What’s the big deal about Zanzibar?

by Sandy Salle on September 5, 2017

Just about anyone who travels has heard of Zanzibar. But what exactly is that far off, exotic-sounding place?

Geographically speaking, it’s a large island off the coast of East Africa. The place that puts the “zan” in Tanzania. Nowadays its a huge holiday destination, a tropical beach vacation that’s easily combined with a safari in Kenya, Tanzania or elsewhere.

But in days gone by, Zanzibar was something much different — one of the great trade ports of Africa and a melting pot of cultures from all around the Indian Ocean. It was ruled by a powerful sultan who lived in a grand palace along the waterfront. It’s merchants sailed far and wide in traditional dhow sailing craft, perhaps even as far as China and the Mediterranean.

Blending African, Middle Eastern and Asian traditions, the island developed its own unique Swahili culture. The Swahili language is still widespread throughout the region (“Jambo!”). But the Zanzibarians also evolved distinct art, architecture, music and foods — all of which still thrive on the island.

And while much of the island’s fantabulous wealth derives from ivory, gold and spices, it should also be mentioned that its economy profited from the slave trade, a dark chapter in Zanzibar history that’s memorialized at several sites.

Today’s Zanzibar combines many of those ancient ways and means with all the trappings of a modern beach vacation — boating, diving and kiteboarding, waterfront restaurants, rooftop hookah bars and chic boutique hotels.

While sun, sea and sand are the main attraction for some visitors, others revel in the history and culture. Stone Town, the island’s capital and seaport, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a warren of narrow alleyways flanked by architectural landmarks like the House of Wonders, the Old Fort, the Hamamni Persian Baths and the sultan’s Beit-el-Sahel palace.

Christ Church, the island’s Anglican cathedral, occupies the site of the old slave market. Exhibits elucidate the human suffering that took place here and those who wish can descend into the dark, dank chambers where the slaves were imprisoned before their sale.

Music is another reason that more and more people venture to Zanzibar. Sauti za Busara — the island’s annual African music festival — takes place each February at various venues including the Old Fort. While the island’s homegrown taraab music can be heard year-round at local clubs.

The island’s best known musician was Farrokh Bulsara. Never heard of him? That’s because he later changed his name to Freddie Mercury. The Queen front man was born on Zanzibar to an Indian couple who lived there during British Empire days. The Mercury House on Stone Town’s Kenyatta Avenue is allegedly where Freddie was born.

Venturing beyond Stone Town, visitors can visit a spice farm, mingled with spotted cats at the Cheetah’s Rock sanctuary, frolic with the red colobus monkeys and bush babies that inhabit Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park . . . or sample languish on some talcum-powder fine strand.

And if you’re looking for a fun restaurant, with a twist on how to get there – visit The Rock Restaurant.  You could arrive when the tide is low and walk along the sand, or you could leave at high tide and swim back to shore.

To learn more about our services, and how we can help you experience Africa, give us a call at 1-800-940-9344 or email us at hoainfo@hillsofafrica.com.

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