Escape to the Spice Island: Zanzibar

Escape to the Spice Island: Zanzibar

This article featured in Volume 19: The
Wild Issue

standing at the door of a herbal medicine shop in Stone
Town, where long python and civet cat skins hanging from the shop
façade make for a beguiling first impression. Inside, containers of
aniseed, fenugreek and cinnamon add to the spicy aromas and it
feels like I’ve stepped back in time.

I’m sweltering inside this ramshackle shop but I take a seat
next to five Zanzibari women and gaze up to the lopsided shelves,
crammed with potions and ointments. We wait our turn to see the
“medicine man”.

Msaira Mohamed, a herbal medicine specialist or “madawa” as
they’re known here, is by no means the only one of his kind in
– but he’s definitely the most sought after and people travel
from far and wide to see him. Mr Mohamed inherited both the shop
and his knowledge from his father 30 years ago, and he tells me
that he’s treated everything from migraines to malaria.

Herbs and spices are, of course, in
‘s blood. Once a key trading port of East Africa, Stone
Town traded in spices with Asia and India while the Portuguese
imported them from
South America
on traditional dhows. By the 19th century,

Arab rulers invaded and spice plantations were
established. Today, the “Spice Isle” is a heady mix of Arabic,
Swahili, Portuguese and African influences. Infused teas, aromatic
cuisine and tours of the historic plantations all add to the
island’s allure.

Not everyone “gets” Stone Town at first; a hotchpotch of
derelict merchant houses, crumbling manors and corrugated tin
roofs, this UNESCO World Heritage site can appear gloomy and
dilapidated. As I duck beneath logs of timber that prop up its
decaying buildings, mopeds whizz through the alleyways alarmingly
close to my sandalled feet. But the more I pound the labyrinthine
streets and immerse myself in the frenetic street life, the more I
begin to appreciate its faded grandeur. Posting Instagram snaps of
its intricate verandas and Omani-Arab and Indian carved doorways
becomes a daily obsession.

I visit some of the town’s most famous sights, including the
Arab Fort, and take a sobering look into Zanzibar’s chequered
history at the slave trade museum and memorial.

I dine at The Secret Garden,
an enchanting restaurant set within crumbling ruins, and eat
Zanzibar pizza from the Forodhani Gardens night market. I get a
strong caffeine kick at The Zanzibar
Coffee House
and stop at Jaws Corner – a small square where
locals sip coffee and play dominoes and “bao”, a traditional
Swahili board game.

Zanzibar has a history of therapeutic bathing and you have to
travel out of Zanzibar Town to Maruhubi to see an original
19th-century hammam at the Kidichi Persian baths. But the Mrembo Spa offers some of the most
authentic Swahili spa experiences in town. I sample the “singo
scrub”, a traditional Kiswahili treatment typically used by brides
and grooms, and spend hours browsing the shop filled with
spice-infused soaps and oud incense traditionally used by Swahili

In search of a slower pace and Zanzibar’s renowned beaches, I
leave Stone Town for Mchamvi, a tiny enclave on the island’s
southeastern coastline. It’s here you’ll find The Rock, a fish
restaurant perched majestically in the middle of the ocean, and
Zawadi – a collection of luxury villas
overlooking one of the east coast’s most stunning coves. Blessed by
captivating sunrises, it’s one of the few places where I’ve risen
to watch the pink-orange glow of dawn.

A few days later, I leave my luxury bubble and head down the
coast to Jambiani and Paje beaches, known for water sports
including kite-surfing and diving.

I stay at
– a collection of Swahili style bungalows and a quirky
open-air lounge kitted out with eclectic artwork and light fittings
made from dugout canoes. It’s contagiously laid-back and you could
easily spend a week here without ever putting shoes on.

Over the next few days, I discover seafood restaurants hidden
behind leafy entrances along the beach where I gorge on fresh fish
while listening to the sing song laughter of Zanzibari locals
wading out to their dhows and the seaweed farms that punctuate the
teal Indian Ocean.

Sun-beaten boats rest on the pristine sand and children cycle
past on oversized bikes. To sleepy Paje and Jambiani, Stone Town is
like a heaving metropolis. This place begs for you to do nothing
more than practice sun salutations, laze in a hammock and bask in
the African sun. Then, just as you’ve adjusted to its sedate pace,
it’ll be time to head back to the pulsating streets of town

Discover More
A Long Weekend in Zanzibar, Tanzania