VOLANTE The tiny island of Zanzibar, locally known as Unguja, sits 15 miles off the coast of Tanzania, near Dar-Es-Salaam. A semi-autonomous region, it’s renowned for pristine beaches and rich history. Douglas Cruickshank offers this insider’s profile
Raissa Lara Lutolf Fasel
Douglas Cruickshank is a journalist, author, former editor at Salon, ex-Peace Corps volunteer, and citizen activist.
When you sail in to Zanzibar Island you’re immediately convinced you’ve arrived in a radically Photoshopped photograph. The Indian Ocean is impossibly blue, cerulean, or maybe just turquoise, and everything else is mind-blowingly vivid, clear. Giant aquatic creatures swim around psychedelic beds of coral. And you soon learn you have arrived in one of the world’s most historically rich destinations.
Zanzibar is the evocative, exotic land you always dreamed of, but with all the modern amenities, great food, rhythmic music, and friendly, sociable people. Yet visitors mostly mention diving, snorkelling, and yachting. Which is only part of it.
Once a key stopover during the slave-trading days, Zanzibar today remains a major spice-growing location and the birthplace of Swahili, which is widely spoken there. So is English. People also come for the Sauti za Busara, the Swahili Music Festival—three days in February of extraordinary African sounds, performed in the centre of a 15th-century Arab fort, the oldest building in Stonetown, largest city on the island, population, 18,000.
You can fly from Entebbe or any other east African city, or via mainland Tanzania by bus, then take a ferry. But the inspired guests rent a private yacht and sail over on their own. They quickly learn they’ve come to heaven.
Heaven could begin at Monsoon restaurant, next to Forodhani Food Gardens, where you may find yourself seduced by lobster and exquisite Tarab music. You eat, you listen, you fall in love with your companion. The restaurant also has a covered patio that is idyllic both day and night. For wilder sensations after dinner, stop by Freddie Mercury’s club. just a couple blocks away, perfect for after dinner dancing. Mercury grew up in Zanzibar before going on to international stardom.
Then take a walk over to the glorious market-place where you can score sweets—and more. The moon will be full; it’s always full in Zanzibar and the people everywhere are friendly, chatty and fun.
Day two ought to begin with an early walk on the beach. Then find your way to Ocean One for a snorkel cruise. Under the flawless clear water, you will be swimming among lionfish, turtles, giant clams, octopus, dolphins, eels, and all manner of multi-chrome sea creatures.
Ocean One will help you arrange a lunch picnic to one of the lush deserted islands about 30 minutes off of Zanzibar. They’ll supply the boat and also three hearty men to take you out and cook for you. You’ll cruise out to the island in a long wooden boat packed with a generous box of food—such as lobster, octopus, shellfish, and side dishes. Once you get to the island one of the men will catch several fish while the other will grill over an open fire and pass around drinks. (Though Zanzibar is 98 per cent Muslim, alcoholic beverages are widely available.) After stuffing yourself, you walk out the sandbar to greet the crabs, their eyes elevated on long stalks. When they see you, they run and burrow in the sand, leaving only their eyes sticking up to watch the intruders.
After some more food—another lobster, perhaps—you might cruise over to Prison Island, no longer a prison but home to many huge, friendly giant tortoises. They will eat as many greens as you’ll give them and very much appreciate you scratching their necks. The tortoises have their ages painted on their shells (they’re old)—one tradition I’m glad humans have not adopted.
A drive out to the slave quarters, where the slaves were warehoused before they were shipped out is a grim experience but important one, to stand where they stood while waiting for the sad journey ahead of them.
Continue up the coast to stroll upon the most remarkable beaches in the world. Prearrange with Ocean One to meet you and venture out to the reef in one of their swift inflatables. You will almost certainly encounter the dolphins along the way. We did, and my wife got so excited she jumped right in the water with them—the boat captain had to quickly turn around and retrieve her.
Under the pristine azure waters, you will soon be swimming among lionfish, turtles, giant clams (with lips like something Giorgio Armani would design), dolphins, eels and all manner of multi-chrome sea creatures.
On your cruise back to Stonetown, you get the full panoramic view of the plush island and its picturesque city. Take the time for a self-guided tour of the town. It is a dream experience, the perfect shopping destination, with a wealth of boutiques, cafés, body painting and henna salons, wood-carving and etching shops, proffering amazing fabrics and finished clothing, imaginatively designed dishes and glassware, and novelty T-shirts. And if you speak Swahili you’ll find the prices drop like a stone. The shops are eclectic to say the least—old engravings and etchings, beautifully crafted sandals; and the fantastic doors and dhows, which are built right in the centre of town—you are welcome to watch and take photos.
Don’t forget to ask one of the locals where you can see the dervishes perform. They are memorable, a wonder, and an absolute must. •
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