An Indian Ocean outcrop, Zanzibar offers a colourful clash of African, Indian and Middle Eastern cultures. Its brilliant-white-sand beaches, famous spices and fish diet are matched only by the islanders’
warm welcome – Michael Raffael
PHOTOGRAPHY SARAH COGHILL
Six-sixteen, sunset; pot-bellied sail billowing, a dhow glides past Zanzibar’s Park Hyatt terrace. It’s a magic moment – Sinbad the Sailor brought to life. Soon though, the lateen-rigged, shallow-draft boats become a familiar sight – ferrying visitors to see the Aldabra giant tortoises on Changuu Island, or carrying divers out to the barrier reefs. Fishermen in coastal villages still use them for catching octopus and squid.
There are two Zanzibars: how people imagine the island to be, and the real deal. Much of the time they overlap each other; often they are at loggerheads. The Victorian adventurer Sir Richard Burton came here in the 1850s, when it belonged to the Sultanate of Oman. His first offshore impressions were of an “over-indolent” place and the scents coming from the “celebrated clove grounds.” Landing at the port, he revised his opinion to “a clean show concealing uncleanness.” The town had no wharf and he saw corpses floating in the water. Burton wrote: “The lowlands over which the fresh sea breeze plays, are the only parts where the white stranger can land and live.” His view has a prophetic ring to it. Luxury hotels ringing the island are all parked opposite pristine beaches, where the ‘breeze’ is strong enough to blow lettuce leaves out of a Caesar salad. Inland, the countryside is a tangle of tropical jungle and bush – hot, humid and sticky.
At resorts and lodges, staff welcome guests with friendly restraint. Their greetings of ‘Jambo!’ and ‘Hello, how are you today?’ are courteous without a hint of servility. Catch them on their day off and their natural enthusiasm shines through. It’s Sunday afternoon, and the football sides of two hotels are playing a local derby, in Paje. At half-time, Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa is drawing 1-1 with Cristal Resort. Then, the Cristal team scores: cue mayhem, a pitch invasion, trumpet blowing and cheers in Swahili by assorted waiters, chefs, gardeners, beach attendants, maids, receptionists and a Maasai warrior.
Zanzibar’s nickname – ‘the spice island’ – teeters between myth and fact. Cloves are native to the Moluccas islands of eastern
Indonesia, and Portuguese colonisers introduced them here, during the 16th century. Omani Arabs expanded the plantations. Along with trading in slaves and ivory, they formed a trinity of lucrative cash crops. After independence from the UK in 1963, its first president Abeid Amani Karume handed out smallholdings to farmers who wanted to plant a masala of spices.
Bolt on the influence of Indian traders who settled here, add some short-grain rice, and the result is Zanzibar Pilau. It’s different from the subcontinent’s recipe, and not just in the choice of seasonings. After frying garlic and ginger in coconut oil in a terracotta pot, cooks stir in ground cinnamon and cloves, before the rice. Next they add whole spices – green cardamoms and star anise, according to the cook’s personal touch. At the next stage, they start adding the stock, a third at a time, like risotto. Finally, they place a lid on the pot to let the cooked rice steam. It’s soft-textured, fragrant and delicious.
At the Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa, Susanne the masseuse mixes up a dessert spoon each of cinnamon and cloves with 50ml of oil to scrub her ‘victims.’
Before a Zanzibari wedding, she says, the engaged couple enjoy a unique massage and beauty-preparation programme, called Singo. For the groom-to-be, it’s a rub down with cloves from the neighbouring island of Pemba, made into balls with coconut cream that’s melted in hot water. For her, it’s a blend of sweet basil, jasmine, ylang-ylang and frangipani.
Zanzibar City, where Burton stayed, was an Arab warren of backstreets and bazaars. The Swahili name of its oldest part is Mji Mkongwe, which translates as ‘old town.’ UNESCO and guidebooks refer to the place as Stone Town – something of an irony as buildings here are actually made of coral. This absorbs moisture during the rainy season, and even a palace may crumble. The House of Wonders – formerly the Sultan’s residence and the first building in East Africa to have an elevator – has already started collapsing. Its massive ornate doorways, many with brass bosses, are more permanent.
