Zanzibar is renowned for its crystal-clear azure seas and sandy beaches; its lush forests and mangroves teeming with wildlife; and its historic capital bustling with bazaars. The archipelago comprising Unguja, Pemba and around 50 smaller islands is certainly a jewel in East Africa’s tourism crown but there’s more to this intoxicating place than meets the holidaymaker’s eye. Thanks to an airport expansion project, several ethical luxury resorts and wealth of authentic attractions, the islands attract 200,000 visitors from around the world each year all eager to experience its cultural and creative riches. Here’s the KISUA guide to feel-good Zanzibar.
A UNESCO world heritage site, Stone Town is the old quarter of Zanzibar Town and comprises a maze of narrow, crumbling streets. Visit the Old Fort, House Of Wonders (a cultural museum crammed with artifacts), the Cathedral Church of Christ (built by missionaries on the site of the old slave market) Jaws Corner (where men congregate to argue about politics) and Mercury’s Bar, named after Freddie Mercury, Zanzibar’s most famous son. Have sundowners at Africa House Hotel and then after dark, head to the waterfront Forodhani Gardens for the street food market. KISUA was netted by fisherman Johnson, a young man with an impressive afro, who steered us to his stall sizzling with his day’s catch, and plied us with beakers of sugar cane juice.
Stone Town is also a shopper’s delight. The dukas on Gizenga Street, Kenyatta Road and Hurumzi Street trade in souvenirs, fabrics, leather goods, Tinga Tinga paintings, antiques and curios. A more earthy shopping experience is found at Darajani market, which sells fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. If you buy a chicken for supper here, be prepared to kill it yourself. Meanwhile ethical fashion stores Upendo Means Love (kanga clothing), Fahari (jewellery and bags) and Moto (beauty products) are run by women’s collectives and local co-ops.
Go on a walking tour of a spice plantation to learn why Zanzibar has been dubbed the Spice Islands. At the Kizimbani Spice Farm our guide Benjamin dug up cassava root, encouraged us to crush curry leaves between our fingers to take in their fragrance and taught us about the aphrodisiac qualities of nutmeg. This abundant landscape also overflows with lemons, durians, bungos and annatto, the red seeds of which double up as a local lipstick. At the end of the tour, a farmer appeared brandishing a huge knife. Within a flash of his blade, he hacked open a jackfruit and soon we were all licking its sweet juices from our fingers.
Festival of the Dhow Countries
This long-standing Swahili cultural festival begins with a dhow race and then nine days of festivities in June and July include musical performances, film screenings and community-focused workshops.
Sauti za Busara
Billing itself as “African music under African skies,” Sauti za Busara (Sounds of Wisdom) encompasses four days of music, dance and masquerade in February. Its mix of traditional and contemporary artists attracts a global audience.
Jahazi Literary & Jazz Festival
This long weekend of open-air concerts, readings, dinners and parties in August aims to foster “inspiring learning through literature and music.”
A former Omani merchant’s house, this boutique hotel is tucked away on a quiet Stone Town street and still has its original huge brass studded door, typical of the town’s Arabian architecture.
A remote resort in Pemba made up of a handful of thatched suites with private pools, plus a spa, dive centre and bar overlooking a deserted beach. Pemba has seen little of the tourism enjoyed by Unguja, making Fundu integral to the local community.
Fumba Beach Lodge
Fumba’s private cabins and spa nestles in the shadows of mighty baobab trees and lies within the west coast Menai Bay Conservation Area.
So much care was taken not to disturb the flora and fauna when Unguja Lodge was built that some lodges have trees growing through walls. KISUA arrived on the last day of Eid-ul-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, to find the neighboring Kizimkazi village in party mode. Local bands gave way to the distinctly irreligious sounds of Rihanna by the end of the night.
Images and words: Helen Jennings