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The Road to Zanzibar

Zanzibar, Africa

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Bob, Bing and Dorothy Lamour shipped out a long time ago – but Zanzibar remains a magical place. The name refers to a small group of islands off the coast of Tanzania in east Africa, and also to the main town of the largest island - Unjuga. It’s both a tropical paradise and a treasure house of lost arts and cultures.

People of Zanzibar If you can, stay in Stone Town. It’s the heart of old Zanzibar town and one of the most richly exotic places in the world. Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian coastal city from which the Zanzibar ferry departs, is pretty exotic itself – but not a patch on the island town. You could wander around Stone Town for days. There are souks, mosques, hawkers, minarets, and tiny alleyways: everything you could wish for in an experience both oriental and African.


Zanzibar rose to eminence in the eighteenth century. British and French power was on the rise in India and Africa, and merchant ships plied trade routes across the Indian Ocean to link the two. Zanzibar was ideally placed to be an African entrepôt. The sultans, all Arabs by descent, also established trade routes between the Swahili interior of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. They all came together on Zanzibar. It was also, sadly, the main trading center for east African slaves. Although most of these unfortunate people wound up in Arab lands many were taken to the Americas. Not all Afro-Caribbeans are of west African heritage.

Zanzibar: Man in a Boat Today, the island’s Anglican cathedral stands on the site of the former slave market. The high altar marks the place where the slaves on sale were whipped. This wasn’t a punishment – it was an exhibition of how tough they were. If a slave cried out during the torture he was deemed ‘soft’ and unlikely to be sold. These poor people had a great incentive to keep as quiet as they could: un-sellable slaves were thrown into the sea.

Zanzibar’s upper-class inhabitants – mostly migrant Arabs – grew even wealthier on the import and export duties they levied and built rich houses for themselves. Many of these buildings are now hotels, though many of them are in a state of external disrepair. This isn’t the result of careless maintenance or an inhospitable climate. It’s because the local rock is ultimately based on coral, and erodes very easily. A huge program of restoration is underway to prevent Stone Town crumbling to dust.

If you want to find out more about the history of Zanzibar, visit the Sultan’s palace. Right on the waterfront, it houses a museum dedicated to the island’s history. The palace is pretty much a museum piece in itself. Back in the mid-nineteenth century the locals named it ‘The House of Wonders’ because it had electricity, running water and even a lift! The palace also played a key role in what is officially recognized as the shortest war in history. This took place on August 27, 1896, between 9am and 9.45am. A brand-new Sultan decided to align his nation with the German imperial powers rather than the British. The Brits, annoyed, shelled the palace from warships until he changed his mind.

Zanzibar Sunset Zanzibar’s a lot more peaceful these days. Eating out in Stone Town can be a great pleasure. Like the rest of Tanzania it’s predominantly a Muslim community, although a very liberal one – nearly all hotels have bars serving alcohol. There are plenty of high class eateries, but if you want a truly authentic Zanzibarean experience try eating at Sambusa Two Table in Stone Town. It is tiny – there are only sixteen seats – but the food is superb. Al fresco eating is also a big part of local culture: excellent barbecued food can be bought every evening from stalls in the Jamituri-Forodhani Gardens area. There are other wonderful cafés in this neighborhood. The local cuisine is heavily seafood-based – try such delicacies as barracuda steaks. It can also be very spicy, reflecting Unjuga’s long local tradition as a spice trading centre. You can even take a spice tour of the island, learning about all the different and exotic flavorings that were traded there.

Beaches of Zanzibar Zanzibar has some of the best beaches in the world. The most popular are on the northern tip of Unjuga Island. These, however, have become rather packed with impoverished US and European backpackers in recent years. If you’re willing to pay a little more for peace and quiet, head over to the eastern side of the island.

Zanzibar’s a great place, and very welcoming. A vacation there will highlight everything that’s good about both east African and Arabic cultures. The road to Zanzibar may be a long one, but getting there is worth it!