The very name is exotic, as it should be. This group of islands off the east coast of Africa is now part of Tanzania. This, however, was a relatively recent political alignment as the islands had long been under the yoke of foreign powers.
It has been a major regional trading center for more than a millennium—first for the ancient Greeks, and later by Arabs, Indians, all many others. Originally named by the Iranians in the 10th-century, it originally included the entire Swahili coastal area. Muslims first settled the islands when they were looking to escape the tribal wars of the mainland. They began to attract Western powers in the 16th century, when the Portuguese began using it as a source of slaves. Oman then defeated the Portuguese and took control in 1804 and, for a period, even made it the capital of Oman. It became an English protectorate in 1819 (with acquiescence by the Omanis who were retained as Sultans). This arrangement generally lasted well into the 20th century, albeit through a period of intrigues within the Omani ruling family and a brief attempt to overthrow the English which ended with a brief, 45 minute shelling by British warships in 1899 (probably the shortest “war” in history). The occupation all began to end when, after years of unrest, the British withdrew in 1963 and the Sultan was overthrown in 1964 and the island joined with the recently created Tanzania as a means of ensuring its defense.
Although it has had many religious influences, including big missionary pushes by the British and the Germans, it remains over 90 percent Muslim. Its economy, long based on trade, later become a major source and trading center for spices and, most ominously, slaves. While spice growing does remain an important part of the islands’ economy, it is now based overwhelmingly on tourism.
Among the islands primary tourist attractions are its wildlife (especially its tortoises, suni antelope, red colobus monkeys and its brightly colored birds and butterflies), its exotic spices (the islands were the center of the Spice Islands, with their vanilla, nutmeg, and cinnamon plantations), and its beaches and coral reefs (as catered to by a number of resorts).
For centuries, Stone Town had served as a meeting place for the world’s spice merchants, traders and religions. All have left their marks with their architectures, their palaces, their offices, and their churches, cathedrals and mosques. These structures, built primarily in the city’s modern-era 19th-century heyday, are aligned in a complex maze of streets, alleyways and passages. The hand-carved doors of the buildings are themselves worth a tour. The entire city, like its architecture, religions, music and art, is a fusion of its many cultural influences—Arab, African, Indian and Western. It’s no wonder that this is an UNESCO site.
We focused our time in the city around six primary themes. These were its:
- Old town history and character, with its dramatic mix and blends of architecture, its maze of lovely alleyways (intended to provide shade) and some of the city’s primary landmarks and social centers including Forodhani Gardens, the Kenyata Road shops, the dhow harbor, Big Tree meeting place and the Old Dispensary building. Although the maze of short alleys, dead ends and lack of street signs makes the city a challenge to navigate, there is a joy in just wandering and exploring. Given the vast number of tourists, it’s not surprising that virtually all rundown mansions are being converted into hotels and every other doorway seems to house a souvenir shop. The pretty Forodhani Gardens, meanwhile, livens up in the early evening with the opening of dozens of food stands. The city also has a couple of especially popular meeting places: one at the Old Tree, a large banyan tree in the northeast of the Old Town and one in Jaws Corner in the southwest. Then there is the crowded, chaotic, smelly, fly-infested fish and vegetable market, where the whole city seems to come together sometime during the day.
- Arab heritage, as exemplified by the Old Fort and a number of restored palaces including the House of Wonders (conveniently converted into the Museum of History), the Palace Museum and the Hamamni Baths. The Old Fort, build of coral in 1700, is the oldest surviving structure in town. It was, in British colonial times, used as a women’s tennis club and is now home to a nightly local music concert series and stalls for many tourist merchants. The House of Wonders, built in 1880 by a sultan’s son, was the first building in the city to be electrified, have running water and have an elevator. While it has been converted into a history museum, it is unfortunately closed for repair. Even so, its huge size and elegance is evident from the exterior: unfortunately, its magnificent interior (much less its historic displays) is not. For this we will have to await the considerable work that has not yet begun.
- British heritage, especially its civic buildings such as the Peace Memorial Museum, Victoria Gardens and Hall, Customs House, State House, High Court, Consulate, and a number of lovely churches, cathedrals and hotels. The later includes the historic, beautifully restored Africa Club, where upscale late 19th and early 20th century explorers (including Stanley and Livingstone) and tourists used to stay. It even retains a version of the old cork message board on which travelers used to contact and arrange meeting times with each other.
- Carved mahogany and teak doors, which were intended to demonstrate the wealth of owners on what are otherwise plain exteriors of the coral buildings. Examples include those in the Old Fort (the first and oldest in the city), the House of Wonders (the largest and most magnificent) and scattered through the Old Town and especially in the Baghani District. Many are based on traditional Indian designs (with brass spikes intended, at least in India, to ward off attacks by elephant-led invaders), with intricately carved panels and frames with lotus flower decorative elements and verses from the Koran to protect the inhabitants from evil. Such doors, which could easily cost more than an an entire typical house, were so important that they were often built before the houses, which were then designed around them.
- Slave trade, including the Slave Port (where slaves were brought in from the mainland and sent to their destinations), the remnants of the Slave Market (where auctions were held), the site of a post at which slaves were whipped (both for the entertainment of the audience and to demonstrate dominance), the cramped, underground, airless chamber (into which 125 slaves at a time were crammed before being auctioned), the Anglican Church (which the Sultan gave permission to build on his land, in which the first converted freed slaves could worship) and the crucifix that was made from a branch of the tree under which the heart of David Livingstone (one of the most influential advocates for abolishing the slave trade) was buried (although his body was shipped back to England). The Church grounds also contains a poignant monument of sculpted slaves bound by one of the surviving chains.
