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I had the pleasure of ending my time in Tanzania with a trip to Chumbe Island, just off the coast of Zanzibar. This tower, called the Lighthouse, is the biggest structure. But there are several wonderful open-air bungalows that you can book for a relaxing stay. The snorkeling is amazing among the island's pristine reefs.
The nightly food market in Forodhani Gardens in Zanzibar is a lively delight. At dusk, makeshift tables, propane tanks, and grills are brought out and before long, you can smell the aroma of fresh fish, meat, shrimp kebabs... There are Zanzibar pizzas, limitless choices of grilled seafood, fresh fruit salads, sugar cane juices with ginger and gyro. Grab a little something to eat, find a spot along the walls of the pier, and do a little people watching. It is a great way to spend a night in Stone Town.
Zanzibar, an archipelago off the Tanzania coast, has long attracted travelers to its capital city, Stone Town. Visitors come to cap off a safari, dance to taarab music, and snorkel among dragon moray eels—all in the historic birthplace of the Swahili language. The cotton kanga (pictured above), worn as a wrap dress, skirt, or shawl, is the principal item of clothing for East African women. Named for the dappled feathers of the guinea fowl, the kanga is not complete without a Swahili maxim printed along its border. One favorite: Kupata na kukosa kwangu, wewe kunakuhusu nini, or “Whether I succeed or fail, it’s not your business.” Available at the Darajani Bazaar off Darajani Street. Photo courtesy of Alvaro Leiva/Age Fotostock. This appeared in the May/June 2011 issue.
A feast of enormous octopus tentacles, colossal lobster claws, and gaping fish are laid out on table after table every night in Stone Town's Forodhani Gardens. The names and origins of less recognizable treats, smashed together in generous portions on kebab sticks, will be (very) eagerly explained to you by the vendors at each table. A kebab of tandoori lobster accompanied by fresh-pressed sugarcane juice is a quintessential treat, but if you feel iffy about sampling the seafood on the tables, there are alternatives: grilled sweet potatoes, savory bananas, and puffy coconut bread complete the Swahili suite of tastes. Negotiate your price and wait for the vendor to heat up your choice on an open fire stove in the middle of the gardens.
Sleep in one of the swanky palm-thatched bandas at the Mnemba Island Lodge, located on a private isle off Zanzibar’s northeastern coast. While there, swim alongside dolphins, watch green turtles hatch at sunset, and relax on the beach as the island’s Lilliputian suni antelope—which you’ll swear have been cross-bred with Chihuahuas—scamper by. From $1,155 per person, season starts June 1, (888) 882-3742, andbeyond.com. Photo courtesy of Mnemba Island Lodge. This appeared in the May/June 2011 issue.
Each evening as the sun sets, Stone Town’s Forodhani Park transforms into an open-air food market. Skip the fish kebabs and head straight to the vendors selling urojo, a thick mango and tamarind soup served alongside chickpea fritters, boiled potatoes, cassava flakes, chutney, and as much hot sauce as you dare. Follow it up with hand-pressed sugar cane juice with ginger and lime. Between Mizingani Street and the beach. Photo by Georgia Popplewell. This appeared in the May/June 2011 issue.
Enroll in an afternoon class at the Dhow Countries Music Academy and learn how to play taarab music—a blend of Swahili poetry and Egyptian, Indian, Indonesian, and Western sounds. The instruments played include the violin, cello, oud, qanun (similar to the zither), ney flute, and tabla drums. Or simply watch professional musicians perform. Old Customs House, Mizingani Road, 255/7774-16529 or 255/2422-34050, zanzibarmusic.org. Photo courtesy of Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy. This appeared in the May/June 2011 issue.
