Travelling in Zanzibar on a whim and fancy – Part 1

Confession: I’m a planner. And an overthinker. And I analyse everything to death.

So, when we decided on the spur of the moment to head off on holiday – without a real plan in place – this was me completely out of my element.

A view of Stone Town from the sea. Picture: Meneesha Govender

Travel usually involves hours of research into where I’m going, planning what I would like to do and learn from my travels and mapping out every hour of how I would achieve these goals.

This holiday, I decided to live out of the box. We booked our trip to Zanzibar a mere five days before we left. All we knew was that we wanted a relaxing beach holiday, with a bit of exploring thrown in.

My only “research” came by way of TripAdvisor’s review of the resort we were going to be staying at for seven nights.

Ambling through the narrow alleyways of Stone Town. Picture: Meneesha Govender

So, with passports, a few hundred dollars, a minimal number of clothes and lots of sunblock in hand, my partner and I set off on a well-deserved break just after New Year.

Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous island that is part of Tanzania in East Africa. Situated, in the warm Indian Ocean, 25-50km off the mainland, it consists of many small islands and two large ones – Unguja and Pemba.

Famed for being the place where Freddie Mercury was born, its historic centre, Stone Town, is in Unguja, where most visitors stay. But Zanzibar is so much more than the place where a singer was born.

Stone Town Picture: Meneesha Govender

According to www.zanzibar.net, the name Zanzibar was derived from a combination of two Arabic words – “Zinj” meaning black and “barr” meaning land. In translation, it means “Land of the Blacks”.

It’s not a large archipelago, but this little jewel in the Indian Ocean is steeped in history and rich in culture and there is no better to learn about it than in Stone Town.

Stone Town

Whether you want to simply take in the sites, do a bit of shopping or learn more about the people, their history and culture, Stone Town is a must-see if you’re on Unguja island.

While it offers up many sights and historical landmarks, it’s not a theme park for tourists. It is peopled by the locals who live and work the area – most whom are devout Muslims.

A woman and children on the streets of Stone Town. Picture: Meneesha Govender

Despite Zanzibar being marketed as an island getaway, a trip to Stone Town requires visitors (women in particular) to dress with decorum and respect. Almost every woman throughout Zanzibar dresses in hijab, so if you plan on leaving your beach resort to explore the old town, be prepared to dress appropriately – covered shoulders, dresses or shorts ending at the knee at least.

Listed as a World Heritage site, Stone Town is well worth a visit if you are in Zanzibar. Picture: Meneesha Govender

Now a World Heritage Site, Stone Town is the old city and cultural heart of Zanzibar, and is said to have changed very little in the last 200 years.

Think narrow streets, winding alleyways, old buildings, mosques and bazaars – it is an assault on the senses in many ways.

A door with a round arch like this one indicates the owners were of Indian descent.
While one with a square arch indicates owners of Arab descent.

In the mix you will come upon many Arab houses (mostly built in the 19th Century) – easily identifiable by their brass-studded, carved wooden doors. It is said that the original owners vied with each other for the most extravagant home and their wealth and opulence was reflected in the carvings on door to their homes. Most notable were the chain carvings on the outer edges of the doors – they indicated how many slaves a person owned.

Stone Town is a heady mix of old stories carved into doors, crumbling buildings (some beautifully restored) and people.

A slave chamber that was high enough for adults to only crawl in and packed 75 women and children. Picture: Meneesha Govender

If you’re interested in learning more about the slave trade and how it impacted on people, you should visit the Peace Memorial Museum which offers an interesting look at Zanzibar’s history. I found it disturbing and became very emotional when I went down to the chambers in which slaves were housed.

A memorial to the slaves brought to the island. Picture: Meneesha Govender

But to truly understand the history and culture of the place one is forced to confront the issue of slavery and its repercussions.

Markets

The market, particularly the fish and meat section, is a bit of an assault on the senses. But a trip to Stone Town is not complete without at least a quick pop in and out.

Fresh vegetables on sale at the market in Stone Town.

Even if you aren’t buying anything, it is here that you meet people as they go about their everyday life – this is the place people bring their goods from all over the island, and other people shop. A fish auction is indeed something to behold!

People gather at the night food market to socialise, eat and share laughs. Picture: Meneesha Govender

The night food market takes place every night and it is an amazing experience. It’s a social gathering of people around food – what better setting could you ask for to meet people and get to know them better?

Mouth-watering fare on offer at the night food market in Stone Town. Picture: Meneesha Govender

From freshly-caught seafood (lobster, prawns, calamari, mussels and fish) to chicken and beef to Zanzibar pizza and an array of local veg dishes, you’re spoilt for choice. And … it costs next to nothing! Families, friends, couples (not to mention hundreds of cats) everyone converges to enjoy good food, conversation and laughs.

A dhow is a traditional boat that is entirely handmade from Mahogany and Mangrove wood. Picture: Meneesha Govender

We spent a day in Stone Town and certainly didn’t take in all the sites on offer. We missed visiting the house Freddie Mercury was born in – it’s a huge drawcard apparently. But we did lots of walking, lots of observing and had lots of interactions with different people. And that was the best part of the trip.

In a way, I’m glad I didn’t research and plan what I wanted to see in Stone Town. For once there was no pressure to get it all in. For once I could immerse myself in a few activities and take away so much more from them.

Sunset over the sea. A sunset cruise is a fabulous way to round off a day of sightseeing in Stone Town. Picture: Meneesha Govender

Zanzibar on a whim and fancy was proving to be a great deal of fun, indeed!

  • Watch this space for more on my trip to Zanzibar – tips for travellers, resort living and why “all inclusive” is the way to go, sea safaris and more. I have lots to share.

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Meneesha

Online and books editor by day, mum even while I sleep, individual all the time. I live in the beautiful city of Durban – the unpolished gem in South Africa. If I didn’t have a family, I’d be that crazy cat lady your mum probably warned you not to feed! Blogging is where I share, vent, rant, laugh and generally be myself. Join the ride!

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