255-54-32587, fax: 255-54 33567/33470; Tembo Hotel, phone 255-50-33069, fax: 255-54-33777; Tamarind Hotel, phone 31795.


You must have a valid yellow fever certificate. The inoculation process takes a minimum of 10 days, and a month is advised to develop full immunity. Anti-malaria tablets are strongly recommended as it is a very high-risk area. Most visitors require a visa, which is easily obtained from the embassy.

Zanzibar is very traditional. All of the women are modestly dressed and most of them are veiled in some manner. Short skirts, bare shoulders, shorts and tight T-shirts are not welcome away from the big hotels and the beach.

Most hotels offer a full or half board. It is a good idea to consider at least half board as health conditions can be unreliable outside of established resorts. Many of the local restaurants were closed recently due to an outbreak of cholera.