The crumbling architecture of Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the town’s carved doors are one of its most recognizable features. I spent a lot of time searching for the door of Swahili merchant Tippu Tip, a notorious 19th-century slave and ivory trader who grew fabulously wealthy from his exploits in the interior of Africa. He showcased his wealth by slapping Stone Town’s most elaborately carved door on the front of his mansion in the mysteriously named Suicide Alley. If you can find Suicide Alley (it’s unmarked, near the Shangani Post Office in Stown Town), keep your eyes on the ground: the alternating black-and-white tiles of Tippu Tip’s front stoop might be the first thing you see. The house is now inhabited by several families, so be respectful when taking pictures and exploring the area.
In Kizimkazi, a small fishing village on Zanzibar's south coast, kids play in the sand at low tide. Fishing boats, a symbol of the village's livelihood, can be seen grounded in the sand waiting for the tide to come in for the next day's catch.
236 Hurumzi, named for the street it’s on, may be Zanzibar’s most exquisite hotel. The rooms are named after sultans, merchants, princesses and explorers, and the historical bric-a-brac dotting the walls give it an elegant, museum-y quality. At its foundation is the English-language bookstore A Novel Idea, and across the narrow alleyway that is Hurumzi street are a motley group of shops stuffed with souvenirs and curated boutiques. 236 Hurumzi's rooftop bar and restaurant is one of the tallest structures in town; clambering up the wooden stairs, taking off your shoes at the top, and reclining (or flopping, depending on how you feel after a day of sightseeing) on the embroidered cushions is a rite of passage for some Zanzibar travelers. Even if you're not sleeping like a sultan of yore at the hotel, you can still enjoy a drink and the view.
If you travel anywhere in East Africa, you’ll become acquainted with the women’s garment known as kanga: a bolt of cloth worn any number of ways and featuring a Swahili proverb printed along the bottom. Zanzibari kanga are well-known all over the world. In Stone Town’s House of Wonders museum, there’s even a room dedicated to their sayings. Kanga with pleasant words (“Upendo ni tunda la moyo”: Love is comfort to the heart) are given as gifts. Kanga with warnings (“Upelelezi ni sumu ya mapenzi”: Spying is poisonous to love) can be worn as a subtle message from the wearer to another. Kanga are sold all over the island. Depending on the size and the quality of the fabric, expect to pay between 10,000 and 30,000 Tanzanian shillings (between $8-20). The kanga above was a gift to my mother and translates roughly to “Thank you, mother, for your good parenting.” BE WARNED: Speak with the shopkeeper, or a translator, to make sure you know what you're getting. I bought a pretty kanga that I thought had something to do with love. It actually had more to do with promiscuity, which I eventually learned after forcing a reluctant and horrified friend to translate it for me.
If you step off the ferry in Stone Town and don't know anything about Zanzibar, the House of Wonders (or Beit al-Ajab, as it's also known) has you covered. Just a few steps away from the ferry terminal, you'll get a crash course in Swahili history. The House was built by Sultan Barghash bin Said in 1883 and now that he's gone, it houses the Museum of History & Culture of Zanzibar & the Swahili Coast. The inner courtyard is the unlikely home to a huge Swahili sailing vessel and an old car that belonged Zanzibar's first president (didn't know Zanzibar had a president, other than the Tanzanian president? Yeah, neither did I. This is why you're in the right place to learn about these things.) Despite the many cool - even, I daresay, wondrous - items in the museum, it was actually known as the House of Wonders because it was the first building in Zanzibar to boast electricity and the first building in East Africa to have an elevator. Now that those things have become commonplace and boring, you can do a scavenger hunt through the building to find other wonders. Search for David Livingstone's medicine chest (let me just say - I do not think he ventured into central Africa adequately prepared), a Christmas-themed kanga, and a centuries-old charm that reportedly contains the nose of a dog. As if that weren't enough, the gift shop is pretty well-stocked with interesting curios, too.
