What springs to mind when you hear the name?
Spices? Dark alleyways? Crumbling colonial mansions? Beaches? Omani architecture? Ancient dhows sailing the seas? The slave trade? Birthplace of Freddie Mercury?
Zanzibar is one of those mysterious, exotic, exciting places so far from anywhere it becomes half-real, half-myth.
It sounds too good to be true. Time for some ground-truthing.
Zanzibar: The Spice Island
Start with the spices. Are they real?
Yes, they certainly exist on the island. Cloves, cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, pepper, vanilla. All are grown on Zanzibar as cash crops.
It was the Omani sultans, during their reign over Zanzibar (from 1698 to 1890), who turned the island into a spice producer, capitalising on Europe’s craze for exotic flavours. This was when the Zanzibar archipelago gained its moniker: the Spice Islands.
But are spices exhilarating? They do sound exciting. It’s in the name. Spicy.
Unlike in the 18th Century, these days most people have a surfeit of spices at home, in little plastic jars and dispensers, squeezed into the back of drawers and shelves. Spices aren’t exotic any more; they’re just awkward to reach in the cupboard.
Still, a spice tour is a reasonably interesting way to pass an hour or two. Most spices look nothing like the refined, packaged, supermarket product when still on the tree. Like the vanilla beans in the photograph above.
Crumbling Colonial Mansions
There are plenty of historic buildings in Stone Town (Stone Town is the largest settlement on the island of Zanzibar), with architectural influences from Oman, Britain, India, and Persia. Many of these buildings have been converted into upmarket hotels in recent times – especially along the waterfront – making them neat and presentable rather than crumbly. But there are still ample soot-stained structures scattered about the place to give you a feeling for the age and history of the city.
There is even a little house briefly inhabited by David Livingstone, now called David Livingstone House, on the northeast side of the island. The explorer used this house as his base while preparing for his final expedition – in search of the source of the Nile – in 1866. The house was also used by explorers Richard Burton – famous for his translation of Thousand and One Nights – and John Speke, who together were the first Europeans to visit Lake Victoria.
Postcard Perfect Beaches
The island is ringed by beaches. The ones in Stone Town aren’t the nicest, but there are many postcard perfect beaches elsewhere. Glaringly white sand. Coconut trees as far as the eye can see. Aquamarine waters. Perfect.
Except, the water is shallow, and the sea floor is covered by the tortured remains of old, algae-covered coral reefs. So it’s not all that great for frolicking in. And don’t bother snorkelling near to shore, as the locals pick the tidal zone clean of sealife at low tide. Anything foolish enough to swim, crawl, or tentacle its way anywhere near the island is scooped up, or speared, and put on the dinner plate.
How about the Omani architecture? Is there any evidence of that?
Yep, yep, yep.
No shortage of impressive doorways to photograph.
The Omanis ruled Zanzibar for close to 200 years. Said bin Sultan liked Zanzibar so much he made it the capital of his sultanate in 1840 (it shifted back to Muscat, Oman, after his death in 1856). The Omanis definitely left their mark here.
There are plenty of dhows around. Although I can’t guarantee any of them are all that old.
Most of them are probably pretty new. And many are now used for tourist purposes, rather than fishing or trade.
Regardless of their age, a silhouetted dhow, floating across a glassy sea, with a sinking sun painting the sky purple, pink, and orange, still manages to taunt the imagination, and stir up romantic visions of times long ago, eras long past.
Dark, labyrinthine alleyways
Are the labyrinthine alleyways the dark, narrow, twisting, turning, lost the second you step into them, danger lurking around every corner, monkeys stealing your wallet, walls shifting behind your back, doors opening into emerald smugglers’ dens, alleyways of your imagination?
No. Not really.
The alleyways of Stone Town aren’t laid out on a grid, and it’s probably best to always carry a map, because it is easy to lose your bearings, but they are not the chaotic, hustling, bustling, rabbit-warren I had imagined (if this is what you are after then I recommend you head to Lamu, Kenya).
The alleyways are small, narrow, crooked, and can be dangerous (at night). But for the most part they are sedate, and empty of street life.
What else does Zanzibar offer?
The House of Wonders, Zanzibar
The House of Wonders (called so because it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity) was built in 1883 and became a palace for Sheikh Barghash bin Said Al-Busaid, second sultan of Zanzibar. It’s front door had to be wide and high enough to allow the sultan to enter while riding on the back of an elephant.
The building currently houses the Museum of History and Culture of Zanzibar and the Swahili Coast.
The Old Fort, Zanzibar
Adjacent to the House of Wonders is the Old Fort, built by the Omanis in the 17th Century to repel the Portuguese.
These days the fort is used as a handicraft market. It includes an amphitheater for dance performances and music shows.
Forodhani Gardens, Zanzibar
Between the Old Fort and the sea stands the highly-manicured Forodhani Gardens. The nightly food markets they host are a great place to buy fresh seafood and barbecued meat on a skewer. It’s also possible to get African hair braiding and mehndi (patterned staining of the hands common in Southern Asia) done simultaneously, should you wish it.
I lived off grilled red snapper and rice for several days, and highly recommend it.
Birthplace of Freddie Mercury
It may come as a surprise to hear that Farrokh Bulsara, a.k.a Freddie Mercury the lead singer of Queen, was born in Stone Town, Zanzibar. His family, Parsis from Gujarat, India, migrated to Zanzibar as Freddie’s father, Bomi Bulsara, had a job at the British colonial office.
Freddie’s birth house – if it really is his birth house, there is debate about that – isn’t open to the public. Visitors will need to be satisfied reading the informative signs on the outside walls.
Is Zanzibar too good to be true?
In a way, yes.
It did not scratch my itch for timeless, colonial splendour, for labyrinthine alleyways, for Indiana-Jones-like adventures. A monkey did help itself to my gin and tonic while I was relaxing in a bar, but that is as Indiana Jones as it got (I didn’t finish the rest of the drink).
But that doesn’t mean Zanzibar is a fraud, or a tourist trap. It is entirely genuine, it’s just not what I had imagined.
If you go to Zanzibar, go expecting a unique island community, expect colonial mansions and Omani palaces, expect spiced coffee and spiced chocolate, expect excellent seafood on the waterfront, expect narrow but empty alleyways. Go expecting to encounter a sedate Swahili town that dates back more than three centuries, and you won’t be disappointed.
And, finally, yes, it is the birthplace of Farrokh Bulsara, better known as Freddie Mercury.