Zanzibar has been long-regarded as an island paradise, and its miles of sandy pristine beaches and killer snorkeling are all the evidence I needed. Its rich history and reputation as the spice capital of the world only added to its allure.
Populated for over 20,000 years, Zanzibar’s more recent history is a tale of one conquest after another: first the Portuguese captured this strategic port, then the Sultan of Oman, and finally the British Empire. Throughout the conquests, Zanzibar took on the cultures of its rulers without losing its own unique personality.
Zanzibar earned its freedom from the British in 1963, and after a brief and bloody revolution, became a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania. Today it is a peaceful meld of Arab, Indian and African cultures.
Snorkeling is one of my favorite activities, and for years I had looked forward to trying it in the IndianOcean. Piling into a small wooden boat, we headed out for some snorkeling in waters the most impossible color of turquoise I’ve ever seen.
For almost an hour we chased dolphins, trying to get into the water in time to swim with them, but they proved elusive so we headed off to an island to snorkel. Once in the water I broke free of our group for some personal space in the crystal clear water with its perfectly reflective white sand bottom. The water was so calm and embracing I found myself floating effortlessly in a spectacular moment of Zen, completely as one with the beautiful fish surrounding me.
After 10 days on safari, Zanzi Resort was a welcomed bit of luxury to end our holiday. The resort offers seven air-conditioned ocean view villas that are so private you feel like you’re the only guest. Each has its own private swimming pool overlooking the Indian Ocean, with a walkway to a private beach guarded at night by your own Masai warrior. Most memorable, though, was the love and care offered by Marilu, the restaurant manager.
Our second night at the resort, I mentioned to Marilu that I wanted to experience real Zanzibar, not the sterilized tourist version. She immediately offered to take me into town on her errands the next day. In real life, sitting in traffic between the post office and the produce market and the fish market would be my idea of a nightmare, but in Zanzibar with Marilu it became one of my most cherished travel memories ever.
Just getting into town was an adventure, weaving in and out of the DalaDala — public minibuses, which are just a truck with bench with people hanging off the sides. While we passed the DalaDala, we ourselves were passed by mopeds transporting entire families. Getting a break from the West’s carefully legislated safety regulations to see how life works elsewhere was worth the trip itself.
First we went to the post office, where I got to experience first-hand the bureaucracy of a developing nation as Marilu tried in vain to locate a package she was expecting.
Next was the traditional food market in Stone Town, rich with colors and smells (some better than others). Displays of nutmeg, cumin, ginger, turmeric, curry and pepper proved why Zanzibar’s nickname is Spice Island, and the array of fresh tropical fruit was astounding. I was especially pleased when Marilu did not stop at the meat sellers, with their unrefrigerated, fly-infested wares hung out in the hot, steamy air. From there we went to the waterfront, where she presented payment to her favorite fisherman with an order for my dinner the next night.
Stone Town is known as the cultural heart of Zanzibar and is my kind of shopping experience, with endless alleyways to get lost in.
Small shops are punctuated by mosques and magnificent Arab houses with their stunningly elaborate doors. Stone Town proved the perfect place for some friendly haggling for souvenirs to bring back for friends and family.
No visit to Stone Town would be complete without the obligatory photos of the house where Queen’s Freddy Mercury was raised.
Surrounded by the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar is known for its mouthwatering seafood dishes, and Marilu did not disappoint. Dinner was made even more delicious knowing I had participated in its procurement a day earlier.
My favorite part of my Zanzibar visit happened late at night, when lights are turned low and the bushbabies come out to play. Each night I would sit out at our private pool and gaze at the unfamiliar stars of the southern hemisphere while serenaded by the unaccustomed sound of these strange little bug-eyed creatures, which are so ugly they’re cute.