SLOWING DOWN IN STONE TOWN
On the ferry from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar, for the first time in my life, I rode first-class. The air-conditioned boat deck was 100 per cent worth the five extra bucks, which at the time, felt exorbitant since my brain been hot wired to count in Kenyan shillings since August 2014. It’s a breathtaking two-hour sail to Zanzi through the sapphire Indian Ocean, whose sparkling vista is broken up only by the occasional fishing boat or pleasure craft. You can book tickets to and from the island at the Azam Marine office in Dar or Unguja. For more information on logistics, scroll to the Know Before You Go section at the bottom of this page.
I understand why Zanzibar is a bucket-list destination for many travellers around the world. Yet untouched by the detachment and hustle of urban living, it’s one of few tropical havens where you can swim with whale sharks, buy a bonafide Tanzanite at the source, and immerse yourself in a unique collision of Swahili, Arabic and Indian culture. Its historic centre, Stone Town, has no equal — an enchanting settlement of coral stone buildings, cobblestone streets, and intricately-carved wooden doorways.
I spent three days on Unguja, Zanzibar’s main island, after a week in Dar es Salaam in February 2015. Were it not for the humidity, it’s the kind of place I would have happily spent a month — reading, writing, experimenting with seafood, and getting lost in the old architecture and peaceful pace of life. Stone Town is an excellent place to eat, drink, watch Premier League football and enjoy the perks of living pole pole (slowly in Swahili). If you’re on a tight schedule, consider the itinerary below, but if you’ve got time, I’d recommend an expanded tour of this gorgeous archipelago that includes whale-watching, a visit to the spice and seaweed farms, a couple of white sand beaches and snorkelling.
Day One: On the Streets of Stone Town
If you’ve already got a visa for Tanzania, you don’t need one to visit Zanzibar. Nevertheless, the entire archipelago is considered a semi-autonomous state, so you will need to line up at your port of entry to have your passport stamped and luggage inspected. To my relief, my friends and I were in and out the proverbial door in under two hours, and rolling our squeaky suitcases along the cobblestone streets of Stone Town in no time.
You will almost certainly be told by a cab driver in Unguja that everything worthwhile is too far away to be reached on foot. On the contrary, the Stone Town area is quite walkable, and within 15 minutes of rolling along the main road, we had reached the Africa House Hotel. We would be staying with at a friend’s flat, but were kindly allowed to leave our bags at reception until she finished her day at work.
To get to Stone Town from the port, make a right at the exit, follow the main road along the water, past the Old Fort and Forodhani Park, and go through the small tunnel at the end of the road that heads away from the water.
ART, ALLEYS AND ARCHES
We wasted no time in this vibrant UNESCO World Heritage Site. Stone Town is an exhilarating maze of tiny alleyways lined with bicycles, bazaars, canvas paintings, baskets, boda bodas, drooping power lines, and chalk boards displaying the latest Premier League scores. It’s a delicious sensory experience, marked by the smell of fried chapati, paint, roasting fish and ocean breeze; and the sound of distant ferry horns, TVs playing the football match, and puttering motorbike engines.
The oldest part of Zanzibar City, Stone Town flourished as the centre of the spice and slave trades in the 19th century. The archipelago itself has been occupied by Bantu-speaking peoples for thousands of years, and it was not until the early 16th century that its residents had any significant, lasting contact with Western or Middle Eastern traders. Stone Town’s rich history of clashing cultures is evident in its early 19th century verandas, wooden doors and baraza benches — the unique offspring of traditional Indian, Arab, Persian, European and African design.
I loved the Zanzibar doors the most — masterpieces so finely carved and decorated with brass studs, pastel colours, columns and patterns, they seemed somewhat out of place in the crumbling, plain buildings they so often framed. I felt as though each door had a unique story; secrets acquired over centuries of comings and goings that could only be unravelled if I were to open them. I imagine that such intriguing doors must shield equally intriguing affairs within; if not now, then hundreds of years ago.
As an aside, Terhas and Basmah, whom I had travelled with from Tanzania to Zanzibar, agreed over cinnamon gelato at Amore Mio (no longer in service, but try the TAMU Gelateria instead!), that the shopping is much better in Zanzibar than in Dar es Salaam. If you’re coming from that direction, you may want to save your souvenir purchases for the island, whose alleyway craft shops hold a much wider variety of trinkets, including hand-sewn dolls, coasters, and jua kali metal and textile work. We ended our day with delicious chapati wraps on the patio of the Stone Town Café (about TSh 12,000 per meal), in Shangani on Kenyatta Road. It’s just past the Old Post Office, and a wonderful place to people watch over an affordable meal.
