Zanzibar is seemingly where the Arab world meets India and collides with sub-Saharan Africa. It is unlike anywhere I have ever been, and spectacular in so many ways. Zanzibar is located in the Indian Ocean, 6° south of the equator and 36 km from the Tanzanian mainland coast. It is 108 km long and 32 km wide, with an area of 2,461 km2 (950 sq mi). Zanzibar is characterized by beautiful sandy beaches with fringing coral reefs, and the magic of historic Stone Town – said to be the only functioning ancient town in East Africa. Several years ago, a friend of mine told me that Zanzibar was his "favorite place in the world." I honestly had never given the island much thought before then, but it was on my must-visit list when I moved to Rwanda, 9 months ago today.
Going from being within arm's reach of a lion several hours before, to the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar made it seem like I had been transported to another world when I arrived early in the evening. I was still wearing the dust of the Serengeti when I landed, and I felt like I had arrived on the set of Aladdin and was instantly infused with wonder, delight, and pure excitement!
The first full-day was spent getting lost in Stone Town (literally and figuratively). Once I ventured off of the main roads, a maze-like series of narrow alleys exploded in front of me. Although at times it felt a bit claustrophobic, it was sort of enchanting. The alleys were lined with store after store, filled with African crafts, spices, fabrics, and food. It was such a lovely escape, and there were times when I felt like I had tripped down Alice's rabbit hole because it seemed so other-worldly.
My sister-in-laws and I chose two excursions to go on while in Zanzibar - a Spice Tour, and a snorkeling trip near Prison Island. After breakfast in our boutique hotel's rooftop cafe (we found that most cafes and restaurants in Stone Town were located on the roofs of buildings), we headed about thirty minutes away from Stone Town to a spice farm. We really had no idea what we were in for, but it turned out to be exceptional! During the tour we put our senses to work while we saw, touched, tasted, and smelled a variety of nature's finest - a teak forest, a mahogany forest, pineapple plants, banana trees (see banana fruit photo to the left), peppercorn plants (5 colors), lemongrass, cinnamon, coconuts, star fruit, lychee, coffee, turmeric, breadfruit, jack fruit, oranges, cloves, ginger, nutmeg (see photo of the red nutmeg nut to the left, above the banana fruit), cardamon, cocoa pods, chili peppers, vanilla beans, annoto (a red seed that makes dyes for cosmetics - photo above, to the right), curry, ylang flowers, and much more. It was incredible! Throughout the tour of the farm, three local men made palm frond bracelets, rings, necklaces, and glasses for us to wear, as well as a little container to hold all of our spice samples. They were charming and so creative with the natural fibers and materials at their disposal. To be honest, the spice tour was quite fascinating and much more enjoyale and captivating than I could have ever imagined.
After the tour, we had a traditional Zanzabarian lunch underneath a traditional African thatched hut - pilau rice with steamed spinach and coconut sauce, infused with spices and vegetables. It was prepared for us by the locals and was absolutely delicious (and perfectly seasoned!)
Our return trip to Stone Town contained a bit of excitement as we boarded a dala dala bus with the locals (see photo to the right).
Our second excursion had us boarding a local's boat and venturing out into the Indian Ocean to a coral reef just off the coast of Prison Island (also known as Changuu or Quarantine Island) which is 3.5 miles north-west of Stone Town. The island saw use as a prison for rebellious slaves in the 1860s and also functioned as a coral mine. No prisoners were ever housed on the island and instead it became a quarantine station for yellow fever cases. More recently the island has become a government-owned tourist resort and houses over 100 endangered Aldabra Giant Tortoises which were originally a gift from the British governor of the Seychelles in 1919. After enduring the sun and heat out on the spice tour, I was eager to jump into the Indian Ocean for a bit of snorkeling. There weren't as many fish as I had hoped for, but I saw a few small schools and plenty of starfish and urchins. The sea was the most beautiful color imaginable with its turquoise color accentuated by the white-washed buildings along the coast of Stone Town. After some fun in the water, we toured the Tortoise Sanctuary and I even got to hold one of the endangered creatures! (somehow I don't think that would have been permitted in the USA)
My trip to Zanzibar came to a close with a perfect dinner on the beach, looking out at the Indian Ocean as the sun set, with drinks in hand, laughter in the air, and a sense of excitement as my sister-in-laws and I looked forward to taking off on our third leg of the trip - Uganda and the gorillas!