- Spice Trade, as in the city’s spice markets (especially Darajani Market, which is primarily for fish, fruits and vegetables) and especially some of the nearby spice plantations. We took at tour of one such plantation where we learned the origins of the term “Spice Islands” (not necessarily from the quantity, but by the huge variety that can be grown here) and the economic foundations of the market, which was particularly based on cinnamon, the so-called King of Spices (whose seeds, leaves, bark, tree trunk and roots all have economic value) and secondarily, on clove. We saw, tasted and learned the uses (both culinary and medicinal) or all types of spices and fruits that can be grown on the island, not to speak of their leaves, their sap, their bark and their roots. Our explorations included observations as to how:
- Pepper seeds grow on vines and produce different levels of heat depending on whether seeds are picked when they are green, yellow or red;
- Iodine trees produce medicinal sap;
- Lipstick fruit juice is used both as a dye and to make red curry;
- Vanilla beans produce much more flavor after they dry, which they do naturally after they are pollinated;
- Cardamom and custard apples aid in digestion;
- Clove trees produce huge volumes of flowers and seeds, but are best when picked green, before they turn red;
- Lemongrass has many uses in soaps and lotions, as well as in providing taste and iron; and how
- Turmeric can be used to clear skin, treat bronchitis and as a potent antioxidant.
If your time is plentiful, you, along with a good map, guide book and lots of perseverance, can learn much about the city yourself. And if you need help, you’ll find plenty of people who speak English and will help you when you get lost. But if time is short, it may help to take a city tour. Not only is it an easier way to see the sights, but a good guide will also explain the history or the city, provide context for what you are seeing, and enrich your experience by providing facts and examples that you won’t find in guide books. But whether or not you take a tour, absolutely, positively make sure you leave plenty of time to just wander and discover the city’s many hidden treasures.
Stone Town restaurants
As usual, we sought out places that gave us a sampling of good local upscale foods.
Emerson Hurumzi offers a four course prix fixe dinner that began with crab Badia with a rather coconut chutney and pita with baba; a different entree for each of us which were red snapper with Harissa and rose and a goat curry, each with pilau rice and green papaya salad; finished off with pistachio and rose water pavlova. The chutney was quite spicy for both of us and the baba ganouh and goat curry were the best, the other dishes were okay, but there was noting to distinguish them. This being said, the Arab-style roof deck was beautiful with great views over the city and sunset. They also had a quartet playing Swahili Coastal music,which was nice background except for the shrill voice of the singer. Overall, its fifth floor rooftop setting probably makes it better for a sunset drink than for dinner.
House of Spices, where we had two entrees. First was a grilled kingfish with a spicy sabayon sauce. The second was a mixed seafood grill with cigal (a cross between lobster and a large prawn), calamari, shrimp and crab laws with a sauce that combined a sweet honey tamarind and a slightly spicy Zanzibar curry. Both were good, and a nice combination with their respective sauces. Not a special meal, but good food.
Stone Town Nightlife
But if you’re looking for nightlife, you had better look early, or look elsewhere. While Mercury’s (from Freddy Mercury of Queen fame) does offer music on weekends, the best you are likely to find most evenings are dinner concerts at upscale restaurants and at the Old Fort. Heck,we tried the Hookah Bar in the Old Dispensary about 9:30 PM one evening. The ground floor was empty and dark. Only after finding and climbing a lit stairway did we manage to find the bar. Although it was open, one employee was sleeping behind the counter.Out on the balcony, overlooking the water, were a group of four musicians, sitting alone, with their instruments at their side, just in case the action should ever pick up. The hookah bars at the the lovely, historic African Club and, to a lesser extend,the Maru Maru Hotel appeared to be more promising, although we weren’t especially in the mood the night we were available to do these.
On the positive side, sunsets are prevalent, especially among bars with views. And they aren’t all that hard to find in a low-rise city with plenty of tourist bars. We did two: one at the Emerson Hurumzi, which has a lot of Arab atmosphere, and one at Maru Maru, a nice, modern roof deck. Although African Club appeared to be a great option (for both a sundowner and a hookah bar), it was just too far from our other evening stops.
Zanzibar Palace Hotel
Many of the old palaces have been converted into hotels. Any many more new conversions are on the horizon. We stayed at the Zanzibar Palace Hotel which still retains some of the old-time charm versus being modernized. Like many places in George Town, the staff was very friendly and accommodating. As in other places, however, we did find that although it seemed they understood what we were asking, often the answer did not match the question. Or, they would tell you something that was just wrong. Again,this isn’t the hotel, it was Zanzibar in general.We could never figure out if they wanted to tell you something even if they didn’t know the answer or if they thought they knew the answer but were wrong. Still, they tried hard and always had a smile for you. The bed was quite comfortable, the room clean, the bathtub huge and the air conditioner worked well. Wifi was good in the lobby but didn’t work in one of our bedrooms (we were in 2 different rooms). The location was right in the old section, which was convenient. I might try another place next time only because we prefer a king size bed—which they did not have.