In search of Zanzibar's best snorkeling, I learned of Chumbe Island Coral Park (www.chumbeisland.com). Visitors to the protected coral reef are limited to those who stay on the small island. However, less expensive day trips can be arranged up to a few days in advance, provided the eco lodges are not fully booked. Visitors are invited to follow a schedule, planned according to the tides, that includes snorkeling and a nature walk. The reef, unlike much of Zanzibar, can be reached by swimming from the beach -- though small boats are also offered to ferry guests. The time formally allotted for snorkeling was too short, for a place so beautiful. However, to my delight, it was possible to forgo the nature walk for more snorkeling on my own after lunch. I'm sure I would have enjoyed the nature walk too -- but with just one day and on a snorkeling mission, I thoroughly enjoyed more time on the reef. So glad I asked! FYI, to protect the reef, no SCUBA diving is allowed and snorkeling is only permitted during hours when the tide is sufficiently high. The mobile app for afar.com accurately shows Chumbe Island off the coast of Zanzibar, not far from Stone Town. However, on the regular website, the pin in the map appears incorrectly on Stone Town, Zanzibar. Click on "view larger map" for the actual location.
I have heard the mysterious word, Zanzibar, my whole life. After Mt. Kilimanjaro and photo safari in the Serengeti, etc., my son and I kicked back a few days on the fabled Zanzibar Island. While there, we took a snorkeling trip to a small off-shore island. The water was warm, calm & clear, with a wide assortment of coral and fish life. We stayed at the Matemwe Beach Village on the northeastern side of the island. A nice spot with good service, food, pool, and accommodations. It's a must if visiting Tanzania.
According to AFAR local expert Kerry John-Davis, those seeking local flair should head to Stone Town, on the island of Zanzibar, which was once a stop on the Arabian spice route. "I love to sit on the veranda at the Africa House Hotel and drink kahawa, coffee brewed with cardamom, ginger, and chili pepper, while snacking on fresh dates." This appeared in the November/December 2014 issue. Photo by Sandi/Flickr.
According to AFAR local expert Kerry John-Davis, those seeking local flair should head to Stone Town, on the island of Zanzibar, which was once a stop on the Arabian spice route. "The town is a great base for snorkeling tours of the archipelago, but I often just browse the labyrinthine alleyways for Arabian brass lamps, Tinga Tinga paintings from local artists, and, yes, spices—I go to House of Spices for cloves and mchaichai (lemongrass tea)." This appeared in the November/December 2014 issue. Photo courtesy of the House of Spices.
Chumbe Island is just off the coast of Tanzania, near Zanzibar. I spent several days here enjoying one of the last untouched coral reefs along this part of the coast. Though pollution has been a problem elsewhere, Chumbe Island is still pristine. See it while you can!
I spent several days at Chumbe Island Coral Park. It's has one of the few remaining untouched coral reefs along this coastline. This was the sunrise that greeted me the day I was to return to Zanzibar, and from there back to Tanzania and home. What a beautiful send-off!
I was introduced to mandazi in Nairobi, Kenya, as I toured the local supermarket, looking for interesting things to bring home to try. Our local guide, Newton, told us of a delicious pastry made with coconut milk, but, alas, the market didn't have any that day. Fast forward 3 weeks, without any mandazi. We're now in Stone Town, Zanzibar, having had our first mandazi at one of the two tables at Sambusa Two Tables. Hot out of the fryer, they were incredible - puffy, crisp, sweet and savory, all at the same time. My quest was fulfilled! Or so I thought. The next morning, the "Foods of Zanzibar" tour was supposed to include a haluwa factory, but none were open that day to the public, so after tasting freshly squeezed sugar cane juice, an Indian curry "mix" bowl, date "juice", and haluwa from a stand, our guide asked us what else we might want to do. I asked to see mandazi being made, thinking we'd go to a bakery. But, no. A car ride out of Stone Town and 20 minutes later, my husband and I were sitting on Mrs. Mohammed's front porch as she patiently showed me how to make mandazi, vipopo (another fried pastry, doused in still warm cardamom syrup), and mboga (a vegetable dish made by pounding the greens in the wooden mortar, filling the mandazi for an East African calzone) from scratch, including grating a fresh coconut to make coconut milk. What an incredible experience! If you're in Zanzibar, go to Gallery Tours and ask for Juma. He'll know exactly what to do.