Day Two: A Dark Glimpse into Zanzibar’s Past
We hadn’t had our fill of wandering. Our second day thus, was spent on foot, strolling through the alleyways and historical sites of Stone Town. Our first stop was the Old Fort, which we had passed on Mizingani Road after exiting the port the day prior.
THE OLD FORT
The Old Fort is the oldest stone building in Zanzibar, built in the 17th century by the Sultanate of Oman when they seized the island from the Portuguese. At the time, the Omani controlled the archipelago, Mombasa (in Kenya) and the entire Swahili coast. It was built to prevent retaliation and attack, but over the centuries, has had a variety of creative uses, from a prison to a tennis club.
Today, the fort is primarily used for its amphitheatre and cultural centre, where dances, workshops and music shows are regularly held. It’s also got a row of knick knack vendors, in the event you can’t find what you’re looking for in the swath of craft shops hidden in Stone Town’s alleyways.
FORODHANI PARK AND THE HOUSE OF WONDERS
Adjacent to the Old Fort on Mizingani Road is one of Zanzibar’s most famous landmarks: the House of Wonders. The former sultan’s residence, built in 1883, it it said to have the largest doors in East Africa. It was named the House of Wonders for its electricity and running water, the likes of which had never been seen before in Zanzibar. I wish we could have visited the cultural museum inside, but the House of Wonders has been closed to the public since 2012 for renovations. As of this blog’s posting date, it had not been reopened, but it’s well worth a walk to the seafront to admire it from the outside.
Directly in front of both the Old Fort and House of Wonders are the Forodhani Gardens, which are tranquil at least, during the daytime. When the sun is up, the gardens make up a gorgeous public park with an ocean view, ample shade and bench space, along with a couple of reasonably-priced cafés where young Zanzibar couples sip the day away. It’s a lovely place to have a cold drink, watch the sail boats, the movement of the turquoise tide, and the daily commute from Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam. But don’t look for peace and quiet in the gardens at night, when they host a lively lamp-lit food market, whose vendors infuse the salty air with the smell of barbecued lobster, shrimp and other seafood delicacies, while musicians and knick knack sellers stalk visitors for extra cash.
THE CHURCH AND THE SLAVE MARKET
From the gardens, we walked to what is undoubtedly the most disturbing and eye-opening, ‘attraction’ in Zanzibar: the island’s old slave quarters, found beneath St. Monica’s Lodge in the heart of Stone Town. Zanzibar was home to one of the world’s last open slave markets, presided over by Arab traders until its closure in the late 1800s. The former slave quarters — suffocating underground cellars without windows or toilets — are beneath the guesthouse, and open for public viewing at a cost of TSh 7,000. The tour is free if you stay at the guesthouse, although I couldn’t image sleeping above such a haunting site.
Our tour guide Christopher, who calls himself Zanzibar’s Morgan Freeman lookalike, escorted us into the depths of the claustrophobia-inducing prison, and attempted to lighten the mood by pointing out that the human shackles dangling from the ceiling are actually snow chains from Canadian Tire. More than 100,000 people visit the old slave quarters each year, where it is estimated 15,500 slaves were imported from the mainland for sale to markets in Arabia, Persia, Egypt and other countries in the northern ports of the Indian Ocean.
Our tour wrapped up at the nearby Anglican Cathedral Church of Christ, whose altar is built upon the former site of the whipping post, where slaves were tortured to test their mettle and determine their worth at an open auction.
Desperate to end our day on a lighter note, that evening, Terhas, Basmah and I found ourselves at the doorstep of the Africa House Hotel once again. This time, we weren’t there to collect luggage, but to watch the stunning sunset over cocktails from the hotel balcony. The Africa House Hotel really does have an unparalleled view of the ocean and evening beach commotion — a view it leverages to charge high prices for drinks, which go for about CAD 10 each (or TSh 17,000). But it’s a beautiful white terrace that stands above many Stone Town rooftops, offering a unique view of the winding city, its architecture and the ado below.
Once you’re done with mojitos and and Mai Tais, I recommend a walk down to the beach to watch Zanzibar’s famous informally-trained gymnasts, who often practice elite parkour and capoeira on the sand in the cool of dusk.
Day Three: Sand and Seafood
Feeling a little lazy after an evening of high altitude cocktails, I spent my last full day in Zanzibar rolling around in sand and seashells at Upendo Beach, a beautiful stretch of white and blue along the Michamvi Peninsula. ‘Upendo’ means love in Swahili, and I dreamed of turquoise tides and hammocks in the cab, which we hired to take us there and back for TSh 60,000. It’s about an hour-and-a-half from the city by road, and crosses a good chunk of the Unguja.
