Island of Spice: R&R in Zanzibar


I immediately became lost in alleyways of crocodilian crookedness. So I wandered aimlessly, under jutting balconies and past innumerable displays of African arts and crafts, finally happening upon a crenellated Portuguese fort (known as “Old Fort”) with the remnants of an old chapel inside dating back to the 1550s.

Next door to the fort I entered Zanzibar’s tallest building, Beit el Ajaib, a very large, square-shaped building with several stories, surrounded by tiers of pillars and balconies and adorned with a large clock tower. It was originally constructed in 1883 as a ceremonial palace, but was renamed the House of Wonders, as it was the city’s first building to have electricity and an elevator.

The House of Wonders hosts Zanzibar’s museum, which is worth the US$ 3 admission for its meticulous history of Zanzibar and fourth-floor veranda offering a 360-degree panorama over Stone Town. I spent half an hour circling the veranda, trying to pinpoint the many places where I’d already gotten lost.

Also worth a visit is the Palace Museum, originally called the Sultan’s Palace; it was built in the late 1890s as a residence for members of the royal family. Today, the large white building with castellated battlements, coral rag walls and traditional boriti (mangrove pole) supported floors, showcases much of the original furniture and includes displays about Zanzibar’s colorful history. There are also several mosques to visit, an Arab fort, and Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals.

On the seafront sits Mercury’s Pub, named after Freddy, a Zanzibar native who never returned after founding what for many is the greatest rock band of the 1980s. When Freddy died of AIDS in 1991, Queen boasted 10 albums in the world’s top 100.

I enjoyed Mercury Pub’s live acts, such as the Cultural Musical Club, a band featuring Zanzibar’s own music fueled by violins, a bass, harpsi keyboard and accordion. (Zanzibar was briefly a German colony.)

Every evening at sundown I’d gather with a hundred others to sample the skewers of a half-dozen fish varieties, squid, prawn and lobster sold from little barbeque stands on the waterfront off Stone Town’s Jamaturi Gardens. It was a fabulous feast for a few bucks, easily topped off with gelato or watermelon.

I had both while admiring the sunset with silhouetted dhows. Then I’d wander over to the former British Club, transformed into the venerable Africa House Hotel, for post-sunset toasts with new friends. Then we’d retire next door for jazz at La Fenice.

I spent a full day taking photos starring a cacophony of fancily dressed ladies; ornately carved doors and balconies; cashew-nut vendors; African crafts, from hard wood carvings to batik; rocking church services; and grand sit-down food orgies at multi-star hotels on the romantic beach front.

Don’t miss the spice tour, the cheapest kick on the island: eight hours for US$ 10, including lunch and all the raw spices you can ingest. I tasted vanilla, clove, mace, cocoa, cinnamon, five kinds of pepper and turmeric, and could have done with a toothbrush before lunch. An interesting part of the tour was being the only male surrounded by female tourists from South Africa, Germany, Finland, the UK and the United States.

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