My guide leads me underground into a dark, damp, stone-walled holding cell which, I am told, was reserved for women and children only. The atmosphere is oppressive and stifling and my mind wanders to imagine what these poor souls must have felt, in our not-so-distant past, as they were ushered, fearful, silent, and waiting to be auctioned. This is all that remains today of an original fifteen holding cells, a grim relic of the sordid East African slave trade. As I escape the chilling chamber where so many suffocated and starved, I surface outside and spot a memorial, erected in 1998, an unapologetic, sobering monument depicting four slaves wearing original neck collars and chains, their expressions beaten and devoid of hope at becoming nothing more than a commodity. I am told that the Anglican church was built, symbolically, on the site of the slave whipping post, where a slave’s value was determined by whether or not he cried out in pain. In my opinion, being accompanied by a quality official guide will really enrich your understanding of this incredible Zanzibari monument and bring it to life.
I love to watch sunsets. I find them to be lively yet soothing. When I travel, I’m always on the lookout for a good sunset spot... We flew to Zanzibar after a fantastic safari in northern Tanzania. After checking into the hotel, we took a short walk to the beach. Stone Town is a busy area and the beach was alive with families enjoying a Sunday afternoon. We found a quiet spot at a beachfront restaurant and watched teens doing acrobatics in the sand. When the sun began to set, the entire horizon lit up in intense shades of bright orange.
This place is just bursting with character, a beautiful grand building set amongst the cultural fusion of architecture, labyrinth of streets and rickety mildewed colonial buildings of central Stone Town. As you walk in through the grand front doors, every corner and wall space is crammed-full with Arabic and Swahili furniture, artifacts and antiques as its old, creaky, grand staircase leads you into comforting plush rooms with exotic Arabic-tiled bathrooms and big mahogany beds. This is definitely my choice of place to stay, the food is good, the pool is large and inviting, and it is fantastically close to all of Stone Town’s shops and attractions.
A market experience like no other out there. The smells, the colours, more smells, the faces, the flies, and did I mention the smells?! Stone Town is a beautiful historic part of Zanzibar, which should be on every traveler's list. The market is small, but offers a look into a very different culture from the one we're more familiar with in the western world.
A visit to Stone Town would not be complete without a shopping trip. The town echoes with a grandiose atmosphere of a bygone era, the once perfectly decorated Arab mansions with grand balconies are chipped and peeled at the edges, and the extravagant crumbling coral stone buildings evoke a nostalgic feeling of a time when this town was saturated with wealth from the lucrative trade route. Wind your way through its labyrinth of World Heritage listed streets, past the impressive and intricately carved Zanzibar and Gujarati wooden doors, stopping for an ice cream and taking in the fusion of European, Arabic, Swahili, and Indian architecture. Then stop at one of its myriad artisan and curio shops to peruse the delicately ornamented mahogany chests, decorative lamps, brass ornaments, exotic jewelry, and tribal carvings on offer. The Memories of Zanzibar shop is a good a place to start, being centrally located behind the Africa House Hotel in Suicide Alley.
This lodge offers a private island experience with the option of experiencing the Swahili architecture, music, and culture of Stone Town (Zanzibar’s capital, 20 minutes away by boat plus a 90-minute drive). High-ceilinged, thatched bandas are footsteps from a flour-fine sand beach and are romantically furnished with elaborately carved wooden beds. For those who want a change of scene, verandas and shaded beach beds offer a variety of places to sleep off all the early morning safari wake-up calls. One mile in circumference, Mnemba Island has permanent residents that include poodle-sized Suni and rabbit-sized Ader’s duiker antelope, breeding doves, and enormous terrestrial coconut crabs. Sunbathers can spot dolphins from the beach year-round, and scuba divers might encounter the occasional whale shark.
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