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A Yacht Charter Vacation Diary: Zanzibar Island
See why East Africa is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful places on earth
By: James Foster
Aug. 12, 2006 10:30 AM
With an abundance of wildlife, coupled with rugged landscapes ranging from the sprawling Serengeti to lush rainforests and pristine beaches, the region is truly a destination for the ultimate traveler. The sunsets seem richer, the water seems more blue, the smiles of locals more sincere. Photographers often insist that taking pictures in Africa is the easiest assignment there is...since the pictures really take themselves. The descriptions and stories told by others who had seen the continent’s raw beauty and witnessed its visual and soulful magic firsthand, inspired me. So after graduating from college I volunteered and served as a Communications Director at Daystar University in Kenya. It was a position that was indeed challenging, but provided me with the tremendous opportunity of being able to explore wondrous locales that had previously existed only in my imagination.
Because of an academic strike orchestrated by the students of the university, faculty members were given time off until the strike was resolved. After speaking with many of my African friends, it was determined Zanzibar Island off the coast of Tanzania was not to be missed before my time expired as a volunteer. Together with another friend, we devised a route and took the plunge. Now, as the reader, you must understand several things before I go any further. Getting to Zanzibar Island from the US is a relatively easy process. Book your tickets and accommodations through a travel agent (I can’t stress that enough). You would most likely fly from the U.S. to Amsterdam, then to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. While customs is run inefficiently and can take some time, officials typically don’t harass Americans. From Dar, Air Tanzania flies six times weekly to the island and ZanAir and Coastal Aviation have daily flights. Once you arrive, a driver will pick you up and bring you directly to your hotel. Simple. But, since my friend and I weren’t being paid at the time, our goal was to not only see as much of Zanzibar Island and the greater Tanzanian region as possible, but also to do so in the most cost-efficient manner - therefore, I would strongly advise against taking the route we choose.
We hopped a bus from Nairobi, Kenya, to Moshi, Tanzania, which took roughly thirteen hours (including the border hassle and various stops along the way). Occasionally we were able to nod off, but mostly we just gazed out at the scenery unfolding before us. Tall, dry grasses leaned slightly in the African breeze, and acacia trees speckled the landscape.
Moshi is a bustling mountain town that serves as a general launching point for many trekkers hoping to tackle Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest peak. After spending the night in a questionable hotel and playing in a local rugby tournament the following day, we hopped yet another bus for Dar es Salaam; approximately eight hours later, we had arrived in Tanzania’s port city. When we exited the bus we were immediately set upon by a group of aggressive “salesmen” – if you can call them that. These men wait at bus terminals for tourists to disembark, then bombard them with offers for hotels, tours, car rentals, crafts – you name it. In Africa, these “salesmen” can become pretty aggressive, so it’s always wise to at least look and act like you know what you’re doing. Once you’ve adamantly established that you’re not in the market for what they’re selling, they’ll usually leave you alone and that will provide you with enough time to create some space from the commotion, gather your things, then determine if in fact you are interested in what they’re selling – and in our case, we were interested in getting to Zanzibar.
We were ushered into a windowless storefront, then promptly led behind a curtain into the “travel agent’s” office, which was nothing more than a card table and plastic chair. He offered us two options: taking a ferry out to the island, or taking a plane, which took about a half-hour and cost roughly $50 USD. Inexplicably, the ferry took approximately five hours and cost about $35 USD – needless to say, we chose to fly.
We had planned to spend the majority of our time along the north end of the island where there’s typically a younger crowd and more affordable accommodations, but we also wanted to experience the historical and cultural epicenter of the island as well – Stone Town. Zanzibar Island, once under the rule of the Portuguese, Arabs, and British, has evolved into something of a melting pot, and Stone Town is its truest testament to the cultural, architectural and religious inter-mixing.
Coral-lime houses and a virtual sea of white walls drew us into a maze of cobbled back alleys and side streets, all boasting their own bazaars. The smell of exotic spices mixed with the aroma of a shopkeeper’s strawberry-flavored tobacco being slowly puffed from an ornate hookah tickled our nostrils. Intricately designed doors on the homes welcomed visitors with greetings in Arabic. We stopped and bought some bananas and freshly cut mangoes from a street vendor who offered a toothless smile and a genuine “Asante sana” (‘thank you very much’ in KiSwahili). Mopeds putted past us and bicycle bells jingled as their riders casually made their way to the seaside promenade, Jamituri Gardens, to unload a fresh catch from their banana-leafed baskets. As we strolled along, stopping briefly at each stand to look at the crafts and exchange pleasantries with the vendors, the ocean air filled our lungs and intoxicated us with an remarkable feeling of island ease. The quick pace we usually kept slowed to a lethargic saunter as our feet became hopelessly heavy.
Deciding what to eat, or more appropriately, what not to eat, became our biggest challenge of the evening. Each candlelit kiosk we passed looked and smelled more appetizing than the previous one, and with the price of a dish ranging anywhere from .25 to .50 cents, we stuffed ourselves with octopus smoked in banana leaves, sweetmeats, fishcakes, crab meat wrapped in chapattis with a Peptang pepper sauce and the freshest fruit I’d ever tasted, covered with a sugary-sweet milk cream.
As the sun began to set on Stone Town, tourists and locals alike congregated in seaside cantinas to sip Tusker beers and swill large glasses of rum with sliced limes. The smells of cigar smoke and citrus cocktails mixed with the soft breezes floating through the open doors and windows. Live bands playing coastal Swahili music lightened the mood even further and before we knew it, the day had passed into night and any cares or concerns we had melted with the setting sun.
We had previously booked a room in town that would suffice for the two days we planned to stay; the cost was reasonable (about $15 USD per night). It was centrally located, clean, had running water, security and a decent bar – good enough for us. Because of the island’s tourist influx in the mid-to-late 1990s, several legitimately luxurious tourist hotels have been constructed, and both the Zanzibar Serena Inn and the Dhow Palace Hotel are immaculate. We woke in the morning to the Muslim call to prayer, which by now we had become accustomed to while living in Africa, but for every mosque’s call to prayer, bells would ring in Stone Town’s many churches; it reminded us of the very diverse island we were on.
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