In the travel business, we sell dreams. Dreams of getting away from it all, turning off your mobile phone, reading a novel with sand in between your toes, in a place where you can soak up some glorious sun and let all the stresses of life’s hustle and bustle drift away. Sometimes, often actually, those dreams involve paradise. And for some, paradise comes in the form azure waters lapping gently on perfect white beaches lined with palm trees. In Africa we have many of these to choose from.
Zanzibar is not just a paradise. For many people, the word stands for a picture on a postcard, where a palm-tree sways wistfully against the backdrop of a perfect beach. Scratch a little below the surface though, and you will find a country marinated in culture, and all the tension that entails: a very real, and very fascinating island.
I spent the majority of my month in the capital, Stonetown, which has an absolute surfeit of pearly beaches and turquoise water. Instead it has an intricate maze of very narrow streets which are almost impossible to navigate. Have a look on Google Maps if you’re in need of a laugh. There’s no space for cars, so you’ll find bicycles and Vespas everywhere, and the higgledy-piggledy street design makes accidents very likely. To avoid this, a cyclist will make some noise to warn of his high-speed approach, either with a bell or, in its absence, a puckered kissing sound, which is supposed to elicit a Pavlovian hug-the-wall response.
There are amazing spice markets, old men selling strong black coffee in tiny porcelain cups, fresh coconuts being decapitated everywhere, and an informal group of locals that practice daily capoeira at sunset. I’d really recommend spending some time in Stonetown: it might not be the jewel in Zanzibar’s crown, but it certain is the heart and soul.
I did eventually venture further afield, and did quite a thorough sweep of the beaches on the island. The colours are absolutely amazing, though the swimming isn’t exactly Cape Town quality: due to a reef surrounding the island, at times one has to wade for what feels like kilometres to wet the knees. Still, it’s beautifully warm, and mostly crystal-clear. My favourite beaches were Paje and Jambiani, on the east coast. Both had a great range of places to stay, from backpacking to luxury, and most of the time I had the beach to myself.
I eventually snorkelled on my last weekend, and the fish and corals looked like an underwater jewellery box. I was not expecting the great variety! Fish ranged from tiny cobalt-blue mouthfuls to behemoths the size of my leg, and none were particularly shy. I could’ve touched them.
With its mix of Omani, British and Portuguese history,Zanzibar is seriously fascinating. I’d encourage any visitors to push past the idyllic veneer, learn some Swahili, and engage with the people and history of this unique island.
All photos courtesy of Kati Auld.
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