From a few hundred feet as the aeroplane nears touch-down, the view is spectacular. Long bars of white sand trace the outline of the island. Waters of teal blend with turquoise, turquoise mixes with azure which turns deep cobalt in the vast ocean. From above, a carpet of emerald green covers the island. Whiffs of salty ocean air fill the plane cabin. You may be a resident of a bustling sea-side metropolis familiar with such aromas but there is something inviting in the sights, sounds and smells of Zanzibar that promises to be a memorable adventure taking you back in time to its torrid past, letting you dive in its colourful waters and lulling you to slothful indulgence.
Zanzibar is an archipelago about 40 km off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. It consists of two main ear-shaped islands that look like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle: Zanzibar, the main island housing the capital city with its historic center of Stone Town and Pemba, known as the green island due to its hilly terrain and lush greenery.
A good vacation can start with a hassle-free visa process, where winding queues for in-person interviews are not mandatory. But if your idea of a great vacation is simply booking a flight and showing up at the destination, Zanzibar should be on top of your list. The visa is on arrival and the one terminal airport is small enough for you to get through immigration before Usain Bolt crosses the 1oo meters tape. Driving out, the view of the beautifully clear ocean water is never too out of sight. Close to the airport, the roads could be bumpy with sand from the beaches filled in them but they get better as you navigate the short distance of 5 km to the center of Zanzibar City or to any of the hotels dotted along the many beaches around the island.
There is a mix of hotels to choose from — Zanzibar being one of the older cities in Africa, there are historic hotels that have been renovated recently, new posh ones but also plenty of budget accommodations. Many of these will have a room with a view of the vast blue expanse of the ocean or the shoreline of the Tanzanian coast. We checked into a gorgeous airy accommodation right on top of the ocean. From the comforts of a spacious balcony that had a swing to take in the balmy currents, we watched beautifully crafted dhows with crisp masts gently sail with the winds.
Dhows are a ubiquitous part of the seascape here. They transport most of the essentials and people from one part of the island to the other. Some scholars suggest that dhows are an import from India many centuries ago when traders began to settle in Zanzibar. But with Zanzibar having been shaped by many hands, it is difficult to assert such appropriations. Try getting on a dhow, nonetheless, to get a feel of life in slow motion.
The most obvious thing to do for lunch while on an island is to have some fresh seafood like lobster, clams and oyster. Zanzibar has many excellent restaurants that serve fresh seafood from the catch in the morning and it goes well with light couscous washed down with coconut water.
The other certain thing to do while on an island is to sleep off the lovely seafood. It is muggy to be walking around so siesta doesn’t do any harm. As the sun begins to lose its intensity, it is a good time to check out the many curio shops in the old part of town that stock all kinds of Africa inspired souvenirs, from masks to beautifully painted portraits of Masai tribesmen.
By the time evening winds down over Zanzibar, you’d feel the need for quick refueling stopover. The best seat in town to watch the African sunset is from the historic Africa House hotel. It offers bang-on view of the sun drowning in the ocean. With a sprawling desk and a fully loaded bar made out of ageless teak, it is a place where every traveller worth his salt gathers to soak their parched throats with a cold beer or a cocktail and behold the everyday spectacle of sunset. Sometimes if there is a sporting crowd, there is so much revelry the evening could be mistaken as New Year’s Eve – until the dark of the twilight takes over. Yes, it is a touristy spot where none of the locals hang out but is filled with sun-tanned foreigners out to calm their nerves but it is a beautiful experience to have a cold sundowner with a bunch of strangers taking in a natural phenomenon.
Zanzibar was put on the map by the tradelines between the Indian subcontinent, Europe, Africa and the Middle-East. Thus it came to be a melting pot of Persians first who were joined by Indians, and later by Malays, Chinese, Arabs, etc. This mix of people continue to Zanzibar their home. They came together as traders and merchants dealing mostly in many coveted spices like the cloves, pepper, cash crops and ivory. Later in the 1600s onwards when Zanzibar fell in the hands of the Omani sultanate, slave trade was rampant with slaves being caught in large numbers and transported for the Arab rulers and Europeans.
Much of this history can be experienced today on foot by walking around Stone Town. From the Sultanate’s residence of the Palace of Wonders, the Old Fort built to guard the city in 1700’s from European invasions, Old Dispensary that a wealthy Indian trader built to the Slavery memorial, large part of the old town is preserved for tourists to get an understanding of what it must have been like in the past. The lanes in Stone Town are narrow and full of colourful houses with large wooden door that have nails on them. They now house spice shops of merchants from India selling everything from rugs to artefacts to spices and nuts. It is great to strike up conversations with several of them about their ancestry, how was it growing up on an island, do they have family back in India. If an Indian could go on a vacation abroad and still travel back in time before Independence, it would be possible only in Zanzibar.
But apart from travelling back in time, you could also travel down in space. Space that is fluid and blue. Zanzibar offers some fantastic dive sites in the world. And it is easy to book a scuba package or snorkelling one from many dive centers that operate along the islands. The boat ride to Pemba offers some good diving too – schools of dolphins, octopuses, parrot fish, groupers, corals of incredible shapes, sizes and colours, it is a great sport that the whole travelling party can try.
Zanzibar has a bit of everything for everyone – for the history buff, the adventurer or a leisure seeking traveller. It has seen explorers like David Livingston set sail and come back to its shores to proclaim “it is the most beautiful place on the earth.”
So take a cue from Billy Joel who sang:
I’ve got the old man’s car,
I’ve got a jazz guitar,
I’ve got a tab at Zanzibar,
Tonight, that’s where I’ll be…
Updated Date: Apr 09, 2017 16:53 PM