Zanzibar’s lasting mystique has attracted travellers from around the world for centuries. From its early days as a Swahili port, Zanzibar has done a thriving business in the cargo of the day. In generations long past, ivory, slaves and spices were transported on large wooden sailing dhows across the Indian Ocean to the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. Although spices remain a main export, these days Zanzibar’s main attraction is the beauty of the island itself.
Zanzibar’s history stretches back to when the first dhows from Arabia and India discovered its natural harbour. Using the island as a stopover point for caravans that journeyed deep into the African interior, permanent settlement soon created the beginnings of what became Stone Town. Merchants from Oman, Gujarat and around the Indian Ocean moved their families from across the ocean to start a life in Zanzibar, some amassing great fortunes and building the high stone houses so indicative of Stone Town today. Although Swahili civilization in the area of Kilwa Kisiwani further south peaked in the 14th century, Zanzibar’s prosperity came much later, with the arrival of the Omani sultans in the 18th century. Living and ruling from Stone Town, the sultans presided over the slave and ivory trade, planting vast spice plantations that survive to this day.
Remnants of the hey-day of Swahili civilization in Zanzibar still remain, vestiges of a vanished past that people still look to with a sense of heritage and pride. In Stone Town, the House of Wonders greets visitors arriving by sea, a grand building once used by the sultan for his administrative duties. His town palace stands adjacent to it, the walkways that connected the two buildings still in dilapidated existence. Nearby, the Portuguese Fort recalls the brief occupation of the island by foreign rule, while the nearby Anglican Cathedral built over the site of the old slave market soothes the wounds of a sobering past. Today, Stone Town is as much of an attraction for visitors as Zanzibar’s beaches, world-renowned for their idyllic seascapes and island charm. Guests have their pick of beaches famed for their tropical climate and soothing crystal-clear waters. Swahili fishing villages, snorkelling, diving, or just beachcombing offer perfect choices of relaxing itineraries.
For cultural connoisseurs, it’s best to time a visit around one of Zanzibar’s many festivals. Vibrant occasions occur throughout the year, days of celebration when the island and its people truly come alive. The annual ZIFF Festival of the Dhow Countries film festival and the Sauti za Busara Swahili Music Festival are the main attractions, with the Swahili festival of Mwaka Kongwe not to be missed.
Yet there’s more to Zanzibar than the main island of Unguja. To the north, Pemba Island offers world-class diving in pristine surroundings. Accommodation ranges from the most basic to the utmost in barefoot luxury and visitors agree that a visit to Pemba is well worth the effort. To the south is the little-known Mafia Island, its reefs affording perfect diving in tranquil surroundings. Covered in coconut palms and abandoned fruit groves left by Arab merchants centuries before, Mafia’s charm is unique to the Swahili coast, its shores untouched by development or change. Other smaller islands surround Unguja, the main island in the archipelago, and make pleasant day trips for visitors from Stone Town.
Come to Zanzibar and you will experience the hospitality of the Swahili people, the beauty of the island, and the lasting mystique of its regal history. Visit Zanzibar, and you will understand why century after century, travellers have come to its shores in search of magic and romance.