Make no mistake, Stonetown, Zanzibar, is exotic. When I was here 18 years ago I fell for the atmosphere, the unique look and feel of the place, because there really wasn’t much else to do here but wander and soak up the atmosphere. Now there are so many things to do, while still preserving that marvellous feeling of having stumbled into a truly timeless place. Here are some of my favourite things about Stonetown today.!
1. Forodhani Night Market. As sunset arrives every night, the tables and bbqs appear, the breeze carries mouth watering smells, and locals and tourists alike descend on Forodhani Park on the waterfront for the night food markets. There is a massive range of seafood, just listening to the sales patter of each stall as they reel off the long list of seafood options is half the fun. I am a fan of the stall juicing fresh sugar cane on the spot.
But my absolute favourite – the “Zanzibar pizza” – is more like a roti folded around your choice of filling and fried on the hot plate. The beef pizza filling is minced beef, onions, chillies, spices, cheese, mayonnaise and a raw egg – and there’s a divine banana/chocolate mix for dessert. They are very moreish, and very cheap, I keep coming back every night. The first night’s dinner is a beef pizza, the second night is a banana pizza for dessert first, before I headed out to a restaurant for dinner, and on the third night a group of us have beef pizzas as an entree between cocktails and a restaurant.
2. Sunset Dhow cruise. I am a bit wary of sunset cruises, my expectations are an overpriced crowded boat, a thimble of cheap bubbles and some dry crackers with stale cheese. But Zanzibar is known for its sunsets, so I risk it, and love it.
There are 4 of us on the dhow, with 3 crew and seating for about 10. A quick climb up the ladder and I find space for another dozen people on the cushion covered rooftop. We are offered a choice of juice, beer or wine, and served a mini feast including handmade hard italian cheeses, tomatoes stuffed with soft cheese and olives, herb cheese ravioli, sweet chilli squid, and cassava chips. Serving up fresh non-chewy perfectly cooked squid is the sign of a very good chef at the helm.
For a couple of hours we do nothing more than watch the coastline slide past, and dhows, fishing trawlers and and expensive cruise boats glide past, in beautiful evening light. On this night there is a only light cloud cover so the sunset is mild instead of wild, but it is so relaxing, it doesn’t matter.
3. Darajani markets. When do I ever not love a market? This is a large sprawling produce market for the locals, not tourists (except for a few spice stalls) – there are halls of fruit, veges, spices and the more confronting meat, poultry and fish halls. Watching the auctions in the fish markets are a real highlight.
4. Clove Hotel. I love this type of hotel – small boutique, well designed & renovated, full of character and excellent value. It is in the old town, a block from Forodhani Square, a block from Hurumzi St (the main shopping street). Be warned, it is only suitable for active guests, it’s in the pedestrian part of town so you’ll need to carry your bag the final block or so, and then up to reception on the 1st floor and then up to your room on the 2nd to 4th floors, as there is no lift. The highlight is the roof terrace on the 4th floor, perfect for breakfast, or sunset drinks, or relaxing in a breeze in the middle of a hot day – reclining on one of the couches and uploading all your photos to the web on the free wifi! There is an honesty bar for the guests. My room is beautifully furnished in a modern zanzibari style, with a very modern polished concrete bathroom attached. I sleep very soundly each night in the huge four poster bed swathed in romantic mosquito netting, although I don’t have any problems with mosquitos during my stay anyway.
5. Eating. In spite of eating at the night markets every night, I also manage to sample a fair number of other eateries as well, so there is no risk of me going hungry. Silk Route is a great spot for a group to have a spicy indian feast; Archipelago has a lot of light, healthy fish dishes, my favourite is a very tasty sweet chilli baby squid plate. And the “garden bar” in the sand in front of Livingstone is perfect for lunch or simply a cold beer stop. I am amazed to find one restaurant that I ate at 18 years ago, the Dolphin, is still in existence now, although I discover this too late to try it again this time.
6. Spa Treatments. These definitely didn’t exist 18 years ago but now there are many to choose from, I am recommended Mrembo, just past the Catholic Church on Cathedral Street. After a couple of weeks of sleeping on a mat and shaking over corrugated dirt roads in Tanzania, I am ready for a bit of pampering. All the treatments involve local flowers, herbs and spices, so it smells beautiful as soon as I walk in.
I start with two treatments at the same time – at one end I am having a pedicure which includes a sand, cardamon, and aloe vera scrub. At the other end I get the “scalp treatment and steaming”. Warm olive oil is applied to my scalp, followed by a cream hair mask – the mask smells and feels like a spicy wet xmas cake mix on my head – I wonder if this is going to set permanently in my hair but as soon as they start the 20 minutes of finger tip pressure head massage, I stop thinking at all and doze off. After washing it all off, i have the softest, thickest, shiniest hair I’ve had in years. Now it’s time for the rest of the body – the hot “mbarika” leaf massage involves being massaged with Mbrika leaves which have been soaked in hot water, followed by an aromatherapy massage, and not surprisingly I nod off again. That’s a very relaxing two hours.
7. Designer shops. 18 years ago there were no tourist shops to speak of, that has well and truly changed now, with dozens of streets and alleys lined with a huge variety of shops filled with all sorts of traditional arts and crafts along with the usual tourist t-shirts and back packer clothing. What I particularly like are the handful of “designer” shops, where local designers and seamstresses are selling clothing, bags, jewellry, and home furnishings, mixing traditional fabrics and styles with a more modern design aesthetic. Most are scattered along Hurumzi or just off it in smaller alleyways so they are not hard to find . For really interesting dresses and tops check out Indaco & Mago, and for t-shirts try One Way, where all t-shirts are made from locally grown organic cotton.
8. Sunset drinks on the rooftop bar at Africa House. This is one of the few things that has remained the same from my visit 18 years ago to this one – except this time I am drinking expensive cocktails instead of cheap beers.
9. Cooking Class. This is one of the eclectic range of activities that the staff at Clove hotel have sourced for their guests to try, and it is a very stimulating, personal, hands-on half day in the basic house of a local family being taught by the mother of the house.
10. Architecture. Given the mix of nationalities that have visited, ruled and traded in Zanzibar over the centuries, it’s no surprise that the architecture is pretty varied as well. From the Portuguese fort to the Omani Palaces, the renovated to the dilapidated, I spend a lot of time peering upwards; and then there are also the traditional solid carved doors on the Zanzibari houses, some very ornate, some very old ones telling stories through their carvings.