Zanzibar : A Stone Town Perspective
By Carla Issa
You hear about Africa, as if Africa means just one place. Africa is a continent made up of 54 sovereign countries, 10 non-sovereign territories. Zanzibar is an island, an archipelago to be exact that sits in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of Tanzania. Africa is the continent that sits in the middle of the world; it is the mother cradling all else around her. On this particular trip to Zanzibar, a place I had been before and reveled in the beauty of ocean and all its creatures, this trip woke me up to the people. I want you to travel to Zanzibar knowing from an insider’s perspective how to navigate your way and fall in love with this place in the process.
Prior to Going:
Going to a place where even an American passport holder has to obtain a visa and then also vaccinations, remind you that you are setting off to a place that is “off the grid” and uncommon. If you are not a passport holder of an African nation, you will need a visa. Avoid waiting until you get to the airport, especially in Dar es Salaam as the lines are lengthy. Go to your local consulate ahead of time. The fee is $50 for all passport holders except Americans who pay $100 for a multiple entry visa good for one year. If you have visited an African nation infected by yellow fever you will need to get a Yellow Fever vaccination ahead of time.
Also waiting to obtain your visa in the airport will prompt them to attempt to get you to get the shot in the airport. Know they are not legally bound to require this, but they will have you thinking so. If you have not been somewhere infected by Yellow Fever then you should not have to obtain the vaccination. Do know the rules for this are not clear yet, as there has been a shift in their policy recently and the Tanzanian Consulate may require you to show a vaccination in order to obtain the visa, as this was the case in Dubai.
This notion of Zanzibar being uncommon is what makes this island beautiful in every sense of the word. Upon landing in Zanzibar’s quaint airport, the runway is littered with small charter planes. I flew in with Oman Air from Dubai.
The airport in Zanzibar is very small yet welcoming. Within minutes of deplaning I was standing before the immigration officers. I do not know the last time an immigration officer looked at me and smiled, but they sure did in Zanzibar. My last name is a common one in Arabic and it spans from communities in Iran, through the Gulf and apparently also in eastern Africa. Upon noticing, the gentleman smiled and said, “You are welcome here”. I then watched my suitcase be wheeled toward me, as there are no conveyors in Zanzibar’s airport. Whisked away to an air-conditioned van, I was on my way to the Park Hyatt Zanzibar, set in the heart of Stone Town, Zanzibar’s capital.
Where to Stay:
If you are looking for accommodation that will be secluded with only the ocean to offer then your best bet is to stay in the north of the island. Do know that there are no restaurants to walk to so you will be having a proper resort experience where you eat your meals at the hotel and can do day excursions to other islands or Stone Town for instance. The north side is about a 90-minute drive from the airport and Stone Town. However if you are looking for a more lively experience where you can walk to different restaurants and have a scene for nightlife then your best bet is to stay in Stone Town where you have everything from 5 star luxury properties like the Park Hyatt Zanzibar.
Upon arriving at the hotel I was taken back by how understated it is and this theme would continue throughout the trip. The main building of the Park Hyatt Zanzibar is a United Nations Economic and Social Commission (UNESCO) World Heritage Site and for good reason. This particular building was built 150 years ago while Zanzibar was a colony of Oman. It was built as a mansion and was intended to be something unique, hence its name in Swahili “mambo msiige” meaning “not to copy, not to repeat”. What gives it its distinction is the fact that the cement, pure and white, was mixed with thousands of eggs giving it both its colour and also its strength. As the Park Hyatt Zanzibar came to negotiate for this building, which took five years of back and forth, they realized the enormity of care UNESCO protects its site with. The adjacent building housing some 50 rooms of the hotel had to be built as closely as possible to mimic the original building and care had to be exercised in building the bridge joining the two. The original building houses the hotels suites, from the Bahari, meaning sea in Swahili, Terrace Suite to the Presidential Suite, each room has special touches from the china pieces to the side tables, all selected and often one of a king by the hotel’s Emirati owner.
I took a deluxe bedroom and it was spacious and airy. From the four poster canopy bed with its fresh white linens, to the balcony overlooking the Indian Ocean, everything in the room read: relax. I did for a bit, and then headed to the main restaurant, the Dining Room, for lunch. Zanzibari food is filling and healthy. Stews, rice dishes and salads dot the menu, followed by fresh juices and fruit platters. Again, what was most striking was the staff, all eager to explain and share their native dishes with visiting guests. The traditional Zanzibari soup tasted of pureed lentils and was to be eaten with what looked like mini falafels as well as other dressings you could add in, this is not to be missed. When you visit this property, be sure to ask for Moussa, as he was kind enough to reach out to his colleagues and ask for my name so he could address me by it throughout my stay. Over lunch I met the Park Hyatt Zanzibar’s sales manager, Julya, a young lady who made it from Siberia—yes, Siberia—to join the staff in Zanzibar. Remarkably, many of the Park Hyatt’s employees are locals from the mainland in Tanzania, many of who have never left their country and had not been on a plane. I recall the first time I came to Zanzibar and was conned into buying a ticket on a charter plane for $70. Over staying in Dar es Salaam for the night and waiting for the next boat, I eagerly paid it. Learning from Julya the price is about $40, I was dismayed and then later humbled when she told me that price is simply out of the question for any local citizen to pay in their lifetime, they always travel by boat. The Park Hyatt Zanzibar often transfers employees to other locations and therefore gets to revel in the pride in being able to offer someone the opportunity of their first plane ride.
