"This is the finest place, I have known in all of Africa"- said Scottish explorer David Livingstone when he stepped on to the Indian Ocean archipelago in 1866.
I couldn't agree more, when I landed there to rest and relax after a hectic schedule in Southern and East Africa. In no time, I was absorbed by its surreal seafront beauty and centuries of vibrant history.
Consisting of two main islands- Unguja and Pemba and myriad islets, the physical environment and ambience of Zanzibar appeared more Arabic than African, its entire population comprising people from Arabic, African and Indian descent.
Around the eighth century, it emerged as a great location for trade between Africa and the East. Merchants from Persia started settling in the archipelago and soon developed it as a major centre of trading, for slaves, spices, gold, ivory and wood, etc, all procured locally from neighboring African regions. Omani Arabs gained control in the 16th century and subsequently became so prosperous and powerful, particularly with the slave business, that they wisely shifted their Omani capital from the Persian Gulf to Zanzibar. Their regime continued (later under a British protectorate) till 1963, when Zanzibar became fully independent, but a year later joined mainland Tanganyika to form United Republic of Tanzania.
Zanzibar is a partner state of Tanzania, but it still lives with distinct individuality. They have their own flag, government and president and require filling embarkation forms, even if you are arriving from or departing to mainland Tanzania for which you already have a valid visa. The practice, which surprised me, perhaps meant to symbolize their uniqueness.
The Unguja Island is Zanzibar's main population centre, business hub and arrival point of most visitors. At the heart of it, lies the old Stone Town, the cultural and historical heart of Zanzibar. It was built in the 19th century by Omani Sultans and wealthy Indian merchants, the reason why architectural styles depict Arabic designs, some of which were influenced by Indian art and culture, visible in ornate balconies and latticework.
In the sixties Zanzibar went into decline and never recovered to the glory of its past. I hardly glimpsed any building without signs of neglect. My first impression of the quarter with its labyrinth of thin alleyways and decrepit buildings was more like seeing old Dubai, when it was a laid back coastal settlement.
However, I didn't mind its laid back and old- fashioned ambiance, which locals tout as an appealing feature of the destination.
I noticed doing nothing, walking aimlessly, lying under the shade of an old tree for an afternoon nap or playing board games using a dilapidated slate are the pursuits of many, passing time leisurely being perhaps their aim in life. Soccer appeared to be a popular game, however due to lack of proper fields, kids in the afternoon kicked the ball on the beaches, making temporary goal posts by sticking a piece of wood in the sand. A friendly crowd, from the sea side promenade, kept continuously cheering and jeering them and you will miss out on the free fun if don't join them.
Stone Town is filled with attractions, mostly of historical significance; Sultan's Palace, now a museum exhibiting memorabilia's of the Arab rulers; House of Wonders, the National Museum portraying the island nation's history and culture; an ancient Omani Fort with an amphitheatre; Anglican Cathedral built on the site of the former slave market; four-story Old Dispensary building reminiscent of British- India colonial architecture, Mnara Mosque, decorated with double chevron pattern and Tippu Tip's house, Tippu being East Africa's most notorious slave trader are the ones that always comes up in most visitors itinerary.
Entrance doors are a key aspect of Zanzibar's architectural design. A symbol of opulence and grandeur of the mansions they guarded, they are characterised by carved rectangular frames, massive plain panels, and rectangular lintels with floral and intricate geometric patterns. Some are over 150 years old and have outlasted the age of houses they adore.
However, the tropical haven offers more than Stone Town; touring nearby spice plantations; cruising to an unknown island in a traditional wooden boat called dhow; expediting ruined forts and palaces just beyond but within reach; getting in lost in exotic and colorful markets; and spoiling in one of the isolated beaches where the sand is powdery white and the sea is ethereal shades of turquoise are some of the other popular options.
Zanzibar is often referred as the Spice Island. Take a guided tour to one of the archipelago's several spice farms, where your expert guide will show the growing of a diverse range of species, such as cloves, nutmeg, vanilla, ginger, chilies, black pepper, turmeric, cardamom and cinnamon, the aroma and taste of which are already familiar to you, though perhaps you don't know how it actually grows and finally lands on your kitchen table.
For example, nutmeg grows on a huge tree and is like the pit of an apple-like fruit. Vanilla is a vine that nurture on large trees. Cinnamon sticks are bark of a tree, the leaves of which are good for chewing and pepper is hot, green and fresh-tasting before it is dried and ground to become black pepper.
Delicious varieties of tropical fruits are also cultivated in the plantations, lychee, mango, breadfruit, jackfruit, papaya, guava, grape fruit and custard apple are few of the mouth watering ones.
Fresh spices and abundant seafood makes Zanzibar a haven for foodies and a great place to sample some of them is at the open-air street food market, held in the waterfront Forodhani Gardens in StoneTown.
Soaked in a magical twilight atmosphere, the precinct comes alive after sunset with several food stalls serving cuisine delights, the quality and taste of some of which can put many a five star hotels in shame.
Every evening baba lishas meaning feeding men set up trestle tables, charcoal stoves and gas lamps to prepare the food on site. The choice is regal; from grilled or stewed seafood netted that very morning and sauced with fresh local spices to baby goat meat curry served with parathas and tamarind chutney. You can even get roasted breadfruit and bannas topped with melted chocolate.
Another praiseworthy venue for a superb evening meal is Serena Hotel's roof top Terrace Restaurant, where tables are set on a quiet verandah overlooking the ocean. I was there on a full moon night. The ambience was very romantic with silvery glows from moon stippling the ocean, while the soft light from the candles on the table blushing on my partner's face. Every now and then, a dhow swished past through the waters as the stars shine overhead
Sipping high quality South African wine with superbly cooked lobster thermidor, I could easily understand why Zanzibar weaved her charm and seduced kings into abandoning their native kingdoms and live there.
Best way of reaching Zanzibar is flying South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) from Mumbai to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania and then either taking a short flight or an two- hour journey by air conditioned catamarans to the island.
There are no shortages of hotels to suit budget, however Serena Hotel (www.serenahotels.com), which occupies the former cable and wireless office and the adjacent Chinese doctor's residence present standards of five-star international level. All rooms are sea facing and the service is friendly and faultless. If required to spend a night in Dar Es Salaam for connections, stay at the New Africa Hotel(www.newafricahotel.com), an excellent property at a convenient city loc