Why Zanzibar's scented paradise islands are an ideal holiday destination

Zanzibar is surrounded by crystal clear waters lapping up on white sand beaches.
Zanzibar is surrounded by crystal clear waters lapping up on white sand beaches. Photo credit: Getty Images

There's a phrase that the locals love to use in Zanzibar, one that sums up life on this archipelago of 50 islands just off the coast of East Africa: hakuna matata.

It means "no worries," as fans of The Lion King will know, and it's a feeling that's palpable from the moment of arrival in UNESCO-protected Stone Town, the jumping-off point for most visits to this warm and wonderful coastal paradise.

From young daredevils somersaulting off the sea wall into the azure waters of the harbour to old timers getting down to a competitive game of dominoes, the way of life here is simple, with a major emphasis on enjoyment in the everyday.

Zanzibar's location made it a vital trading post as far back as the 9th century, when Swahili merchants facilitated the sale of gold and ivory from across East Africa to Arab, Indian and Persian traders.

This coming together of civilizations helped lay the ground for the diverse and culturally vibrant islands of today, before Portuguese, Omani and then British imperial rule changed things further. It wasn't until 1964, and its merger with Tanganyika to form modern-day Tanzania, that Zanzibar became the place we know today.

Becoming shark bait

Nowhere sums up this coming together of cultures like Stone Town. Its labyrinthine alleys, souks and bazaars are a testament to centuries of influence from across the globe. Strolling these narrow streets, dodging bicycles, there is an air of warmth and friendliness.

Except, that is, at Jaws Corner.

On the face of it, this is a place where locals grab a cup of extra strong coffee and catch up on the latest gossip. But sit down to a game of dominoes and the uninitiated tourist can quickly become shark bait. Hence Jaws Corner. It's hard not to feel singled out until the smiles break out after another heavy defeat.

Stone Town is the gateway to Zanzibar.
Stone Town is the gateway to Zanzibar. Photo credit: Getty Images

Farouque Abdela, however, explains that it isn't always like this. At least not when the serious business of dominoes is involved. A renowned fashion designer, Abdela left his native Zanzibar in the 1960s, moving to London aged 14. He returned in 2004 and is now keen to espouse the joys of home, and Stone Town in particular.

"Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of Zanzibar," he sings, happily misquoting Ralph McTell's classic about the streets of London. "I'll show you something that's gonna blow your mind."

After another chastening match with those aforementioned domino demons, it sounds very appealing. Everyone is, in truth, delightful and unfailingly warm, but it's a good opportunity to set out exploring instead.

Abdela's tour takes in the Freddie Mercury Museum, dedicated to the man born Farrokh Bulsara right here in Zanzibar.

Replete with photographs of his childhood and handwritten lyrics, it sadly glosses over important parts of Mercury's life, most significantly his death from AIDS-related illness, missing out key parts of his legend and legacy in the process.

It is, though, not the only thing Abdela is keen to reveal.

The ornate, beautiful carved doors of Stone Town were, and are, a sign of wealth. And at Mr Jabir's shop, there's an opportunity to watch, learn and try one's hand at making one.

Yet while Jabir works mostly on stunning door carvings, he's also a dab hand at making the beautifully crafted boxes required for the devilishly tricky game of Bao.

Popular throughout East Africa and requiring impressive arithmetic skill to become a true master, it brings out that same competitive streak found at Jaws Corner's domino tables. For Jabir and Abdela, it's a source of great amusement, as well as a chance to showcase how Zanzibar places regional traditions at its heart.

On the water

If Stone Town speaks to Zanzibar's cultural past and present, then tradition can also be found in the sparkling waters of the Indian Ocean that surround its shores. This is a place where fishing remains vital, even if tourism has become the main trade.

The gorgeous beach of Michamvi, 90 minutes from Stone Town on Zanzibar's southeast coast, is the place for landlubbers looking for adventures on the water. Especially those who want to try their hand sailing a Ngalawa, a traditional canoe found along the Tanzanian coast.

This isn't just a chance for tourists to play for the day, though. Carved from mango trees, these narrow vessels are still used to bring in the daily catch.

Captain Ally, who is on hand to show us the ropes, doesn't just get visitors out on the water. When he's not busy showing off his skills, he's out on his Ngalawa fishing.

"I fish. My job is a fisherman. Some days I fish tuna, barracuda, kingfish or calamari," he says as the wind whips up and the waves begin to skitter.

Ally's catch, and those of fishermen like him, are what keep Michamvi beach's biggest draw in business. The Rock has become something of an Instagram sensation. Perched atop an outcrop a few meters from shore, in a traditional, thatched building, this superb restaurant not only serves some of the most creative seafood dishes around; it also happens to get cut off at high tide.

Built to exacting standards with minimal environmental impact, the chance to sample its remarkable crab ravioli with spirulina and then take a quick ferry ride back to the beach to sleep it all off, makes the pilgrimage to this place well worthwhile.

A scent of the past

Zanzibar is, of course, more than its main island. The second largest of the 50 that make up the region is Pemba, a quick flight northeast from Unguja, also known as Zanzibar Island. Here, Zanzibar's vital spice trade thrives. It was once the biggest producer of cloves in the world – drive along roads through farm fields and the scent gets right to the back of the nostrils. It's truly inescapable.

Zanzibar's spice trade is still thriving on the island of Unguja, part of Zanzibar.
Zanzibar's spice trade is still thriving on the island of Unguja, part of Zanzibar. Photo credit: Getty Images

While the humble clove might these days be seen as a stalwart of the dentist's surgery, it also has other, less tooth-friendly uses, as a key ingredient in local desserts. And at neighbourhood dessert shop Halwa Ya Wete, there's a chance to try making this take on the Middle Eastern classic of halwa.

Mixing sugar, ghee, rose water, cloves and other local spices in a vast trough for hours on end helps create this delicious, gelatinous treat. The dessert is a traditional favourite here, with Halwa Ya Wete's version drawing lines of locals.

Life for Pemba's farming communities isn't easy, but that doesn't stop them enjoying it to the full, whether in the halwa line or at the island's annual parade for the humble donkey, the animal that continues to do such vital work in Pemba's fields.

The colourful troop that passes through the streets during this magical event is full of enviable levels of energy and oomph, something that speaks to Zanzibar and its people's zest for living.

That feeling is present, too, back in Stone Town. As the sun sets on another day in this beautiful part of the world, "hakuna matata" is vibrant and alive at every turn.

Swimmers take to the water, local people dance their way down the streets and the coffee stops remain abuzz. There is an enthusiasm and atmosphere that is just incredible, you just want to jump on in. It's what makes this utterly unique corner of Africa so very special indeed.