It felt good to get out of the Stone Town bubble. Stone Town is a wonderful place, but its souvenir and gelato shops are far removed from how most Zanzibarians actually live. About half of the archipelago’s 1.3 million residents live below the poverty line, on annual income of less than USD 250 per year. We could see bits and pieces of their plight on our way to Upendo, as we drove past subsistence farms, struggling trade posts, and villages whose homes and schools were in varying states of disrepair.
Upon our arrival, we parked ourselves, feeling somewhat guilty for our privilege, at Upendo Zanzibar, an upscale hotel and spa on the beach that lets visitors spend the afternoon in its outdoor lounge with purchase of a meal or drink. We chowed down on a delicious fruit, yogurt and granola brunch — the only guests on the patio that day — and watched the waves roll in and out until we could ignore their call no longer. Terhas, Basmah and I danced in the Indian Ocean, just to say that we did, collected sea shells, and chatted with the Maasai craftsman selling beadwork to tourists. We wondered what it would be like to eat at the famous seafood Rock Restaurant, located extraordinarily on top of a rock in the ocean, visible from the hanging lounge chairs of Upendo Zanzibar. Alas, it was out of our price range. Maybe next time.
There are piles of spectacular beaches in Zanzibar, but Upendo is among the quieter ones. If you’re looking a hassle-free place to relax, read a book and enjoy a mimosa, there’s no better place.
FORODHANI FOOD MARKET
When the waters started to retreat with low tide, we made our way back to Stone Town. Our gracious host was having a party that night, and over Serengeti beers, we chatted football, work and all things East Africa with a diverse crowd of foreign workers and Zanzibarians. Like most Zanzibari parties, this one ended with a midnight snack at the world-renowned Forodhani Food Market, a seafront carnival that opens at dusk with dozens of chefs whipping up treats under the muted glow of table lanterns. I would be cautious around the seafood, which may or may not be fresh, but the Zanzibar pizza, made with egg, dough, cheese and veggies is always a favourite of locals and tourists. Each dish goes for between TSh 2,000 and TSh 8,000.
While the Forodhani Food Market is an evening hot spot, there’s lots to do in Stone Town at night. It’s a beautiful walk to begin with, its wooden doors illuminated by coloured lamps and string lights, and there’s always a party somewhere, whether it’s jazz night at 6 Degrees South or pool and craft beer at Sweet Easy, both on Shangani Road. Bottoms up!
Day Four: The Journey Home
My mini-vacation had come to an end. Over 10 days, I had gone from Dar es Salaam’s largest newsroom, to an ankle-deep trash pile where I reported a public health story, to the lounge chairs of Upendo Beach in Zanzibar, one of the most beautiful tropical paradises I have ever had the good fortune to travel to. It was time to return to Kenya, where I would resume my role as a full-time reporter for Nation Media Group in Nairobi.
Unwilling to part with five extra dollars twice, I sat in an economy seat and peered over the ocean as the ferry whizzed past fishing boats and catamarans. I lament that I didn’t have more time to spend in Stone Town – as far as living goes, I think pole pole is the way to go: breathe more deeply, eat more slowly, reflect more frequently, and in the end, feel everything more fiercely.
Know Before You Go
- Book your ferry to and from Zanzibar through Azam Marine Co Ltd., which has economy fares for USD 35 each, or USD 40 for business class. For the sake of the air conditioning and the view, shoot for business. The ferry has daily departures at 7 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 3:45 p.m. Don’t count on showing up and getting a ticket – locals use this ferry for commuting to work, so every seat will fill up. Book at least a day or two in advance.
- Many cab drivers will tell you that hotels and attractions in Stone Town are far, but it’s a small place and we reached everything on foot with ease.
- If you don’t want to book a formal tour in Zanzibar, ask your hotel to recommend reliable cab drivers who can take you to the places you want to visit. Pay no more than TSh 60,000 for a cab to Upendo Beach.
- Check the times for low tide before heading to any beach in Zanzibar, or you’ll be disappointed when you get there to find that all the water is gone.
Where to Stay
- Zanzibar has a booming Airbnb market of affordable, safe places to stay, with most private bed and bathrooms going for USD 75 per night. Most accommodations will offer WiFi, but I urge you to prioritize air conditioning!
- The Africa House Hotel has a fantastic location in central Stone Town, near a variety of cafés and restaurants. It also has the best rooftop bar in town! Air conditioned rooms, inclusive of TV and WiFi start at around USD 100. Make sure to ask for an ocean view room. Reservations can be made via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.