How to Enjoy the Charms of Zanzibar, According to a Travel + Leisure A-List Advisor

two people watch a sunset in Zanzibar

Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa, is a unique crossroad of cultures. Disparate influences, like Swahili, Arabian, European and Asian all combine to deliver a heady mix of sights, sounds, and fragrances. The island is renowned as the birthplace of Farrokh Bulsara (aka Freddie Mercury) and has long been the culinary epicenter of the Indian Ocean and the Spice Islands. 

As a travel specialist in East African safari and culinary trips, Zanzibar has long been one of my favorite destinations, and I recently returned from my latest visit with a renewed sense of appreciation. Here are my suggestions for how to experience the island's history, cuisine, arts and culture, and stunning scenery.

Start in Historic Stone Town

A visit to Zanzibar commences in Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city delivers a startling sense of place—it is a town to truly get lost in, a town of rooftops and alleyways. Commencing the day in the city's old quarter delivers historical context. From the ancient slave market to the Sultan's Palace, the House of Wonders, and The Old Dispensary, there is much history to absorb.

The city is just six degrees from the equator and has an enviably warm year round climate. Fresh Madafu—coconut water poured directly from just picked coconuts— keeps the heat at bay. The markets include a staggering array of offerings, like spices, fish, meat, produce, juices and coffee.

Make your home base the Emerson Spice Hotel, a restored merchant's house.

roof top aerial view above zanzibar town building

Embark on a Culinary Tour

Culinary experiences are a highlight, starting with a progressive lunch. First up is Lukmaan restaurant. Enjoy fresh frilled prawns and octopus over Kachumbari salad, while sitting beneath the vast courtyard boabab tree—a quintessential Zanzibar experience.

Not to be missed is the ginger-lime-sugarcane juice vendor as you exit the restaurant. This ice cold beverage sustains you through alleyways lined with antique doors and ancient facades, until you come upon one of the finest food cart vendors I have ever encountered.

On offer is Urojo, a turmeric-based soup with chickpea falafel, sweet potato balls, cassava chips, egg, crispy onions, sweet and sour spices, and more. The result is a mouthwatering dish I like to call "Zanzibar in a Bowl." 

spices and beans in baskets

South African wines are a perfect complement to these eclectic dishes. There is a diverse offering on the island, and there is no better way to sample them than to board a traditional dhow bound for a sand bar offering a panoramic view of Stone Town, especially if a visiting winemaker happens to be curating the tasting.

As evening draws near, rooftop vantage points in Stone Town are unrivaled: gaze at the Indian Ocean and hover above a sea of corrugated iron rooftops and captivating architecture. The Emerson Huzumi rooftop provides an opportunity to remove shoes, settle on a floor cushion and enjoy Swahili cuisine and local music.

An after-dinner aperitif is best enjoyed in the Secret Garden at Emerson Spice, so atmospheric I half expected Humphrey Bogart to emerge from the shadows. 

Consider an Agricultural Day-Trip

The pace slows markedly upon leaving Stone Town. One rite of passage is to visit a community-owned spice farm. A walking tour is immersive and educational as you taste all manner of roots, shoots, and vegetation, plus familiar spices like cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, turmeric, and cloves.

I also visited a bivalve and fin-fish hatchery, to learn about how overfishing has impacted local marine ecosystems and the hatchery's plan to reinvigorate the waters.  

Explore the Beaches and Art Scene

Some of the most magical facets of the island are showcased on its beaches, whether it is the Robinson Crusoe-esque Mnemba private island or the ultra refined Xanadu retreat, where Zanzibar cuisine is taken to a new level altogether.

Days can be spent learning to kite surf, planning whale shark diving excursions to adjacent Mafia Island or enjoying the shimmering turquoise sea where the water temperature seldom dips below 80 degrees.

When not at the beach, explore the robust traditional and contemporary art scene. Zanzibar is ground zero for bohemian chic: vibrant textiles, ornately carved doors and frames, and tanzanite jewelry in all forms.

The CAGZ Arts Gallery is a must-visit. This is an artist-in-residence program that arranges exhibitions and visits to workshops and studios, rather than an expansive standalone gallery. I love this concept because you get to meet artists, and see finished pieces alongside works in progress.

Remember: However You Like to Travel, Zanzibar Has It All

The great appeal of Zanzibar is that it can be enjoyed in so many ways: as an addendum to an East African safari in Tanzania or Kenya; as a standalone destination to enjoy unique gastronomy and barefoot beach luxury; or as a remote work-cation destination for digital nomads (broadband is fast and cell service is ubiquitous).

Zanzibar will leave an indelible mark on you, not only from the intricate henna tattoo you are likely to get, but because it has a rhythm and sway all of its own, and tastes and flavors so unique you will pine to return.

A fishmonger waits for customers at a market in Stone Town.

Travel + Leisure A-List member Darren Humphreys, of Travel Sommelier, designs combination East African safari and culinary trips to Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Zanzibar.

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