Bonita Blom, Manager of The Swahili House – a boutique hotel situated next to Darajani Market – says that the town doesn’t have a
restaurant culture to suck in tourists. Instead, eating out is a moveable feast that begins early morning and meanders into early afternoon. Sitting at a table in Lukmaan café, she says that her son always breakfasts on kachori (spicy fried potato balls), samosas and dal. “My ex-husband would have octopus soup and mix it with
spinach. The men think it gives them power. And he’d eat it with mandazi (coconut doughnut) or chapatti.”
According to Bonita, it isn’t African, Arab or Indian chefs who do the cooking here. “All of the dishes come from someone’s house. They employ ladies. One’s speciality is the meat, another’s the samosas. Everything has ginger and garlic in it.”
Forodhani Gardens hosts the night market at the water’s edge. It’s an Afro-Omani street-food fest. Mishkaki are the staple – marinated shish kebabs that cost a few pence a stick. Eating 10 or more is normal. They come in a bewildering gallimaufry of fusion variations, based on crustaceans and cephalopods. Following your nose is better, and probably safer, than eating with your eyes. The spreads of ready-to-eat goodies don’t compare with morsels grilled fresh over home-made charcoal.
Opportunist cats rub against anyone looking like a soft touch for a titbit. Zanzibar Pizza is the unique edible theatre snack. Its star cook calls himself ‘Mr Big Banana.’ He works with a cool sense of artistry. First, he stretches out a ball of dough to the size of a silk handkerchief. On it goes an even thinner dough skin, topped with diced red onion and minced beef. Next comes a raw egg, which he mixes into the beef, and some chopped kambuzi chilli. After enveloping the filling, he fries it on a griddle – slowly, so that the egg cooks and the wrapping doesn’t burn.
At high tide, wavelets lap against the sea wall protecting the gardens. Knee-deep in water, men paddle through it, pointing flashlights at their feet. They are trying to catch small cuttlefish. At low tide, along coastal beaches, women – up to their thighs with their heads covered – search for oysters, clams, shrimp and more for the cooking pot. What earns them some cash, however, is gathering mwani (seaweed). This used to be a lucrative crop, exported around the world. Europe bought it for cosmetics, and the Chinese wanted it for food and medicine. This natural resource, as with the fish, is less abundant than it was. Yet it’s still worth harvesting.
Surrounded by the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar may not want for seafood. For holidaymakers and locals alike, it’s two separate things. Diving instructor Peti keeps a vigilant eye on snorkellers, plunging over coral in the Menai Bay Conservation Area. Flitting over the reef are shoals of silvery whitebait, known as dagaa. They are the favourite food, he says, of the bonito fish – and of the people in the villages: “We catch them with a small net. They’re very nice – you can fry them or eat them with cassava. I like them best in a soup made with coconut milk.”
If he catches changu, a kind of green-blue snapper, he’ll roast it over coals and eat it on the bone. The head is a choice morsel. No hotel chef would dare dish up anything but the fillet. Rock lobster, he confesses, is one of his favourites, but he won’t often eat it if he catches one. “To be honest, I’m going to sell it, because with that money you can buy more food,” he tells me.
Every resort’s à la carte menu has to list it: baked with a mild curry sauce, as a tail with a citrus beurre blanc or part of a mixed seafood platter. Fumba Beach Lodge, on the south-west coast, takes small parties on excursions to desert islands, for al fresco lobster barbecues. Burton had described it as making “a rather insipid salad.” Instead, he recommended a different version: after boiling, the meat is pounded and mixed with peppers and seasoning, restored to the shell and baked in the oven.