What to Do:
The reason why I went back to Zanzibar was to go back to a place that I felt was the purest place I have ever seen on this planet. You will notice throughout your stay in Zanzibar that most of the people around you do not have any of the modern luxuries many of us think we cannot live without. A warm shower, running water, a bathroom inside the house, options for food, private transportation, almost all of this is non-existent for Zanzibaris. As you stroll through Stone Town’s winding alleys, everyone will greet you with a smile and perhaps try to sell you a beautiful wood carving or a scarf, but will be happier you are there than anything else. Stone Town is absolutely somewhere to see from local designers such as Doreen Mesikka to having drinks at Tacqueria, tucked into an alley down the road from the Park Hyatt. You should feel safe walking around Stone Town, even at night as I was explained that no one will directly steal from you, but if you happen to leave your wallet somewhere and come back, someone may have politely took it as his or her good fortune. The island and its people have a way of making you feel safe, secure and just all around happy, even when there is rain.
Day 2 in Zanzibar did not have any rain though. It was clear skies for a day with Safari Blue one of the leading companies that you can do excursions with. They offer a day package that will take you on a traditional dhow boat from an emerald green lagoon to a sandbank in the middle of the ocean and then later to a private island for a barbeque lunch. Dolphin watching is included, but you will not always see them, as I unfortunately did not. It is good to know that Zanzibar is surrounded by islands all offering their turquoise and mint waters as well as tropical fish and white sand beaches. From Prison Island, just a short twenty-minute boat ride from the Park Hyatt Zanzibar to Pemba Island just north of Zanzibar, all could be an afternoon getaway. The beaches surely are something memorable about Zanzibar, but you soon realize that no hotel is able to privatize their beachfront. The island does not allow any of the beaches to be privatized as they all belong to the people who inhabit the island. Depending on the type of experience you are looking for this is important to know.
What to Bring:
Zanzibar was not what I expected, the first time nor the second. It was a place on the map I stumbled upon and thought, “why not”. The second time around I was opened to the beauty of the people and not just that of the island’s nature. You are best advised to leave your fancy dresses, your heels and your makeup as well as your expectations of an island getaway at home for Zanzibar doesn’t necessitate any of that. Zanzibar is humid, almost year round. The island experiences two monsoon seasons, but rain can last from 5 minutes to 5 hours. It is best advised to go during the summer months, June-September, when they actually experience their winter. Given it is humid the majority of the time, bring light clothing and of course your swimming gear. It is also a Muslim country so one should be conscious that people are conservative and when in Stone Town or at meals in your hotel even, your arms and legs should be covered. You are guaranteed to come home with bronzed skin and a new appreciation for not only what you have but also the people around you. Zanzibar is about purity, about nature and about taking it easy, and Zanzibaris will remind you, polé pole, meaning slowly slowly. It seemed that my exit was quite slow, literally.
Aside from the items in your suitcase, set your frame of mind for such a trip. You will need to bring a lot of patience. If you live a fast paced life in the US or in Dubai that will slow way down in Zanzibar. You especially will need a lot of patience at the airport, as the employees are so new to processing the volume of people who board the large aircrafts. It may also sound cliché, but this is crucial. You should bring an open mind willing to take in a new appreciation for humanity. I was reminded of this when I was leaving as an older gentleman processing suitcases took a liking to me and followed me along to ensure we made it to our plane. He even boarded the bus taking us to the aircraft and talked with me for a few minutes. He seemed touched I had come back to Zanzibar, and I thanked him for having me back. He exited as we were about to pull away and both reluctantly and happily we waved to one another as the bus drove away. I know I was silently envious he was able to stay on that beautiful island as he may have wished to be in my place boarding a jet back to the Middle East. For decades, Zanzibar was the culmination of Middle Eastern and African influence, in the food, the architecture and even the language. For a few days, once again, those worlds came together and I was able to revel in how much people from such different places can have in common through simple phrases such as, salaam.
Park Hyatt Zanzibar, Shangani Street | Stone Town, Zanzibar | Tanzania Tel: +255 24 550 1234
* Disclaimer: I was invited by the beautiful Park Hyatt Zanzibar with Oman Air to stay for 3 nights at their hotel but views are strictly my own