The very name Zanzibar conjures up images of romantic Spice Islands, and – like legendry Timbuktu or Kathmandu – the name alone is almost reason enough to make the trip. The historic center of its capital city is known as Stone Town, a maze of narrow streets, crooked passages, and crumbling houses once owned by Arab trades, with enclosed balconies and carved, brass-studded doors. The merchants built homes here after amassing their wealth by trafficking in gold, ivory, cloves, and – most lucratively – slaves destined for Arabia and Persia.
Zanzibar was once the largest slave market on Africa’s east coast. Today an Anglican church, erected to celebrate the end of the grounds of the old slave market, the main altar built where the whipping post once stood. More clues to the island’s history can be found everywhere, from the Arab mosques and forts to the British and Portuguese Colonial architecture to the pulsing Swahili market, with its colourful fruits and spices (in particular, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves), grains, and fish from the surrounding waters. At the center of it all is the Zanzibar Palace Hotel boutique in a renovated Arabic town house with nine rooms (three on each floor) wrapped around a bright atrium. Persian rugs, hanging lamps, tile work, beaded transport guests to the early days of the spice trade.
The two main islands of Zanzibar – Zanzibar Island (or Unguja), where Stone Town is located, and Pemba – have become popular beach gateways to tack onto the end of mainland safaris. While their coasts are thick with hotels, the finest retreats are on smaller satellite islands, like Chumbe where a stone lighthouse and thatched eco-bungalows are the only landmarks you’ll see. With its pristine coral garden, it is the place to drop off the map and enjoy snorkelling.
Tiny Mnemba, not even 1 mile circumference, peeks out from a perfect coral atoll and beckons honeymooners, divers, and all lovers of barefoot indulgence. Ten romantic and understated bandas line the white sandy coast lapped by clear waters. Dinner on the beach follows lazy days of kayaking, sailing, and scuba diving.
WHERE : 22 miles/35 km off eastern coast of Tanzania.
BEST TIME : Dec – Feb and Jun – Oct for dry season; early Feb for SautiZaBusara African music celebration; Jul for Stone Town’s Festival of Dhow Countries, with film, art, and cultural events.