I haven’t traveled much lately. I’ve enjoyed staying put. But when my friend GF moved to the exotic climes of Zanzibar, I dusted off the passport and braced myself for an airport run.
Less than six hours direct from Doha, this East African island conjures up images of exotic beaches and a slower pace of life. Both are correct. But Stone Town, where I spent most of my brief weekend, has history and a cool vibe to attract even those looking for something more.
I have to admit, when I stumbled off the plane at Zanzibar Airport mid downpour and hurtled towards the shack that currently passes for the terminal, I was reassessing my desire to leave the safe confines of my living room. But the arrival and immigration procedures, while comically complicated, were actually straightforward (tip bring a pen and only do carry-on).
My brief weekend was spent at Park Hyatt Zanzibar, while the hotel just turned one, the building dates back to the 17th century. A typical Zanizbari mansion, it sprawls across two buildings and is all whitewashed walls and cool, smooth corners. The rooms are impossibly romantic – With four poster beds – and coupled with the Hyatt’s renowned service, you couldn’t ask for a better retreat.
The hotel has a pool and is on the Stonetown public beach – which is entertainment in itself. Check out the passing parade of local boys strutting their physical prowess on the beach or the flotilla of tourist boats bobbing in the water. The staff, most of whom are from Zanzibar, are charming, well trained and always willing to go the extra mile. Absolutely what is expected of the Hyatt brand.
With less than 100 rooms, the service is intimate and personal. I ate the the hotel’s only restaurant on two occasions and was thoroughly impressed by the food. An octopus curry (a local delicacy) was tender and perfectly spiced. Sorry no photos – it’s brown and doesn’t photograph well. Trust me. I would live on that curry.
This hotel is literally a haven, especially from the sometimes oppressive humidity (Doha has nothing on this) and a special mention must be made of the Anantara Spa. Small and private, it has a full range of treatments including massage, facials and body scrubs.Expect to pay “hotel prices”, but worth every cent.
Stone Town, the gateway to Zanzibar, is a living and breathing UNESCO world heritage site. Its streets are a labrinyth of alleys, crumbling buildings and characters. The Hyatt is well positioned and a short walk to the main tourist attractions, cafes, bars and some funky boutiques. Speaking of bars, you would be hard pressed to find a better one than the Hyatt’s outdoor terrace – sunset, a cold beer and people watching opportunities everywhere
Stone Town’s architecture has a number of distinctive features, as a result of Arab, Persian, Indian, European, and African traditions mingling. The streets in Stone Town are very narrow and sometimes treacherous and almost getting anywhere within the town must be done on foot. There are enough nooks and crannies to keep you interested for a couple of days.
I spent a lovely evening wandering the alleys, sometimes having to fend off touts selling souvenirs, but otherwise just soaking up the sights and smells. On the water’s edge you can check out the food stalls selling fish and seafood grilled on the spot.
Nearby the famous House of Wonders (apparently named because it was the first house with electricity in Stone Town) lords over the passing parade of locals and tourists.
One thing that struck me was the famous doors of Stone Town. All reflect a different influence (Arab, Indian, African) and can be spectacularly intricate. There are more than 500 of these doors on record in Stone Town.
You have to remind yourself regularly that this is a living breathing city and not just a museum piece for tourists. This city has changed little in 200 years, but among the newer luxury hotels, families still live in traditional apartments, kids still play in the streets and life goes on.
Zanzibar was famous worldwide for its spices and its slaves. It was the Africa Great Lakes’ main slave-trading port, and in the 19th century as many as 50,000 slaves were passing through the slave markets of Zanzibar each year. You see influences from the chequered history of the island everywhere you turn – Arabic fortresses built during the Omani rule, the enormous Anglican Cathedral built during the British rule, the Indian carved wood furniture and doors.
Zanzibar’s most famous export is probably not its spices. Rather it’s Farrokh Bulsara, better known as Freddie Mercury. You can admire the small flat his family lived in during his childhood from the street…blink and you will miss it.
Now I did manage to venture out of the city, to probably one of the most “bucket-listed” places in the world.
The Rock Restaurant has inspired a million Instagrams and yes even mine. Perched literally on a rock on a rock just of the shore of the beautiful Michanwi Pingwe beach, it’s a tourist’s dream. It was originally a fisherman’s post before being converted into a restaurant and bar in 2010.
While it a a seafood dominated menu, the food is not the draw (although my lobster was decent and the beer was cold). the azure blue water surrounding you and the minor adventure to get there is the cool part.
You can reach the restaurant by foot with low tide or by boat with high tide, boat service is offered by the property. Getting there requires a car and driver or a taxi and is around 90 minutes from Stone Town.
Two days is far too short a time on this fascinating little island. I didn’t even get to see the famed beaches. That’s why I’ve already planned my return.
Qatar Airways flies daily direct to Zanzibar and also offers connections through Dar Es Salaam.
Park Hyatt Zanzibar is located in Stone Town. When booking a room ask for one with a sea view.