Our round-the-world traveller swoons over the beaches, food and spices to be found on the Indian Ocean island.
Zanzibar: East Africa's vanilla-scented paradise
Picture a scene from Disney's Aladdin. Mix this with Muscat, overlay it with a blueprint of old Manama, add the smell of Indian spices and place it on a 25km x 50km paradisiacal island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Surround it with striking turquoise water ebbing against beautiful white-sand beaches scattered with palm trees and, finally, blend in plenty of African charm. You'll get Zanzibar.
Stone Town, a Unesco world heritage site, was my first stop. The town is easy to explore on foot, but don't rely on a map or road signs. I found the best way to become acquainted with Stone Town was to rely on instincts and sense of smell. Though the labyrinth of dark and ancient alleyways was slightly unnerving after sunset, after walking past a few school children, tourists and tea stands, I realised it was actually quite safe.
If you're in Stone Town for only a day, go to Forodhani Gardens. If you're in Stone Town for only three days, go to Forodhani three times. As soon as the sun sets, this area of green grass by Stone Town's coast turns into a carnival of the senses every night. Fresh squid, shrimp, prawns and fish are harvested from the ocean just hours before they arrive on your plate. For US$2-$3 (Dh7-Dh11), you can sample what is arguably the best fresh seafood in the world. Move to the next stall and you can wash it down with a drink of fresh sugar cane juice flavoured with lime and a bit of ginger before heading back into the alleyways for some chai with the locals. If seafood isn't your cup of tea, sample some Zanzibar "pancakes", basically a burrito-type treat stuffed with mince (or Nutella and fruit for dessert). Though I'm tempted to write about Forodhani for the rest of this column, there's plenty more I'd like to mention about the wonders of Zanzibar.
I was awoken at sunrise by the call to prayer and the laughter of children running through the alleyways. Zanzibar Coffee House (a coffee house-cum-hotel) served up a fresh breakfast every morning on the roof of the house, allowing you to take in Stone Town while sipping fresh cappuccino, with froth so thick it was inviting me to dive in. At $125 (Dh460) per double per night (including breakfast and free Wi-Fi), the price is steep, especially in comparison with nearby lodgings. Is it incredible? Yes. Is the price worth it? For a special occasion, perhaps.
As a devoted coffee lover, the aptly named suites - Arabica, Macchiato and Espresso - appealed to me, and I luxuriated in my surroundings, thoroughly enjoying the seductive aroma of freshly brewed java. I treated my stay as a post-mountain-climb, end-of-world-tour treat. Zanzibar's ancient doors and shutters are unique and striking and an entire day can be spent roaming around and admiring them. Each door tells a story about the history, heritage and wealth of the original homeowner. Doors date back to the 12th century and the influence from India and Arabia is evident. The town boasts about 500 historic doors, but this number is sadly diminishing due to thievery and wealthy collectors buying them.
A former slave trade capital, Stone Town has an old slave market and caves where slaves were kept. If you walk around for long enough, you'll pass the simple topaz wooden shutters of the house by the ocean where Freddie Mercury grew up. Freshly picked cloves, tamarind, ginger, cinnamon, lemongrass, vanilla beans and saffron. These are just a few of the spices grown on this lush island. A tour booked through the official Stone Town tourism authority ($25 including transport, traditional lunch and visit to a slave cave) takes you to a nearby spice farm where you can experience fresh spices with a guide, tasting fresh pepper, sniffing a vanilla pod or picking your own tamarind to use as lipstick. There's also an opportunity to buy soap and spices before you leave the plantation. My kitchen is now full of Zanzibar spices and the wonderful scents of the island now come rushing back to me whenever I'm cooking.
The local merchants offer an outstanding collection of jewellery, Masai beads, paintings and antiques. Having honed my haggling skills in East Asia, I thought I'd try my luck in Zanzibar. I confidently but politely insisted on knocking a zero or two off the price and the shop owners seemed to enjoy the banter, obliging almost every time. My backpack was positively bursting with coffee beans, spices, canvases, kanga - colourful cotton sarongs - and antiques, as well as a traditional African drum, which I carried onto the plane under my arm.
At the other end of Zanzibar, 25km north of Stone Town,are Kendwa and Nungwe, two stretches of beach teeming with hedonistic party people, honeymooners and scuba divers. You can take a PADI diving course, see whale sharks up close and, if you can afford it, stay at the well-hidden Mnemba resort island, which is frequented by celebrities such as Cheryl Cole, Will Smith and the Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates.
I opted to stay in a bamboo hut on the beach instead and was given diving lessons by Sir Bobby Charlton's instructor. Manchester United, it seemed, had followed me throughout my travels, even to my final stop. It's no wonder this archipelago in the Indian Ocean is flooded with tourists year round, which will gradually chip away at its rustic, magical authenticity. On the rocky ferry ride back to Dar Es Salaam ($25, Dh92 for VIP seats), I began to wonder what Zanzibar would be like in five, 10 or 15 years and made a resolution to return as often as I can. Zanzibar is the type of place that you want to take your family, your friends or someone special to. It's impossible to have anything but a great experience on this island. Maybe it really is magic.
Backpack in tow, flip-flops intact and stomach (just about) surviving, I was about to board the final flight of my round-the-world journey. The enormity of the moment didn't quite hit me until I disembarked at Abu Dhabi airport and realised I didn't have to learn any new words for "hello" and "thank you". This was, at least for the time being, the end of the road.