Observant to detail, he singled out Alphonso mangoes for praise. They grow all over the island, lining roads with arcades of trees from which fruits hang in green clusters. To eat, they are perfumed and sweet, rather than fibrous or clinging to the stone. Juiced, they have the texture of a smoothie. To kick-start the day, baobab juice (slightly sour, yet milder than tamarind) comes close. The trees – some hundreds of years old – produce fruit pods containing seeds swaddled in a moist pulp. It has often been called a superfood. Less healthy, arguably, are the ubuyu, sold in the back alleys of Stone Town; these are dried baobab fruit in a vermilion sugar coating, with a hint of chilli. It’s almost as addictive as the halva made from the pulp, served at the Park Hyatt – it’s sticky and chewy, like Turkish delight.
It’s an ingredient in some versions of gongo, the local moonshine. The gentleman lying by the roadside, sleeping it off on a Sunday afternoon, has most likely enjoyed a cup too many.
Safer to stick to Tanzanian beer… It’s good, perhaps because the country used to be a German colony. One of the leading brands, Safari is strong and cloying, and popular with the regulars at Mercury’s Bar – a watering hole named after the island’s most famous son, Queen frontman Freddie. Kilimanjaro, pale with a bitter finish, is more of a thirst-quencher.
Better still, you could stick to the non-alcoholic drinks, such as the home-made ginger beer or mocktails. “The sweet limes are considered inferior to none” – Sir Richard, again. Fresh lime juice mixed with tonic (the quinine in the latter messes with mosquitoes’ heads, incidentally) cleans away the saltiness in the mouth after a day spent snorkelling.
It would be normal to feel a touch of guilt, spending megabucks on a luxury villa, while most of the population live a little above subsistence level. Peti is reassuring: “When the tourist industry is booming, it’s better for the environment. When a lot of guests come, they create jobs and people here don’t have to fish, because mostly they are only doing it for food.”
Seen through the time-telescope of Sir Richard Burton, Zanzibar was once where “a drunkard outlives a water-drinker.” Some 150 years later, it has transformed itself into a spectacular island – up there with Mauritius and the Seychelles. Its unique asset is its Swahili people, open and unspoiled. And on its white-sand beaches, the indolent pace has survived intact.
Michael Raffael and Sarah Coghill travelled courtesy Ethiopian Airlines, Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa, Park Hyatt Zanzibar and Per Aquum Essque Zalu Zanzibar.
Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous Tanzanian archipelago. Its currency is the Tanzanian Shilling. The average high temperature from December to March is in the low 30s (C), and the average low is in the mid 20s (C).
Ethiopian Airlines (ethiopianairlines.com) is a Star Alliance member and the fastest-growing airline in Africa, offering over 200 daily departures and serving more than 90 international destinations, with its contemporary fleet of 76 aircraft.
ZanTours (zantours.com) provides local guides and drivers, offers internal flights, and organises culinary tours and excursions to spice plantations.
Zanzibar: City, Island and Coast by Sir Richard Francis Burton – a classic travel book, first published in 1872, and a fascinating record of the island when it belonged to the Sultanate of Oman (free to download at gutenberg.org).
To offset your emissions, check ClimateCare (climatecare.org), where donations go towards supporting environmental projects around the world.
WHERE TO STAY
Emerson Spice In the centre of Stone Town, this hotel is a cross between camp heaven and an Ottoman palace. Rooms are packed with antique furniture, and feature exquisite double beds guarded by mosquito nets. The food in the three dining spots is among the city’s best.
Tharia Street, Kiponda.
(Tel: (00255) 775 046 395 or visit emersonspice.com)
Essque Zalu Zanzibar Dramatic luxury resort on the northern coast of the island, overlooking a picture-postcard beach. The food is much better than the usual buffet boards, dished up by many five-star resorts. Zanzibari-inspired breakfast dishes are better than those served in town. The hotel is undergoing a makeover, with stunning new décor.
(Tel: (00255) 773 601 799 or visit peraquum.com)
Fumba Beach Lodge A great base for diving and snorkelling, close to the Menai Bay Conservation Area. Like many of the island’s lodges, it has villas at the water’s edge and a bar perched atop a baobab tree. The lodge offers a day’s snorkelling or diving, with equipment supplied, and a barbecue on a desert island afterwards.
