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I’m 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 Zanzibar – 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 Zanzibar’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, Omani 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 women.
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 Nur – 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 again.
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