Downtown in Stone Town: a trip to Zanzibar

We visit Zanzibar on a new route with FlyDubai, and enjoy a warm welcome on the East African island cluster.

The Rock Restaurant. Ibrahim Albeshari
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In Australia "no worries" is an expression that's used every day – we say it often and without much thought. ­During my trip to Zanzibar, I found the Swahili equivalent – "hakuna matata" – far more fun to use, even if my Aussie accent took a shine off the delivery.

Hakuna matata, and ­“jambo”, which means hello, are sung to me on just about every street corner and beach I step foot on, and in most of the shops or market stalls I pass by, during my time on the small cluster of islands off the east coast of Africa. It’s not just the words themselves or their meaning, it’s the musical way in which they’re delivered.

Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania, is something of a travel hotspot right now. ­FlyDubai added the route to its schedule last year, and provides access to the archipelago four times a week.

After a short stopover in Dar es Salaam, our plane approaches the international airport – it’s then that I get that African feeling, and probably rightly so, because it’s my first time here. The dirt roads and ramshackle houses I see out the window elicit a real sense of excitement.

After passport and yellow-­fever-card formalities, we make our way from the small, basic terminal onto a minibus, where the luggage is being loaded through the back window, one bag after another, until the back seat is full, all bags stacked neatly. It’s a novel sight, even if somewhat unconventional, but hakuna matata, right?

As we head to our hotel, I hang on to every word our guide, Taib Hassan, says. We’re staying at the Meliá Zanzibar, a five-star, all-­inclusive resort on the north-east coast, 45 minutes from the airport, so there’s plenty of time for insight.

“Tomorrow, we will visit the ­historical city of Stone Town, which was once the capital city of East Africa; today, a Unesco World Heritage Site,” Hassan, a Zanzibari, says as the bus makes its way through several small villages, all softly lit and lined with food stalls and locals gathering as darkness envelops them.

“[Stone Town’s] architecture is an infusion of Omani Arab, Swahili, Indian and ­European cultures. Stone Town has a number of historical sites – a lot has happened in Zanzibar. It is very famous in trading in general, like the spice trade, east meeting west,” he says. “Dubai today is what Zanzibar was before the 1960s – had there not been any interruptions like the revolutions and stuff, this would be your ­Dubai.”

After a 30-minute history lesson – which includes details about how Stone Town was largely the creation of the Sultan of Oman, who in 1840 shifted his seat from Muscat to Zanzibar; how ­Muslims make up the majority of the population; and how Queen’s frontman Freddie Mercury (then Farrokh ­Bulsara) was born here – we’re on the driveway heading to our resort. As we pull up, we’re met by what seems like the entire staff. ­Managers, porters and even spa therapists greet us with broad smiles and happy faces. “Jambo,” they say, and when we say thank you for the help, there it is again – “hakuna matata”.

The resort is set on a 40-acre estate, and has its own 300-­metre-long private beach, five restaurants and an underground cave, plus various accommodation options. After we round off our first evening at a welcome barbecue dinner on Gabi Beach, complete with toe-tapping African beats and local fare, it’s with weary contentment that I jump into my four-poster canopy bed, ahead of tomorrow’s walking tour of Stone Town and trip to Prison Island, a piece of paradise about five kilometres north-west of the ­mainland.

It’s not until the sun rises the next morning that the full extent of our surroundings becomes clear. After a lovely buffet breakfast, we’re on the bus to Stone Town. The Darajani Bazaar is our first stop, but before we’ve even started, a man approaches me.

“Bungo fruit for you, miss?” he asks hopefully, reaching out to me with something that looks like a lemon in his hands. “Try it, miss”, he says, as he gives me a piece, and while he’s friendly enough, by entertaining him I become a target for others trying to sell their wares. I try a piece, and find it’s extremely sour. “It’s our native fruit, miss, you want to buy?”

I recall our guide telling us that bungo fruit is one of the most popular fruits for juicing here, “somewhere between a mango, an orange and a pineapple”. I resolve to try some at breakfast the next day, but decline the offer to buy as we head off into the food maze. If you can, visit first thing in the morning, before the heat of the day mixes with the fish and meat smells.

Before arriving, I was told by a friend that it’s a must to get lost in Stone Town among the cobbled streets and 500 or so beautifully carved doors that back in the day denoted wealth and status, because it’s part of the charm. But it’s nearly impossible to get lost when you’re part of an organised group, so I choose to let the sights, sounds and smells fuel my experience instead.

Being here is like taking a step back in time, with its narrow streets and Arabic-style houses, its blend of cathedrals and mosques and fresh produce aplenty. As we wind our way down the alleyways, every twist reveals something new, whether it’s locals painting on canvas, coffee vendors or stalls selling everything from second-hand shoes to woven baskets and spices – there are plenty of those here: they don’t call Zanzibar “Spice ­Island” for nothing.

As we wander down one alleyway, we hear a giggle from above, and when we look up, a little girl is smiling broadly back at us, peeking out from a window frame. She can’t be more than 5 years old, and she seems to be wondering what the fuss is about as we reach for our cameras and phones, and start ­snapping.

We’re still smiling about her as we head to the new Park Hyatt Zanzibar hotel, which is our lunch stop. Afterwards, it’s off to the beachfront, where we kick off our shoes and climb aboard a dhow bound for Prison Island, an unspoilt beach about 30 minutes away.

The island, which once housed a prison that was later used as a quarantine hospital, is popular with tourists and deemed one of the best spots for swimming and snorkelling. It’s also home to a giant-tortoise colony, some of them more than 100 years old. The tortoises were imported from the Seychelles in the late 19th century as a gift from the ­Seychelles ­government.

On our ride back to Stone Town, the sweet sounds of taarab music lull us into relaxation mode, and as the sun sets and the mainland changes colour it’s easy to see why ­Zanzibar is popular with tourists, to the tune of about 100,000 visitors a year. The fact that it’s temperate all year-round doesn’t hurt, ­either.

If you’re a foodie, be sure to visit The Rock Restaurant, an exclusive seafood spot perched on a rock in the middle of the Indian Ocean on Michanwi Pingwe Beach, on the south-east of the island. It is known the world over, and is a genuine experience, especially if you come across the Masai warriors on the way.

During the remainder of our stay, I am humbled often – there’s an obvious disparity between the haves and the have-nots in Zanzibar. Even though tourism is the top economic driver here – the five-star resorts and hotels are owned, run and mostly staffed by foreigners.

Hassan tells us that many who live outside of Stone Town don’t have running water or electricity in their homes, and the locals who do have jobs earn an average monthly income of US$200 (Dh734), which about the same as a night at the Meliá resort here.

After four days in ­this part of East Africa, and despite the tensions experienced here in recent weeks as a result of the latest elections, I’d say it’s a must-­visit destination. If it’s on your bucket list, hakuna matata. And when you get there, be sure to say “jambo” from me.

mhealy@thenational.ae

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