(Tel: (00255) 778 919 525 or visit fumbabeachlodge.com)
Park Hyatt Zanzibar A glamorous, beautiful new hotel, with marble public rooms and some very good Arabic-inspired cuisine. It’s on the tip of Stone Town’s pointed nose, and a few yards from Forodhani Gardens.
Shangani Street, Stone Town.
(Tel: (00255) 245 501 234 or visit zanzibar.park.hyatt.com)
The Swahili House A period Arab house, next to the old Slave Market, which once belonged to the sultan. The rooftop restaurant has a great view over Stone Town and does a mean pilau.
Mchambawima Street, Stone Town.
(Tel: (00255) 777 510 209 or visit theswahilihouse.com)
The Residence A complex of luxury villas spread over 32 hectares, the Indian cuisine and Mauritian specialities served here are recommended.
(Tel: (00255) 245 555 000 or visit cenizaro.com)
Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa Made up of 11 villas, a number of garden rooms and with about 70 staff to cosset guests, White Sand has a stay on Zanzibar all covered. Beautifully manicured gardens and views of a perfect white-sand beach are on offer, too. The owner is passionate about kiting, and it’s a great place to take a course. It is luxurious, but the staff are spontaneous and friendly, under the guidance of General Manager Tony Leslie. The hotel’s in-house carpenter does all the woodwork, and its new herb garden is coming along nicely.
Paje Beach, Zanzibar.
(Tel: (00255) 776 263 451 or visit whitesandvillas.com)
WHERE TO EAT
Don’t expect to find many local Zanzibari restaurants. However, many Stone House hotels offer ‘Zanzibari’ cuisine.
Lukmaan Situated in the Mkunazini quarter of Stone Town, Lukmaan is a kind of café-diner, where you sit at mahogany tables and fill your stomach at either breakfast or lunch. It closes in the late afternoon.
New Mkunazini Road, Zanzibar.
(Tel: (00255) 777 482 131 or visit lukmaan.blogspot.com)
Mercury’s Bar After visiting Forodhani Gardens, drop in at this nearby watering hole, to sample the lengthy drinks list, grab a snack and toast the Queen singer.
Mizingani Road, Stone Town.
(Tel: (00255) 777 413 081)
Darajani The old Slave Market in Stone Town
is probably the best
place to buy spices,
and haggling here is perfectly acceptable.
It’s also an ideal place
to stock up on fruit,
Forodhani A Stone Town market on the waterfront, this is the
best place to eat local food after dark. The trick is to buy nothing that isn’t cooked fresh in front of you, and to avoid any attempts to hustle you.
Gongo Illegal hootch, which is best avoided. It’s sold in the back rooms of people’s homes, and some cheaply made versions can be toxic.
Kachori A fried potato dumpling
Kaimati Dumplings coated in cardamom syrup
Mandazi Yeasted doughnut, made with coconut milk
Mkate wa ufuta A kind of puffed sesame-seed flatbread
Mishkaki Generic term for any kind of marinated, grilled shish kebab
Pilau The Zanzibari version has a softer grained rice than the Indian version, and is spiced with cloves, cinnamon and ginger
Ubuyu Fruit of the baobab tree
Zanzibar Mix A kind of slippery curry soup found at Forodhani Market, with kachori and bits of fried cassava in it. When done well, it’s a delicious yet slightly sour soup, milder than the Thai tom yam.
Zanzibar Pizza Not the sort you would recognise. It’s essentially a stuffed parcel filled with sweet or savoury ingredients, according to taste.
‘Luxury hotels are parked opposite pristine beaches, where the ‘breeze’ is strong enough to blow lettuce out of a salad. Inland, the countryside is a tangle of tropical jungle and bush.’
‘Forodhani Gardens hosts the night market at the water’s edge. It’s an Afro-Omani street-food fest. Mishkaki are the staple – marinated shish kebabs that cost a few pence a stick.’
‘Baobab is an ingredient in gongo, the local moonshine. The gentleman lying by the roadside, sleeping it off on a Sunday afternoon, has most likely enjoyed a cup too many.’