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The clear waters of the Indian Ocean lap a coastline of white sand, idyllic islands, Arabic architecture and atmospheric old ports. Navigate Zanzibar with the help of our blueprint guide
Chris McIntyre | Issue 109 | February 2010
Zanzibar: heavy with the promise of exoticism and romance, the name alone is enough to lure thousands of travellers to the island. More still visit neighbouring parts of this coastline, seeking their own slice of East African paradise.
It's easy to understand why: stretching for over 3,500km from northern Kenya, through Tanzania, into Mozambique's Quirimbas Archipelago, the Swahili Coast boasts chains of idyllic islands, turquoise waters teeming with marine life and a seashore dotted with small fishing villages and ancient trading centres.
For more than 2,000 years the Indian Ocean's monsoon winds have linked seafaring people from Persia, Arabia, the Indian subcontinent and Africa.
Initially, hunter-gatherers from the African interior set up fishing bases on this coast; treasure-seekers, from Egyptian pharaohs to Romans, followed. Commercially astute Arabs and Persians arrived on trading ships and, by AD60, a ships' guidebook had even been penned.
Huge quantities of goods, notably metals, timber, oil, spices and ivory - as well as thousands of slaves - left the prosperous coastal towns for distant shores. In exchange, Chinese porcelain, silk, tools, wine and coconuts arrived. Merchants and emissaries established settlements and businesses, inter-marrying and creating a rich multi-cultural society.
Subsequent influences from Portuguese navigators, Omani sultans and European colonialists have added to the mix.
Wander the streets of Stone Town and you'll see that the melting-pot mentality is still in evidence - from the graceful Arabic architecture to the diverse dishes on menus to the Kiswahili language, which developed as African Bantu words merged with elements of Persian and Arabic.
This heady mix of cultural diversity and paradisiacal Indian Ocean sands has, understandably, made Zanzibar and the Swahili Coast a popular destination. In recent years high visitor numbers have led to rapidly rising prices, and have made genuine cultural interactions and empty beaches increasingly hard to find.
However, the real experiences are still there, if you take the time to look beyond the burgeoning all-inclusive resorts, instead delving into hidden coves, traditional villages and offbeat islands. And with the credit crunch currently reducing visitors and rates, once busy beaches are quieter, accommodation deals abound and Robinson Crusoe fantasies really are more readily fulfilled.
Start with a pastry and a cup of freshly brewed coffee (Fairtrade from Tanzania) at the friendly Zanzibar Coffee House Café on Market St. Well sustained, head to nearby Darajani Market w off Creek Road. Weave between the rickety stalls, piled high with everything from exotic fruits and spices to sewing machines and car parts. Observe the hubbub or barter for edible souvenirs before wandering ten minutes down the main road to the Anglican Cathedral.
Originally the site of the island's slave market in the 18th and 19th centuries, the cathedral was founded in 1873 by missionaries. Official guides wait at the entrance; recruit one to understand the full horror of the market's past. For real insight, enter the dungeon inside neighbouring St Monica's Hostel, where hundreds of slaves were shackled before going to market. Above ground, a poignant sculpture of slaves chained in a pit is a stark reminder of their fate.
From here, explore the warren of alleys at Stone Town's heart. Visit shops in tiny, cramped buildings on Changa Bazaar and Hurumziy and Gizenga streets to seek out colourful tinga-tinga pictures, Maasai beaded jewellery, basketware and vibrant cotton kangas (wraps); it's worth hunting for the best quality. A few consciously ethical traders have opened outlets; the best are Moto (Hurumzi St) for fine palm basketry and weaving; Malkia (Mrembo Spa) for stylish clothing in ethnic fabrics; and Sasik (Gizenga St) for appliqué linens.
Wander by the trio of architectural gems on Mizingani Road - the grand four-storey Old Dispensary, the Palace Museum and the House of Wonders - before breaking for lunch at Mercury's (named after Queen star, Freddie, born in Zanzibar in 1946). Enjoy a cold drink and a stone-baked pizza on the waterfront deck of this Stone Town institution.
Afterwards, stroll along the seafront at Forodhani Gardens s, skirt along the battlements of the Omani Fort and head towards shady Kelele Square. For indulgence, join the Original Dhow Safaris' luxury sunset harbour cruise (departs Serena Inn at 4.30pm). Then feast on traditional fare from street stalls in Forodhani, spicy Indian in the exuberant Rendezvous Les Spices (Kenyatta Rd) or refined seafood at Beyt al Chai (Kelele Sq).
Zanzibar is a small island and tar roads make getting around easy. Base yourself in one or perhaps two places; virtually all the sights are available as day trips - and there's usually no need to book day-trips in advance.
With this in mind, where you choose to stay is critical to your experience. A few hotels are worth highlighting: Mnemba Island (www.mnemba-island.com) for decadent barefoot luxury; Fumba Beach Lodge (www.fumbabeachlodge.com) for the island's best dhow day-trip; Bellevue Bungalo
ws (www.bellevuezanzibar.com) for budget bliss; Mchanga Beach Lodge (www.mchangabeachlodge.com) for stylish seclusion; and Zanzibar Coffee House (www.riftvalley-zanzibar.com) for roof-top relaxing.
Wherever you choose, plan for five days on the coast and two in Stone Town, to soak up the atmosphere and shop for souvenirs.
Divers will find varied drop-offs and plenty of marine life to tempt them from the shore, especially to the Mnemba Island area.
