A heady mix of Arabian, Indian and African influences make Zanzibar an exotic escape with something for everyone.
For a dose of history & culture
All the exoticism associated with Zanzibar can be compactly captured in capital Stone Town, a UNESCO world heritage site and the cultural heart of the island. Zanzibar has had a chequered history with numerous occupations and influences over the centuries, thanks to its coveted location on a trade route. Arab immigrants have been traced back to as far back as the seventh century, laying the foundations for the Swahili civilisation, with Oman being a strong influence through the centuries. As Zanzibar grew in importance as a trade hub – not least for, sadly, slave trade – the Omani influence crescendo-ed in the early 19th century when the ruler moved his headquarters to the island. With a growing appeal amongst western countries, Zanzibar turned into a British protectorate in 1890, and finally acquired independence to form a union with Tanzania in 1964. Since then it has remained a peaceful semi-autonomous region, still attractive to people around the world, but now for its unique appeal as a tourist destination.
Steeped in history, the numerous influences that have shaped the island are still evident in the labyrinthine alleys of Stone Town. Thus named because of the coral stone used in most of the centuries-old constructions, this historic quarter is the best place to discover the eclecticism of Zanzibar’s architecture and in particular, its famed doors, overlooked by mosque minarets. The doors of Zanzibar are an attraction in their own right, each one more intricately carved and decorated than the next. Originally used as a status symbol, the doors tell a cultural story of their own, with the ones belonging to Indian homes featuring rounded tops and baroque-style engravings, while the Omani style featured rectangular shapes and Quranic carvings. To take in some more history, check out the waterfront House of Wonders, a former royal residence that has been converted into a museum; and the adjacent Old Fort, a 17th century fort now home to a cultural centre.
To truly surround yourself by history, you can’t do better than to base yourself at the Zanzibar Serena Inn. There are plenty of lovely hotels dotted around this part of the island, but the Serena Inn is something of a destination in itself, with history etched into its every nook and cranny. Conveniently located in the midst of it all, two historic buildings – the old telecom building and the Chinese doctor’s residence – have been carefully restored to form this atmospheric luxury hotel, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group. The colonial-style architecture transports you back in time as you enter its engraved teak doors, and inside, a carefully curated selection of artefacts – from traditional Arabian samovars (copper urns used for heating water) to the black and white photos on the walls capturing the buildings in their original glory – complete the look. The rooms are cosy and inviting, with teakwood furniture and four poster beds draped with the quintessential Zanzibari mosquito net, evoking a exotic romance you always associate with the island. Generously proportioned balconies look out to the Indian Ocean, where tiny fishing boats with room for just one fisherman and his line, bob past through the day, punctuated by the odd dhow with its sails billowing in the gentle coastal breeze. Waking up to this view will be all the solace your soul needs on a holiday.
Apart from feeding your soul, your body will be more than well fed here – from the breakfast spread where you can try Swahili specialties such as ugali (maize porridge) and mandazi (a doughnut-like fried bread) as well as an array of tropical fruits, and other continental breakfast dishes, to the traditional Zanzibar curries served at the restaurant for lunch and dinner. But, whatever you do, don’t miss a dinner at the signature Terrace restaurant, one of Stone Town’s finest. As intimate as it gets, the alfresco restaurant comprises just a few tables lined along the terrace looking out to the moonlit ocean. A welcome with a traditional Swahili bracelet wrapped around each lady’s wrist sets the tone for the fine dining experience, tempered with local warmth. The freshest seafood, which tastes like it has literally been caught a few metres away and hauled up the side of the building to make it to the table, is prepared with international flavours – think lobster bisque, sailfish tartare and tiramisu for dessert – but your best bet will be to enjoy a simple grilled seafood platter which lets the ingredients do the talking.
When it comes to fresh seafood, another must-do in Stone Town is a visit to the Forodhani Gardens night market. As the sun sets over the waterfront, local fishermen set up stalls at this open-air park across from the Old Fort, to start hustling, grilling, and frying their catches of the day. Smoke spirals its way into the sky, the fishermen proudly display the staggering variety of seafood lined up on the dozens of stalls (from octopus to eel, mackerel, prawns – you name it, and it’s here), tempting aromas assault your senses… this bustling market, popular with tourists and locals alike, is any seafood lover’s heaven. You pick what you want and pay for it by weight, then it is flavoured with local spices, cooked on the spot and served in paper plates with a salad – and because it’s all so fresh, it doesn’t usually pose any health hazards although it isn’t exactly pristine cooking conditions! Even those who don’t enjoy seafood will find plenty to try here, from grilled chicken skewers to Zanzibar pizza, a sort of stuffed crepe that might be comparable to a calzone.
