BY THE SEA: Stone Town's beachfront. Pictures: Nicole McCreedy
BY THE SEA: Stone Town's beachfront. Pictures: Nicole McCreedy
Fresh: Turmeric, freshly gathered on a Zanzibar spice tour. Picture: Nicole McCreedy
Fresh: Turmeric, freshly gathered on a Zanzibar spice tour. Picture: Nicole McCreedy

There are a few interpretations for the name Zanzibar, one of them that the name is derived from the Arabic, Zayn Z’al Barr, meaning “Fair is this land”. And so it is.

White sand banks surrounded by warm cerulean blue oceans and taut linen sails of dhows passing on the horizon. It is picture perfect.

Freddie Mercury. Mercury’s Bar and Restaurant is the first watering-hole you will see in Zanzibar if you arrive from Dar es Salaam via the ferry. Get your food fix with Freddie’s Special Pizza. Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara), lead vocalist and songwriter for Queen, is Zanzibar’s claim to rock fame. He was born in Zanzibar in 1946 when it was a British Protectorate. Mercury’s family lived in Zanzibar and India until his mid-teens, moving to England in 1964 to escape the Zanzibar revolution.

Stone Town. Lose yourself in Stone Town’s narrow alleyways. They also give you a chance to daydream yourself into another century. Many little shops sell tours and tourist trinkets. Traditional buildings have a long stone bench along the outside wall, known as a baraza, where Zanzabaris sit. Listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, the buildings in Stone Town are made from coral stone. Today, Stone Town’s charm lies in its crumbling façades, but it must have been very grand once. The houses originally belonged to wealthy Arab and Indian businessman who traded slaves and ivory from the interior of Africa for goods from the Middle East and India.

In 1832 Sultan Sayyid Said of Oman moved his capital to Stone Town from Muscat. Visit the Palace Museum, which overlooks the seafront behind Forodhani Gardens. It was the official residence of the Sultan of Zanzibar from 1911 until the popular uprising in 1964. Next door is the ceremonial palace built in 1883, House of Wonders (Beit el Ajaib), also a museum today. The view from the large balcony is worth the stairs you have to climb to get there.

Princess Seyidda Salme. An Omani princess from Zanzibar, Seyyida Salme, is believed to have been the first non-Western female writer. She was the youngest daughter of the Sayyid Said bin Sultan Al-Busaid, Sultan of Zanzibar and Oman. It was the social scandal of century when she eloped with her neighbour, the German merchant Rudolph Heinrich Ruete, and settled in Germany.

Her first book was Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar, published in German in 1886. It is gives an insight into the lives of the Omani royalty, a world kept behind closed doors. You can learn about the princess’s life in the House of Wonders Museum.

Zanzibar doors. The large, ornately carved “Arabic” doors of Zanzibar are extraordinary. The size was a reflection of the status, wealth and dignity of the owner. The tradition of these doors dates back to the 12th century from the areas of Persia, Afghanistan and the Punjab in India. The designs on the doorframe feature symbols pertaining to the household: scales to signify that a fisherman lived there; dates or palms to mean wealth and influence; and a chain design indicated security. Older doors included Quranic verses and the name of the owner. Some of the most attractive doors have brass studs on the outside – said to be of Indian origin to keep elephants out. Discover the doors for yourself or arrange for a guide to take you on a walking tour. Guides can be organised from the Old Fort Tourist office.

Forodhani Gardens. These are in front of the House of Wonders. Every evening vendors set up their foodstalls and sell prawns, calamari, scallops, mussels, tandoori lobster, king-fish, tuna and red snapper on kebabs. Once you have made your choice it is cooked over hot coals and served to you. If you want what the locals eat, find a stall that sells potato soup served with coconut and chilli. It’s delicious. At night hurricane lanterns light up each stall and the market is transformed into a lamp-lit wonderland.

Spices. When Sayyid Said Sultan of Oman moved to Zanzibar he planted cloves, well suited to the area’s tropical climate. Soon Zanzibar became the world’s foremost exporter. Today, cloves are still a major industry for the islands.

Spice tours are one of the top tourist attractions. You visit the plantations, where you are shown a variety of spices and fruits, including cinnamon, vanilla, cloves, ginger and nutmeg, as well as interesting fruits such as breadfruit, jackfruit and elephant apples.

Zanzibar International Film Festival. Every June this festival offers a week of African cinema, documentaries, arts and music. Workshops presented by professional filmmakers take place every day, and you’re invited to forums where filmmakers discuss their work. In the evenings the main features are screened in the Old Fort amphitheatre and afterwards live music acts perform in the Mambo club adjacent to the venue.

Taarab music. Taarab music is meant to be soothing to the soul. Listened to all over Tanzania and Kenya, it was brought to Zanzibar by Sultan Sayyid Said from Egypt. The poetic taarab singing has many influences that can be heard in the melodic lines and vocal style, it is however distinctly Swahili. To listen to live taarab music dine at Monsoon restaurant, found at the entrance arch to Forodhani gardens.

Kirk Colobus monkey. The Jozani forest in the south-west of the island is pretty much the last significant portion of indigenous forest on the island. It is also home to the very rare Kirk’s red Colobus monkey (Procolobus kirki). The monkeys are indigenous to south Unguja, the main island in the Zanzibar archipelago.

In the early 1970s a small troop was moved to Pemba Island in an attempt to save them from extinction. They have a striking long-haired red, white and black coat – and no thumbs. Distinctly smelly, they are called kima punju (poison monkey) in Swahili. Because of the smell Zanzibaris believe they have an evil power and that their feeding habits are killing the trees.

Tour operators in Stone Town offer a combined day-trip for tourists, which include a morning swimming with dolphins with the option of visiting Jozani forest in the afternoon.

Dhows. Dhows have been used by merchants and fisherman in the Indian Ocean for centuries. The December monsoon season enabled intrepid traders to sail from the Middle East south to Zanzibar and beyond. In March they would head north again towards Arabia and India. Building dhows is a craft that has been passed on over many generations.

They are handmade with the simplest tools and with precise techniques that do not use metal nails. Nungwi, in the north of the island, is the centre of Zanzibar’s traditional dhow-building industry.

Snorkelling and diving. Zanzibar is near the equator, and this means warm waters, the perfect incubator to sustain the rich life of coral reefs. The water is startlingly clear. A short boat trip away from Stone Town is Prison Island and Chumbe Island Marine Park.

The latter was a military base for many years, so the reefs have had limited human interference and are in pristine condition. There is now an eco-lodge on the island with seven bungalows for guests.

Some of the best diving is in the north of the island around Nungwi. The snorkelling is an absolute spectacle – an enchanted underwater garden.

Or you can just lie on the beach and read.

If You Go...

p Fly directly to Zanzibar from OR Tambo airport on 1time. Or fly to Dar es Salaam on SAA. Connecting flights are available to Zanzibar. Regular ferries leave from the Dar es Salaam harbour for Stone Town.

Visitors need a yellow fever certificate. Malaria precautions are advised. It’s an Islamic country, so women should cover their shoulders and knees.

South African passport holders need a visa, obtainable on arrival at Zanzibar or Dar es Salaam airport. They cost US$50 and have to be paid in cash.

When to go: Zanzibar is hot with high humidity. The coolest and driest months are June to October. The rainy season is from March to May. The rain is not constant, so this is a good time to look for bargain deals, although not a good time for diving, because of poor visibility. - Weekend Argus