For snorkellers, the protected reef around Chumbe Island offers probably the best coral gardens off the East African coast. Above the waterline, the vast inter-tidal zone reveals an array of dazzling starfish at low tide. A full-day, private dhow trip around the Menai Bay Conservation Ar
ea is hard to beat for sheer indulgence.
On dry land, a tour of a spice plantation has become a must-do for many, albeit rather clichéd. With a good guide on hand, the chance to pick and taste kitchen condiments as they grow is fascinating. Other indigenous island flora can be seen in Zanzibar's only national park, the Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park, an area stretching from the boardwalks of the coastal mangrove swamps to the colobus-inhabited trees along the island's main east-west highway.
Traditional skills in action can be seen at Nungwi's dhow-building harbour on the island's northern tip, while some of Stone Town's better Fairtrade shops welcome visitors to their progressive workshops.
For a look back in time, the ruins and conservation efforts at Maruhubi and Mtoni Palaces, 4km north of Stone Town, offer historical insights
The Swahili Coast has some exceptional dive sites, and both scuba novices and hard-core enthusiasts will find plenty of entertainment. Visibility is usually good (ten to 30-plus metres) year round, and water temperatures of 25-30ºC ensure longer dives are perfectly comfortable.
There are numerous dive centres, mainly PADI accredited, but it's worth shopping around for the best prices, and to check the centre's safety procedures. Be aware: there are rogue traders with dubious equipment who may behave recklessly - as well as dedicated, knowledgeable operators with a full understanding of local conditions and safety.
Novice divers and those seeking gentle reef excursions should focus their attention on the calmer, protected waters of Mafia Island Marine Park. For those with experience, a twin-centre trip including Pemba Island, at the northern reach of the Zanzibar Archipelago, and Mafia, offers contrast above and below sea and some great diving.
Start on the northern tip of Pemba: Swahili Divers (www.swahilidivers.com), based at Kervan Saray Beach, is run by a relaxed Turkish-Dutch couple.It's an unpretentious beach hangout centred on a five-star rated dive centre. The surrounding reefs boast some of the region's most challenging dives - often falling away in steep, deep drop-offs, with currents that can be fast-flowing and complex; experience is essential.
The wonderful treehouses of Chole Mjini are reason enough to come to Mafia, but its owner, Jean de Villiers, is a real expert on the surrounding marine park and a superb dive instructor; he's also in charge of the Mafia Island Whale Shark Conservation Project.
Mafia has a rich marine environment and some of the coast's finest dive sites. Sea-grass beds support spectacular corals, four species of turtles, great opportunities for sighting whale sharks and plenty of big fish. From exhilarating drift dives to shallow sloping reefs in the sheltered bay, Mafia is hard to beat for dive diversity.
Hop between islands by dhow, ferry and aircraft (three to four weeks)
Lamu archipelago - Mombasa - Dar es Salaam - Zanzibar - Pemba - Kilwa - Mafia - Quirimbas
For a north to south Swahili adventure, it's possible to link the various island archipelagos and coastal sites using a combination of private dhow or yacht charters, small aircraft hops and scheduled passenger ferries. A good amount of time, energy and planning is essential.
Begin in the heart of the low-lying Lamu Archipelago. Lamu Town's whitewashed merchants' houses, cool courtyards, women dressed in colourful kangas, bustling dhow harbour and ubiquitous donkey carts are instantly East African.
From here, dhow and yacht charters can be arranged (from £60pp a day, full board) to take in the best of the neighbouring islands: the tidal pools and reef snorkelling to the east of quiet Kiwayu; the palm-lined beaches of Manda (also linked by public ferry to Lamu); the urban labyrinth and archaeological sites of Paté.
Travelling south, it is possible to hire a local fishing dhow to take you to Mombasa, but the journey is long and hot, safety measures are scarce and foreigners are not officially permitted to travel this way. Instead, take a short flight from Manda to Mombasa; stop to take in the Portuguese Fort Jesus and marine park or continue straight on to Dar es Salaam.
From Dar harbour, hop aboard one of the large passenger ships for Zanzibar (daily, around £20, from two to eight hours). Take time on the island to explore the forested interior and the surrounding seas, and get lost in Stone Town.
Next, hop on a light aircraft or take the passenger ferry to conservative Pemba, in the archipelago's northerly reaches. Experienced divers and fishermen will love the challenges of the deep Pemba Channel, romantics will enjoy the comparatively quiet sandy stretches and naturalists can seek out a clutch of endemic species in the indigenous forest of Ngezi.
From Pemba take to the air (via Dar or Zanzibar) to reach historic Kilwa. Stay in the nearby village of Kilwa Masoko to visit the truly remarkable ruins - a glimpse of Swahili-style medieval decadence. Once the most powerful city on the East African coast, the imposing castellated buildings, vaulted ceilings and rows of arched windows are still striking in their decaying state.
History lesson over, catch the early morning flight from Kilwa to Mafia, enjoying stunning views of the Rufiji River Delta - East Africa's largest, and the region's greatest concentration of mangroves. At Mafia, dip back under the water to enjoy the wonders of the protected marine park and take a dhow trip to one of the surrounding sandbars for a fish barbecue.
If extending your trip to the Quirimbas Archipelago of Mozambique, return to Dar to fly to gateway town Pemba (Mozambique, not Tanzania). From here, independent travel to the islands would be difficult; it's usually better to arrange transfers in advance with your accommodation. Wherever you stay, make time to visit Ibo Island: its filigree jewellers and Portuguese colonial fortress are worth the trip.
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Zanzibar travel overview, including essential Zanzibar holiday info, map of Zanzibar, articles and advice on travel and adventure in Zanzibar
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