Zanzibar, with all its clichés that make it out to be the ultimate travel destination, is even better than we expected . Stone Town in Zanzibar, or old town, as the locals call it, is a heady mix of old and modern.
One can indulge in Italian ice cream on small round tables overlooking the calm sea, or queue with school children outside an ornate wooden doorway where a woman fries impossibly chewy, yet crispy, chipattis. Wooden dhows sail alongside super slick sailing vessels, and Maasai donning wayfarers play frisbee on the beach next to tourists frying themselves to a deep brown.
Zanzibar, and in fact Tanzania too, have stopped charging South Africans for visas in order to promote inter-African travel. This meant our $ 50 was better spent enjoying seafood platters and over-priced white wine, while looking out at the impossibly-turquoise sea.
At breakfast, we enjoyed spicy Swahili coffee served on the roof of an old four-storey house. It feels as though you’re in Prague when you look out over the rusted roofs atop crumbling white buildings, with their wooden shutters. Street culture spills out of shop doorways onto twisting narrow streets. The doors of stone town are something of a wonder, the more prestigious the owner of the house was, the more ornate the door. Many of Stone Town’s original doors are more than 150 years old, often outlasting the houses whose entrances they once formed. This is partly due to the hardwoods they are carved from like the local jackfruit and then teak and sesame from India. The use of sesame perhaps explaining Ali Baba’s magical phrase: ‘open sesame’.
An attraction for locals and tourists is Forodhani gardens – a must see in any guidebook for a very good reason. Stalls are set up at night under paraffin lamps looking out over the harbour. After a refreshingly cheap drink of cane, fresh lime and ginger poured over ice (costing Tsh 700, about R 4) we were sufficiently cooled on a hot evening to explore the food stalls.
Observing the market, we saw young men leaping daringly off the harbour walls with flair into surprisingly clear water. Whoops and cheers came from their friends and a sizeable crowd of locals and tourists that were gathered for the spectacle. They ran between families that were dressed up for an outing to Forodhani gardens, in their wet underpants, looking thrilled with themselves.
After getting our dose of street culture, we made our way to the Northern point of the island for some textbook holidaying. We took a modified dhow to Mnemba Atoll, a marine reserve, for a snorkelling trip with brown Italians in white Speedos. Lunch was taken on a nearby deserted beach and consisted of freshly-grilled, lemongrass infused whole tuna with watermelon for dessert. A perfect day.
A white ‘V’ bleached on the tops of our feet, cemented our foray to the beaches of Zanzibar a success.