Author: Fiona Ludbrook
Date of Trip: September 2013
Allow at least two days to experience as much of Stone Town, Zanzibar’s colourful, if crumbling capital, as extensively as possible.
Top of your list, should be a visit to the Palace Museum, (Beit- al Sahel). Here you will find magnificent antique Islamic and art deco furniture and architecture. For generations, it was home to the Aga Khan and his forbears. It is a celebration of the rich Arabic heritage of Zanzibar and its ruling family, with intricately carved detail, a harem section, incredible views over the harbour and burial sites of royal family members.
Across the road is the harbour and night market precinct, with glorious plantings. This is the place to sample the fabulous local cuisine at the many food stalls that set up on dusk. Nearby, are the docks and landing point for the Dar Es Salaam-Zanzibar ferry.
Hotel Tambo, my accomodation, could not have been more delightful, despite the fact it was “dry”, with a complete ban on alcohol. The Tambo occupies an old palace, close to the heart of the port, with all the great traditions of Islamic architecture: a central courtyard with a fountain, mosaics with glorious geometrical design and stylised representations of local flowers and animals. I was lucky to be given “suite Tambo”, a truly beachfront room, with glorious carved antique furniture, a traditional stone and mosaic bath and a balcony adjoining the beach. Little was I to know, just how sweet, my lively beachfront room would become during the course of my stay. Indeed, the very location and ever changing action on the beach, along with the most spectacular views of unique maritime gems, were to become the saving grace of my time in Stone Town.
The lively bar next door along the beach, meant the restrictions of my dry hotel, were pretty much annulled and the local food I tried reflected the legendary spice traditions of Zanzibar. The food is spicy, with emphasis on cloves yet subtle and delicious.
I had no intention of wasting my first afternoon. Conscious that Zanzibar was a conservative Muslim destination and I was a woman travelling solo, I donned a traditional hijab, much to the pleasure and surprise of the hotel staff and ventured to explore the local historic foreshore and port area. I was not hassled once and was treated with courtesy and respect by the local men, who offered me directions when I was having trouble locating one of the museums I was anxious to visit.
On my first evening I enjoyed a divine cruise on a traditional dhow, sailing boat. Views across to Turtle Island and along the heritage palaces and wharf were almost surreal, as we cruised into a glowing, tropical sunset. Watching the crew skilfully hoist the sails and manoeuvre the wooden dhow was a joy in its own right. I indulged in the glorious local seafood that was on offer during the cruise. My only mistake, as refrigeration was limited to an ice chest. The cruise was but one experience of almost stepping back in time, during my all too brief stay.
I recommend hiring a guide to enhance your exploration of the narrow, winding streets of Stone Town, so named for its buildings largely constructed of local stone. My own guide was full of information and truly enhanced my knowledge and experience of its unique heritage. He led me to different examples of doors that are a hallmark of the city, took me to the birthplace of Freddy Mercury, the slave market site, memorial and holding quarters, inside the Anglican Church, where tributes to David Livingstone, the missionary explorer and anti- slavery activist are also to be found. My guide also helped me negotiate the local markets, with no pressure to buy souvenirs.
Make sure you allow time for checking out Stone Town’s magnificent and lively beachfront, both in the evening and early morning, when local action is at its height. I particularly enjoyed watching a group of local gymnasts gather in the evenings, setting up a springboard improvised out of a couple of old tyres and launch themselves off and into the air, in a series of spectacular vaults. This nightly entertainment was free for all to enjoy. Dawn saw the beachfront taken over by small boat owners cleaning their vessels, an extraordinary array of boats carrying fishermen to sea on the outgoing tide, from the tiny, barely seaworthy rafts to huge traditional dhows. There were large families walking, with men leading their harem of women, joggers and swimmers with personal trainers and the workers, setting up the hotel lounges on the foreshore, or painstakingly sweeping the grounds with short brush brooms that necessitated bending. Turtle Island would briefly reveal itself for an hour or two, in all its glory, only to disappear again into the haze. Later in the day saw the tourists join locals, enjoying the water and views, a parade of hawkers selling local handcrafts and sunglasses, as well as the fleet of water taxis and pleasure boats, with captains touting for business. It was like living on an exquisite, exotic film set, only better. For a brief moment, I was included as a visiting “extra”. For the locals, this is their daily reality; to an outsider, breathtakingly beautiful!
If you are woman, be sure to dress modestly, so you are not offending the locals, who are largely conservative Muslims. Having done so, I received no negative attention from men and was treated with the utmost respect around the clock. Men too should avoid shorts or bare chests!
Allow a further day if you wish to undertake a spice farm tour, the national park or nearby turtle island.
I had planned on visiting a fishing village but due to ill health, had to cancel. This also left me with limited time to further indulge in the wonderful local cuisine, which remains a disappointment to this day!
However, my misfortune of becoming ill, certainly added another dimension to my Stone Town experience. The hotel staff went out of their way to assist with a speedy recovery, introducing me to clove tea, a traditional remedy for upset stomachs and making sure I had plenty of drinking water. They checked on my well- being regularly to ensure I was okay and there was nothing I needed, making me feel exceptionally well looked after. I also had a wonderful time, simply observing the life on the beach, just outside my hotel room for a little over twenty four hours. This unique position of voyeur led me deeper into my knowledge of the local population at both work and leisure and proved an unexpected highlight of my stay in Stone Town!