Zanzibar. Just saying it sounds like a warm breeze on a powder-soft beach. And the island is as it sounds: blessed with a warm, sultry climate; beaches with sand so soft in parts it feels like walking on flour; and reefs so rich with coral and tropical fish you feel as if you’re swimming in a giant aquarium. Comprising two large islands fringed by many more, the archipelago vies with the Serengeti as Tanzania’s most precious natural asset, able to mesmerize the most jaded traveler into meditative contemplation.
Apart from its beaches, which reach deep into the ocean, turning the shoreline into unreal shades of turquoise blue, Zanzibar offers island-hoppers a uniquely East African flavor. From the tall traditionally garbed Maasai striding across the beach and Swahili and Indian traders in long salwar kameez and embroidered skull caps, to the women harvesting seaweed, their bodies and heads chastely wrapped in colorful kangas, the blend of cultures is as identifiable as the cuisine. Zanzibar kitchens produce delicious flavors, a combination of Arabic and Indian influences that showcase the islands’ abundance of coconut milk, freshly ground spices, and even fresher seafood.
A warm, hospitable people, the phrase you will hear most often, after the typical East African greeting of Jambo, karibu (Hello, welcome) is Pole pole! (Slowly, slowly!). Haste and stress is so unusual that when the Zanzibari witness it in travelers, they do so with an incredulous air of concern. It is incomprehensible to them that you are on holiday with your Blackberry and expect to remain in touch or that you should care so deeply when your breakfast order is misheard. What do these matter when you are in paradise?
Comprising two large islands, Unguja (commonly referred to as Zanzibar) and Pemba, the archipelago’s strong draw is Stone Town (picture above), center of the East Coast trade during the 19th century and the best-preserved trade center of its type in Africa. For many, Stone Town is the heart of Swahili culture, home to taraab music and spicy tea, a labyrinth of narrow streets lined with tall crumbling buildings, minarets that resound with the sonorous call to prayer, and carved doorways through which a lifestyle unchanged for centuries can be glimpsed. While it is a popular tourist destination, Stone Town is no sanitized historical re-creation, but an inhabited sprawl and refuse and rubble are as real as the inhabitants who scurry along, getting on with the business of daily life and for the most part, paying little heed to the influx of tourists.
Like Lamu and Mafia, Zanzibar’s beaches offer the perfect reprieve from the excitement and thrill of tracking the Big 5 on bone-jarring roads on the mainland. Here you’ll find wild life drifting on the tide, a magical world unfurling beneath you; take walks on beaches as pristine as when the sultan set foot on them almost 200 years ago; and be lulled to sleep by the rhythmic lapping of the ocean. Others come to Zanzibar or Pemba as a single destination, spending 2 weeks unwinding on the beach, mastering nothing but the instinctive urge to keep picking up their camera to capture yet another image of white sands lapped by teal-green waters and fishermen unfurling their triangle-shape sails as the dawn parade of dhows drifts across the reef. Whatever you decide, you’ll leave pole pole.
The name Zanzibar (Zinj ib-Bar) means Land of Blacks in Arabic and probably alludes to the dark and pivotal role the island played in the 19th-century slave trade, traces of which can still be found in historical Stone Town.