Stone Town, Zanzibar

Just saying “Zanzibar” evokes an exotic bucket list place to visit, so when I moved to Muscat, I was delighted to discover there were direct flights to Zanzibar. With flying time of just under five hours, another bucket list place could be ticked off.

Zanzibar is a group of around 50 islands between 45 and 55km off the coast of mainland Tanzania. The two largest islands are Unguja and Pemba. Unguja is widely referred to as Zanzibar and has a long and diverse colonial history involving Portugal, Oman and the UK before being given its independence in 1963. A 31 day revolution in 1964 resulted in the union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar, creating Tanzania.

Oman’s interests in Zanzibar extend since the early 19th century when they fought the Portuguese and claimed the islands as theirs. This paved the way for the development of the spice growing industry. Spices and slavery were traded by Oman between Stone Town, the Middle East and the West Indies along the maritime trade routes. The British were the islands administrators, with Indians carrying out most public administration duties.

My chance to visit Zanzibar came during a poolside chat one weekend with my friend Clare Francis. We both wanted to go, we both wanted to do a wee safari and we both were looking for a travel partner. We booked our flights the next day and mapped out our itinerary later that week – Zanzibar’s capital Stone Town for three days,  Nungwi for a week, then a mainland safari for four days.

Getting there

We flew direct from Muscat with Oman Air, just as temperatures started to soar again. Dar es Salam is the main access point for all other air carriers. My first glimpse of the island was of beautiful azure waters breaking on a long reef.

That peaceful vista soon turned to the sort of scene James Bond film scriptwriters portray as 007 arrives in some far flung location we have vaguely heard about. Arrival at Zanzibar International Airport was however a relatively swift, if not chaotic process. The entry visa fee is $50 and baggage reclaim was a series of teak plinths a small army of porters placed our luggage on. It of course all said “welcome to Africa” and added to the charm, memory and experience.

After passing goats in the airport carpark, we were swiftly taken to our hotel in one of Stone Town’s main narrow thoroughfares. 236 Hurumzi was built as a palace for Tharia Topan, the “Bismark of the Swahili Empire”. The building has had quite a history and was built with Persian, Indian and Arabic influences. The door is Omani for example. Now a boutique hotel, it is filled with antiques and curios over four floors, with each room very individual. staff are friendly. The roof top restaurant has stunning views on Stone Town but is a climb up five flights of deep and uneven stairs.

Omani door at entrance to our hotel in Stone Town – 236 Hurmuzi.
Our bedroom – The Zenana Suite.
Breakfast with the best view – the Roof Top Restaurant, and the highest restaurant in Stone Town.
Hotel lobby and Wifi hotspot – where I wrote most of this blog entry.

Although charming and spotlessly clean, this hotel is in the middle of town and close to Mosques, so on the downside noise is a bit of an issue.  The other downside is on top of a $175 a night room charge, there is a $5 cover charge to drink in the rooftop bar if dancers are performing.

Stone Town itself is a pleasant, quirky cosmopolitan and rustic sort of place. Freddy Mercury was one of the islands more recent famous citizens! Rather unkempt former colonial buildings, narrow streets filled with local crafts and souvenirs and a lovely seafront reveal Stone Town, it’s character and multi-cultural heritage. This is also why Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

What we saw

Wandering around, there is no escaping the Arabic, Indian and British influence. The legacy of the slave trade is everywhere – and it has inspired me to write a separate blog entry in the future. There is too much to tell and visiting the slave chamber was quite a profound experience. In addion to the Slave Market, we also visited the Spice Market and Prison island. Meantime – here are a selection of images that sum up Stone Town – enjoy…

Seafood at street food market at Forodhani.  Very tasty but way over priced – same as the restaurants!
Afternoon entertainment on the beach – we witnessed the ferry loading from hotel sunbeds a few metres away.
Omani and Indian doors.
Typical narrow street in Stone Town, with Clare.
Cute kids in Stone Town, posing in exchange for a lolipop.
Former home of Slave traderTippu Tip.
House of Wonders – the island’s former Administrative Centre built by Oman.  Now a museum.
A Happy Shopper!
Stunning sunset.
Next stop – Nungwi.

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