There is an old saying that all good African travels end on the beautiful beaches of Zanzibar, a lush tropical island just 12 miles wide and 53 miles long. Given Zanzibar’s natural blessings, this is certainly true.
A colorful past
Zanzibar, known to locals in Swahili as Unguja, is just 25 miles across the Zanzibar Channel from mainland Tanzania.
First Arabs then Persians settled the area and by the mid-11th-century, Islam had been fully accepted by the local population. The Portuguese then ruled for 200 years until 1700 when they were forced out by the Omani Arabs. In 1832, Said the Great decided to rule his Sultanate from Zanzibar instead of the Omani capital of Muscat.
Despite Zanzibar’s diminutive size, it historically has played an outsized role in the region chiefly due to spice cultivation — cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom — the slave trade upon which the plantations depended, and ivory imports, all of which Said vigorously promoted and which provided a commercial and cultural nexus to the Middle East and India.
In 1890 Zanzibar became a British protectorate until a few years before its 1963 independence, and it was the British that ultimately succeeded in terminating the slave trade. It was also here during the protectorate era that Freddie Mercury (née Farrokh Bulsara), the incredibly talented lead vocalist of the rock band Queen, was born.
In 1964 Zanzibar united with neighboring Tanzania as a republic. Today Zanzibar’s population is predominately Muslim while Tanzania is approximately 50 percent Muslim and 50 percent Christian.
Blissful beaches and calm, clear waters
In keeping with the old saying, following nearly three weeks traveling in East Africa, some serious rest and relaxation was in order. Thus, after an hour’s flight from Kenya’s capital of Nairobi to Zanzibar Town, I took a 90-minute, intensely potholed drive to Kendwa, on the island’s beautiful north shore and parked my tired self at Gold Zanzibar Beach House & Spa.
With 75 spacious rooms, suites and villas, Gold Zanzibar sits on prime real estate facing a pristine, white sand beach. Its warm, crystal clear, calm waters are a traveler’s balm and a distance swimmer’s ultimate dream. The property has two options: an all-inclusive plan, which includes all meals and drinks, or a breakfast and dinner only option. Since there are very few choices nearby, the all-inclusive option is the better bet. Hotel and restaurant staff is welcoming and pleasant.
There are two bars and two restaurants. Kilimanjaro Restaurant serves three buffets daily with a wide selection of Western, Indian and Zanzibari options, including plenty of delicious vegetarian fare. Gold Restaurant serves a la carte options. Given the hotel’s location, the seafood — all manner of fish, prawns, crab and calamari — is fantastically fresh and perfectly prepared. And since the hotel owners are Italian, there is always a great selection of pizzas and homemade pastas with fresh pesto and other delicious sauces thanks to the charming and ever accommodating, Mauritius-born, executive chef Sunil.
Gold Zanzibar also has a beachfront spa with massages, facials and body treatments that will cure any remnants of travel or work fatigue. If you have a foot massage in the spa’s oceanfront outdoor pavilion, there is an extremely good chance you will forget your name. And it won’t matter and you won’t care.
Sunsets along the Indian Ocean are a magical mirage of intense light, neon colors and wispy clouds peppered with gliding, sailing wooden dhows. In the past, large dhows originally plied the trade routes resulting in the mélange of local customs and culture with those of India and the Arabian Peninsula. Taking a sunset dhow cruise today while the sun slowly sinks into the seemingly endless horizon is a reminder of nature’s daily perfection and serves to bring home how trade and the high seas completely altered the region and its people.
In the evenings there is always live music at the Gold Zanzibar’s Sultan Bar and twice a week, majestic Maasai men — who hail from both the Serengeti and the bush near Arusha on the Tanzanian mainland — perform traditional dances and host a Maasai market where beautiful handmade crafts can be purchased.
If you wish to accomplish more than getting a tan, there are stretch and pool aerobics classes, bocce ball games, beach volleyball, Swahili lessons and palm weaving classes. Gold Zanzibar can also arrange excursions such as spice tours and day trip visits to nearby islands. www.GoldZanzibar.com.
Due to the distance and road conditions between Kendwa and the old city of Stone Town, one of East Africa’s oldest cities, it’s best to visit Stone Town en route to Kendwa on arrival or on departure day. If the weather is clear, walking the narrow streets of Stone Town is preferable. About two hours is sufficient unless you stop for coffee or lunch at the beautiful, seafront Serena Hotel near the original slave market, or at the Africa House Hotel for sundowners.
Along the seafront is the old Arab Fort that withstood an attack by Mombasa Arabs in the mid-1700s and later hosted public beheadings. Next door is the impressive Beit Al Ajaib, House of Wonders, so named as it was the first Zanzibari building to have electricity and the first in East Africa to possess an elevator. Built in 1883 by Said the Great’s son, Sultan Barghash, it’s now a museum that at the moment can only be viewed from the outside as it’s currently closed for refurbishment.
Though Freddie Mercury was born in Stone Town, visiting his former small home is a bit anti-climactic. While there is a small sign out front signifying its claim to fame and a few black and white photos outside and along the internal staircase walls, sadly the structure is fairly dilapidated and has been converted into a budget hotel.
The lesson learned
Whether on business in Nairobi or elsewhere in Africa, or following a safari in Kenya’s Maasai Mara or Tanzania’s Serengeti, a few days spent on the beautiful and exotic northern coast at Gold Zanzibar Beach House & Spa is sure to relax and rejuvenate. It will also happily force you to slow down. As I departed for my long onward journey, I was reminded of the Swahili proverb, “A hasty person misses the sweet things.” Indeed.
Zanzibar, the best way
There are several nonstop flights daily from Nairobi and Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam. Though there are ferries from Dar, it’s faster and more comfortable to fly.
Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, attorney and legal columnist based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.
Some vendors listed hosted the writer, however content was not reviewed by them prior to publication and is solely the opinion of the writer.