Stone Town, Zanzibar, had been one of my most anticipated stops on my trip. I had only heard great things about this island-many comparing it to paradise. I can gladly say that I do agree with those sentiments, and I had an enjoyable and relaxing 8 days on the island, which easily could have been extended. Since I had the luxury of spending over a week on the island, I decided to divide my time between the main area of Stone Town (3 nights), Paje on the east coast (2 nights), and Kendwa up in the north (3 nights).
Walking through Stone Town is akin to entering a fairy tale. The city is rife with cobblestone streets and winding alleyways, full of Mosques to support the over 90% Muslim population. Even the buildings have character to them. Stone Town is also located right on the water’s edge with many ports present, and is within walking distance from the ferry to Dar es Salaam on mainland Africa. The Stone Town area is also where the majority of the locals live, as the other parts of the island are almost solely catered for tourism. Spending time here allows one to get a feel for how the locals live.
My first day was spent wandering through the various alleyways to see what I would stumble upon. Must see touristy sights in Stone Town include the Old Fort, the Sultan’s Palace, and the Forodhani Gardens. If visiting the Forodhani Gardens during the day, it is also a must to visit them during the evening hours, when the area comes alive with the local food vendors. Not only was the food cheap, but it was also delicious! There I was able to try a couple of the famous Zanzibari “pizzas”, which are more like calzones. I had both a savory and a sweet one, the sweet one comprised of bananas, snickers, and nutella, yum! I also had a couple of glasses of the freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, which was very sweet. I decided to pass on the wide variety of seafood, since I did not know how long it had been lying out, although it did look tasty-lobsters, crabs, octopus, prawns, calamari and more
Stone Town is also a good base point from which to do a few excursions, of which I went on a Spice Tour, as well as to Prison Island, home of the famous giant tortoises.
The day that I had booked the spice tour was awful weather-wise, with a steady rain and wind. It did turn out to be the best possible activity for that day however, as I would otherwise be holed up in my hostel. Zanzibar is famous for its many spice plantations, which grow a wide array of spices and fruits. The plantations aren’t too far from Stone Town, about a 20 minute drive away. The guide led us through the plantation, explaining which spice or fruit grew on each tree, the different uses for the particular item in question, and even letting us sample it. Some of the spices included were tumeric, ginger, pepper, curry, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamon, ginger, and lemongrass. Some of the fruits included jackfruit (largest fruit ever), Zanzibar apples, star fruit, oranges, pineapple, and pomelo. We finished with a simple lunch of veggies and rice cooked with many of the spices listed above. I definitely will try to use more spices when I cook in the future, as they were very flavorful!
I recommend a spice tour for anyone who has a chance to visit Zanzibar, they are very affordable, only about $10-15 for a half day tour, including transport.
When I was exploring Stone Town on the first day, I came across a few fishermen on the shore near their boats. After talking with them for a few minutes, I was able to work out a deal for a shared ride out to Prison Island (30 minute boat ride), as well as use of a snorkel and fins to do some snorkeling around the area, for a good price, cheaper than what the tour companies were advertising. I was also able to meet up with 2 girls who were in the same volunteer program as me back in Arusha, although we were not there at the same time.
The day of our trip was a beautiful sunny day. We met the boat captain at the shore, and rode out to Prison Island. Prison Island (or Changuu, its official name), used to serve as a prison for unruly slaves prior to selling them to other countries back in the mid-1800s. It was later used as a quarantine zone by the British Authorities in the 1900s after slavery was abolished on Zanzibar. The island now hosts a resident population of the Aldabra Giant Tortoises, which were originally given as a gift from the country of Seychelles. Theses tortoises can live for over 200 years! The tortoises here were all spray painted with their ages on their shells for quick identification. The oldest one I was able to spot was 180 years old. They were extremely docile creatures, allowing you to hold spinach leaves for them as they quickly devoured them. They also loved to have their leathery necks massaged, and would close their eyes, displaying looks of pleasure. The tortoises enjoy a luxurious, life bereft of any predators, and just have to be complicit with the various tourists that come to see them.
After exploring the remnants of the barracks, we went snorkeling off of the shore. The water here was a vivid blue, with coral covering most of the ocean floor. We had to be wary of the many sea urchins, whose spines stretched nearly a foot long, and can be incredibly painful, if accidentally trod on. There were also many different types of small, brightly colored fish darting in and around the coral, including clown fish and zebra fish.
It was soon time to head back to the main island of Zanzibar, where we enjoyed a fresh fish lunch at a local restaurant. After having subsided on the same old rices, beans, starches, and dry meats over the past few months, the fresh seafood and flavorful spices were a treat!
Stone Town really is an enjoyable part of Zanzibar, rich with culture and history, and is not to be overshadowed by the famous beaches and resorts dotting the northern and eastern parts of the island.