No visit to the spice island – Zanzibar is known for the amazing array of spices grown here, which have contributed to the development of the local cuisine into the rich entity it is today – is complete without a spice farm tour, of course. You can’t make a better choice than booking in for one with the community-centric Eco & Culture tours – they offer tours with a difference, with their tours culminating in a traditional Swahili lunch at a local home. A convenient morning pick-up from the Serena Inn will take you north to Kizimbani spice farm – with a stopover at the historic Persian baths en route – where you get to see, feel and smell all the spices in raw, often unrecognisable form. Whether it’s cinnamon, cloves and cardamom or nutmeg, pepper and vanilla, and everything in between, the informative guide (if you’re lucky, you might end up with Adam, who had taken Prince Charles on a tour on his last visit!) will offer an insight into the uses and health benefits of each. The morning ends with a visit to a local home, where you are treated to an authentic meal of spiced pulao rice, bean stew, cassava curry, and fish, and a taste of the local hospitality.
From traditional to contemporary, Stone Town offers a dazzling display of culture, both of the historic kind as well as the culinary, and should be worked into any itinerary to Zanzibar, even if it is combined with a few days of beach bliss.
Need to know:Room rates at Zanzibar Serena Inn - Stone Town start from US$265 per night (Dhs970) including breakfast. Four-course set menu at Terrace restaurant is priced at TSH70,000 per person (around Dhs160), visit serenahotels.com. Eco & Culture Spice Farm tours cost US$30 per person, including lunch, visit www.ecoculture-zanzibar.org.
For a romantic escape
The road to Mnemba island is long and arduous – a bumpy drive from Stone Town to a remote, forgotten beach populated by the occasional bus of dive tourists, and a few fishing boats, followed by a short speed boat ride to the little sand-fringed, broccoli-covered island. But when you get there, you realise this is exactly as it should be – you can’t get away from it all if you don’t leave civilisation behind. A small private island off the north-eastern coast of Zanzibar’s main island (Unguja) set in its own atoll, Mnemba Island Lodge, run by the experts in luxury adventure experiences Andbeyond, this is the ultimate in barefoot luxury.
A symphony of doves cooing greets you as you arrive at the beach, and that birdsong becomes the soundtrack of your stay. There are just 20 bandas – the local name for the sprawling, open-plan rustic-style beach villas – on the island. There are no doors and windows in the bandas, just doorways and an oversized, blank picture frame suspended on one wall of the lounge area – the view is all the art you need. But don’t let that worry you – you are truly undisturbed here, and once you’ve got your head around the fact that the canopy of greenery surrounding the banda offers complete privacy, it is extremely liberating. Your private butler arrives at pre-agreed times to bring you whatever you need, whether it’s your morning cuppa, sundowners at the beach, or anything else that catches your fancy.
Simple whites and natural materials pervade the décor, which is designed to encourage lounging – from the multitude of stuffed cushions dotted around, and thoughtful touches like local board games and birdwatching books provided. Not that you’ll need much distraction, between snorkelling in the crystal clear waters (Mnemba island enjoys restricted access to the surrounding waters which boast some of the best underwater life of Zanzibar), kayaking, swimming with the dolphins (they make a regular appearance in the area) or simply kicking back in your private beach loungers.
Or indulging in a gourmet feast. Food is a highlight of a stay at Mnemba, with the freshest produce used to create simple yet sumptuous meals. Every morning at breakfast, either the executive chef or the sous chef has a personal chat with each guest to discuss the day’s meal plan. While a suggested menu is written up on a chalkboard at the common dining room area, meals can be personalised to taste, and dietary concerns are carefully managed. The young chefs, armed with experience at leading hotels around the world, do their best to put food on the table that is no more than four-six hours old, and sourced from around the region. It is a common sight to see local fishermen turning up at the resort parading in with their fresh catch in for the chefs to take their pick. And even the fruit and vegetables are as local as possible, with the farthest sourcing point probably being Arusha, a mountain town in mainland Tanzania.
But the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Or in this case, in every single course. Simple, light and uncomplicated Mediterranean flavours with an Asian influence and a hint of Africa let the ingredients shine through, and make every meal memorable. Whether it’s lunch of pan seared freshly caught tuna with rice noodles, wasabi sauce and sesame tuille at a private dining spot tucked away in the middle of a natural bower or breakfast of homemade jams, fresh fruit and made-to-order eggs, the team ensure that you have a happy belly at all times.
