With a smorgasbord of African and Arabian influences, Zanzibar offers a paradise escape blending history and heart

As I chow down on coconut French toast, drizzled in a passionfruit coulis, the monkey approaches a table on the veranda, gazing out towards the twinkling Indian Ocean. No bigger than a kitten, it grabs a sugar packet, expertly rips the top off, and pours the sweet crystals down its throat before being swiftly shooed away by hotel staff. It’s the perfect introduction to an island that’s both idyllic in landscape and exotic in the overall experience.


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Nestled in the Indian Ocean, the Zanzibar archipelago sits as little as 25 kilometres from the Tanzanian mainland. Comprised of a smattering of smaller isles and two larger ones, it is Unguja, the most famous of the latter, that we have ventured to.

Stretching just 85km in total, the island may seem small on the world map, but it is rich in history. The most populated island of the archipelago, Unguja is where one can find the the main city of Stone Town, the UNESCO World Heritage site that has formed an intrinsic stop on the spice trail since the 19th century. It is also, rather famously, the birthplace of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, who was originally born Farrokh Bulsara.

Comprised of a series of narrow alleys, the labyrinthian destination feels like the exact spot where east meets west. Reams of schoolchildren cycle down the winding streets, past charmingly dilapidated carved wooden doors – the town’s architecture is a fusion of Arab, Indian, African and European influences. Those who read Arabic will be able to spot phrases ornately scratched into such doors; residue from the Sultanate of Oman’s former reign of the island.

The island has also been previously ruled by the Portuguese and the British, both of which have left their influences on Zanzibar before it was granted independence in 1963.

Bazaars hawking everything from smoky paprika to aromatic cinnamon line Stone Town; at the heart of the spice markets, you cannot move an inch without being touted an exotic blend of powders that will transform your every dinner. But rather than an annoyance, the sellers’ cries only add to the romance and mystique of your visit.

Aside from seasonings, passageways are lined with rickety shops selling swirls of oils on canvases or intricately carved wooden boxes. Indeed, it’s near impossible to return home without a trinket or two (or, in my case, an enormous rainbow-hued portrait of a lion that requires a separate check-in at Abeid Amani Karume International Airport).

If shopping isn’t your holiday custom of choice, there are plenty more hot spots to be discovered. Peek at the front of Mercury’s former home (now a hotel that details the singer’s life story on its front walls), or venture to the Old Fort, a 17th-century stone stronghold and relic of the Omanis, erected to protect the city from European invaders. The stained-glass windows of the Old Dispensary can be marvelled over, or the Forodhani Gardens’ lush greenery traipsed, as you peer out at the shipping vessels dotting the oceanic horizon.

On our rainy season visit, however, the main attraction was a torrential downpour, which brought the flooded, cobbled streets to a standstill. Rather than dampening the moment, the rain instead forced tourists and residents alike to seek shelter on the narrow kerbs of alleyways, the oohing, aahing, and giggles of many a schoolchild proving to be very infectious.

It is that amiable, resolutely upbeat spirit that is also prevalent at our lodgings, The Residence Zanzibar. Located on the south-west edge of the island, the five-star resort may have ocean views and a glimmering infinity pool, but its greatest asset might be its staff. As you cycle between any of the hotel’s 66 villas – each of which comes with a private pool, deck and complimentary bikes – and the restaurant, spa, or tennis courts, choruses of “jambo”, Swahili for hello, rain down upon you. Much like Cheers, it is a place where everyone wants to know your name, in a heartfelt showing of genuine hospitality. An hour’s drive from Stone Town, The Residence offers a peaceful sanctuary from the tourist-laden north; a destination in itself for those seeking a reviving escape. Activities range from the educational, such as cooking classes that teach you how to create authentic Zanzibari dishes, to the downright indulgent (think standalone bath tubs, outdoor showers, a palm tree-lined stretch of private beach, or a massage).

The hotel’s isolated location, nestled between a forest and the sea with the village of Kizimkazi a short boat ride away, ensures guests have a serene and secluded stay. For those wishing to explore (without the bumpy drive back into Stone Town), The Residence can organise dolphin tours or snorkelling excursions. The latter delivered us onto a remote sand dune, surrounded by glass-like waters; a spot any Instagrammer would relish. As we snap our shots (I will never turn down the opportunity to send an envy-inducing photo back home), a flock of gulls swirl and swoop around the tiny cluster of pale, pancake-coloured sand. It feels like a perfect, almost pre-planned set-up, yet retains just a hint of ruggedness, with sun-faded fishing boats streaking past.

We can faintly hear cries of “jambo” and “hakuna matata”, Swahili for no worries. And in that moment, we truly have none.

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Media: Supplied