Once in a Lifetime Zanzibar

Once in a Lifetime Zanzibar

I’m in Zanzibar for the same reason most people come – a ‘see it once in a lifetime’ appeal with its enchanting Stone Town and beaches.

was a lovely way to start the trip. Out on the turquoise
waters of Zanzibar’s Mnemba Atoll, we sailed steadily on a wooden
boat towards the shallower waters of the coral reef. As we
approached we spotted dolphins on the horizon. Snorkels on, we
jumped into the sea, taking a glug or two of salty water in the
commotion, and swam towards the glimmer of a curved fin ahead.
Several moments of exhilaration followed as we caught up with the
pack: eight beautiful creatures propelling their bodies through the
water with ease.

I’m here for the same reason most people visit
– the ‘see it once in a lifetime’ appeal of this
magical place with its enchanting Stone Town, fragrant spice tours,
otherworldly beaches and coastal cuisine. Zanzibar’s shores have
been attracting foreign interest for centuries – Persians were
among the first to settle there alongside the indigenous
population, followed by the Portuguese in 1503. By 1698, control of
Zanzibar had been seized by Oman, and in the late 19th century the
British Empire took over, with Scottish explorer and missionary Dr
David Livingstone writing of his time spent here: “This is the
finest place I have known in all of Africa.” In the 1960s Zanzibar
went on to gain independence before merging with mainland
Tanganyika. The presidents of both republics formed a union and
created the United Republic of
, from which today Zanzibar is semi-autonomous.

Nowhere is this piling of foreign influences more visible than
in Stone Town, where a maze of narrow alleys lead into secret
courtyards, ornate balconies jut out from crumbling manor houses
and oriental bazaars hum with the sounds of locals bartering.

We decide to visit early before the crowds descend. Our first
stop is the Zanzibar Coffee House, a charming little place in the
maze-like old town serving coffee from its own plantation on the
edge of the East African Rift Valley. We sip from our cups inside
the café, which is set in one of oldest buildings in Zanzibar –
constructed for Sultan Said Bargash in 1885.

After, we walk to the former slave market. During the Arab rule
of the island, slaves became a major pillar of the economy, with
some 50,000 passing annually through the port for sale. It’s a dark
but insightful visit: the airless, underground chambers still
contain chains bolted to the concrete.

We continue our exploration of the streets – admiring the
masterful Arabic design from intricate, colourful front doors to
magnificent buildings like the House of Wonders – a palace built
for the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1883. The temperature is rising and
we seek out the shady rooftop at Emerson Spice Hotel – an ornate
tea house with beautiful views down to the port. But before long,
the heat and
become too much, and we escape the city streets for
open sandy shores.

Heading north on the island from Stone Town, colourful bunting
hangs between electricity pylons, flickering like a candle in the
sea breeze. A series of weather-beaten shacks line the roads, their
paint cracking at the edges. On the asphalt, a fine dusting of
icing sugar sand is trodden by women in brightly patterned skirts
and headscarves.

It’s about an hour or so to Matemwe – the quiet beach village
where we’re staying. Ours is a simple villa set right on the shore.
We run out on to the expansive beach, where palm trees cast shade
over the pale sugary sands, and into the balmy Indian Ocean. At
this time in the afternoon, the tide is up and the water is deep,
but in the morning it’s a lagoon for about a mile out to the reef –
excellent for discovering starfish, not so excellent for swimming.
All that is left to do in Matemwe is lounge about, read and wander
between quaint beach shacks in search of delicious Swahili

Getting There

British citizens travelling to Tanzania require a visa. You can
pick one up on arrival for $50 (credit or debit card only), or get
it online in

Daily ferries run between Dar es Salaam and Stone Town for about
£25. You can book your ticket at the port. Major airlines also fly
to Zanzibar from the UK via Dar es Salaam.

To Stay

In Stone Town, try boutique hotels Mashariki Palace or
Emerson on Hurumzi.

On the coast, Zanzibar offers a range of options from private,
remote villas like
Che Che Vule
to chic beach lodges like Fundu Lagoon.

To Eat and Drink

In Stone Town, try the food market in the waterfront Forodhani
gardens from 6PM daily. Delicacies on offer include kachori
(deep-fried balls of mashed potato spiced with chilli, lime and
ginger) and mugs of fresh sugarcane juice.

On the beach, be sure to get your daily dose of fresh local
coconut water from sellers walking the shoreline.

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