Each day brings a new culinary surprise, and if all the stars align during your stay, you might be lucky to catch one of their beach barbecue nights. A magical, intimate setting is created with candles and cushions, with waves gently lapping inches from your feet, where guests get an opportunity to socialise – if they want – over cocktails and canapes at first, followed by freshly barbecued fish and meats accompanied by delicious sides. It isn’t unusual for the entertainment to be provided by the sous chef, who displays almost as much talent in the singing department as he does in the kitchen!
This is just one of the many unexpected delights you can come to expect at Mnemba island. When it’s time to leave, as the boat pulls away from the island, and the managers and your butler wave goodbye with arms outstretched, you just know you will want to come back. With the truly warm, friendly and intuitive hospitality, that effect of having visiting long lost friends in their little slice of paradise – something a lot of luxury hotels aspire to but don’t always manage – is effortlessly achieved here.
Need to know:Prices start from US$1,550 per person per night (Dhs5,690), including all meals. Visit www.andbeyond.com.
For a family break
If you like your beach holidays luxurious, yet have everything taken care of by trained staff who operate like a well-oiled machine, then the Melia Zanzibar is for you. A sprawling resort, spread over a 40-acre estate, beautifully landscaped with tropical gardens, the Melia is an ideal all-inclusive solution for families. Located close to the Kiwengwa beach, along a strip with other similar resorts, this is the sort of place where you check in, and feel like you’ve entered a gated community that you need never leave during the duration of your stay.
The spacious rooms are designed in a contemporary style, many of them overlooking the ocean, with four poster beds and local art adorning the walls offering a sense of location. A stunning infinity pool is the resort’s centrepiece, and a wide range of activity options are offered, from tennis gym, and table tennis to kayaking, handicrafts sessions and Swahili lessons. Big enough to warrant its own map, the property, while located right along the coast, has its beach located a little way away. Regular buggy service is offered to the Gabi beach – although a leisurely walk along the gardens with a shy squirrel for company can be equally enjoyable. Bright orange loungers beckon on the white sandy shore, while the on-site restaurant provides exactly the sort of fodder a day at the beach demands – light bites, cocktails and delicious thin-crust pizzas from the traditional brick oven. Be sure to check tidal schedules before planning your day at the beach however, as you can only swim in the waters at certain times.
For those who need a bit more distraction then lazy days at the beach, there is a Kids club available seasonally, and even when that is not operational, children are well taken care of, with the staff happy to arrange special activities to entertain the little ones. Once you’ve got the kids sorted, head to the Anantara spa – a definite highlight of a stay here. A tranquil oasis, with its own infinity pool providing the perfect post-treatment chill zone, the spa offers relaxing treatments of a standard you’d expect from a leading spa brand like the Anantara. Large hotel room-sized treatment rooms, and highly skilled and therapists make the ultimate combination for a bit of holiday pampering – you will sleep like a baby after one of their signature massages!
Diverse palates are well catered for at the Melia, where executive chef Tony Leslie ensures he provides something for everyone across the six outlets. The main restaurant, Spice Market, modelled after a traditional spice market in Zanzibar, serves up an international buffet, but their Zanzibar fish curry is one of the best you’ll find on the island. Theme nights are planned for the evenings, ranging from Swahili to Mediterranean and Indian, accompanied by live entertainment. But try and fit in an evening at the lovely Jetty and Aqua restaurants each. Jetty, as the name suggests, is located on an over-water platform on stilts, and offers one of the most stunning locations on the island for a relaxed drink and tapas-style bites. Aqua, a fine dining restaurant, serves an Italian-inspired à la carte menu in an elegant baroque-style environment, with floor-to-ceiling windows seamlessly melding the inside with the outdoors – perfect for holiday date night!
Need to know:All-inclusive packages, including all meals and select beverages, start from US$211 per person per night. According to the package booked, you are given a bracelet at the time of check-in which you wear at all times to gain access to the different facilities. Minimum-stay requirements apply, and supplement charges on certain restaurants. Visit www.melia.com.
Getting there: Several airlines offer direct flights to Dar es salaam airport, including Emirates (tickets from Dhs2,500) from where Zanzibar is a short 20-minute flight away, or a three-hour ferry ride. Check local websites for domestic flights and ferry options.