It’s an hour and a half’s flight to Zanzibar from Arusha in Regional Air’s caravan. I was excited and apprehensive about revisiting the place my late father had grown up: Zanzibar is a magic word that conjures up stories of Sultans, slaves and scents of spice, but it’s also a place I associate with faded black and white photographs taken seventy-five years ago.
From the air the shanty dwellings spreading inland from the relatively small stone historical part are a reminder of the rapid population increase, a story that replicates itself in most African urban centres.
It doesn’t take long to walk from one side of stonetown to the other and yet it can take weeks to really explore Zanzibar’s old quarter. Every time I leave the sanctuary of the Zanzibar Serena Inn, I find a new route zigzagging along the intriguing narrow streets. Bright eyed kids run by, women wrapped in Muslim dress sell sweetmeats, men sit on stone seats outside their houses, or play drafts. In the square young men watch a football match, oblivious to the poor quality of the screen. From doorways, often old intricately carved ones, waft delicious smells of spice and coconut. The Arab coffee vendors and old antique shops which were part of Zanzibar’s charm during the days of the Sultanate were swept out carelessly by the revolution of 1964, to be replaced by years of poverty. Now Zanzibar is thriving again and shops try to persuade you to step inside to look at a variety of tourist knick knacks: beads, baskets, cotton tunics and baggy trousers, but I don’t see many genuine antiques. European cafe culture has invaded, some advertising Italian coffee. It’s inconceivable, having tasted the aromatically spiced local coffee which lingers on the palate.
The spice market is an assault on the senses and best braved in the cool of the early evening. Vendors compete to sell their wares to tourists at inflated prices. Its a sweaty, noisy experience, but as any culinary master knows, there’s nothing like a bit of fresh spice. By contrast, the places of worship left behind by the British are sanctuaries of silence. The Catholic cathedral is cool, its statues, paintings and stained glass quietly reflective. The white walls of the convent cloisters are draped with flowering plants between peaceful archways. Further on and harder to find, the Anglican cathedral of Christchurch is built over the old slave market – Zanzibar had the world’s last open slave market – its altar on the spot where those unfortunate souls were whipped. It’s a large and interesting building, a crack in the rear nave begging repairs. Worship was initially in a thatched mud hut while the cathedral (the “slave market church”) was begun on 25th December 1873 and completed exactly seven years later. (Sultan Seyid Barghash asked that the tower was not higher than his own palace). Inside are many items of interest including an ancient cross from Canterbury Cathedral and many memorial windows. The Sultan’s Palace (Beit-al-Ajab) and House of Wonders are both museums too.
Zanzibar has changed since my last visit a decade ago: many new buildings and an upgraded port. The historic heart resounds with the sound of drilling, chipping, and banging as old crumbling ruins are restored, one can only hope with sensitivity to the rules of a town which has achieved world heritage status.
The waves that have battered these sea walls for centuries have withdrawn with the tide. Fishing dhows their white sails ghostly against dark sea and sky, glide by beneath a single star. They join a row of lights on the horizon at the night’s fishing grounds. One of them may catch the fish I’ll eat tomorrow for lunch, prepared with fresh spices by a chef blessed with the magic touch. I expect great food from the Serena Zanzibar Inn – and I get it. The day begins with a sumptuous breakfast with just about anything you could want including local Swahili fare – some great chilli sauce and coconut chutney to spice up my omelette and a delicious slice of spiced rice bread. I enjoyed the custard apple juice too, not to mention the hibiscus and bungo (a local fruit with a sharp taste a little like passion fruit). There’s even fresh madafu, drunk from the coconut. I was busy spilling mine down my chin when an attentive waiter discretely handed me a straw.
Most nights there’s live Taraab music and on Saturday nights Serena hosts a Swahili buffet under the stars beside the pool. A local band serenade guests as we eat more than our fill of barbecued kingfish along with a delicious display of dishes. I enjoy the unfamiliar taste of Swahili pancakes and fish cakes, as well as cassava, potato with tamarind, banana with cardamon, spinach with coconut and beans with paneer. This is complimented by some deliciously spiced deserts, a handful of dates and the sweet and sticky local treat, halwa.
Serena has been here many years which probably explains why it has the best situation. Stone Town is roughly triangular and Serena is right on the point, with the historic town spreading out behind and the sea in front. The dining room opens its large windows onto white sand and turquoise sea and at high tides the waves crash against the sea walls. The rooms catch breezes borne by the incoming tides and the whole place seems designed so that you step out of the heat of stone town into a place of cool serenity. Historical ambience is upheld in antique chests, chairs and other priceless pieces that grace the corridors and resting areas. The room sing to the same tune, and there are tucked-away places to enjoy in peace: sunken gardens, a shisha lounge and a sea-facing alcove with an Arab style four poster bed.
There’s plenty to do beside watching boats and ships pass (and eating). It’s worth taking a guided tour of Zanzibar’s historic town, as it can be overwhelming trying to find your own way through the maze of narrow streets to the sites of interest. Then there’s the spice tour to see how and where those spices for which the island became famous are grown. There are islands to visit, with giant tortoises and ruins, coral reefs to snorkel or dive, remote sandbanks to sun-worship from, dolphins to swim with and the Jozani forest with its endemic red colobus. Serena also have a free daily shuttle to their own private beach, Mangapwani, 20 minutes drive away on the unspoiled north west of the island where guests can enjoy seafood, Swahili specialities, cold drinks and sun beds, visit a traditional show workshop and the nearby slave caves.
The problem with the Serena Zanzibar Inn is that it’s just so friendly, comfortable, attractive and relaxing that I found it impossible to motivate myself to go anywhere. I’ll just have to go back and try again.