Editor’s note: it is my absolute pleasure to introduce you all to Sam Spector, our newest writer here at The Royal Tour. His travels read as a highlight reel of some of the most amazing places in the world, both on and off the beaten path. You can read more about Sam, and see all of his articles as they are posted by clicking here.
In November, I took the plunge and got married. I am a rabbi who seeks out history and religion, and I ended up with a phenomenal woman from Idaho who was all about rock and roll, with a love of animals. With travel being my passion, I thought to myself, “Where could we go on our honeymoon that would combine history, religion, a bit of rock and roll, and a blend of cultures while being in a tropical paradise? Where could we go that would be truly epic, not your typical place?” And then it came to me, a place whose name conjures up a romantic sense of a faraway land, of another world. You know, the type of place that sounds almost mythical like Timbuktu or Kathmandu… this place called Zanzibar.
We flew into Zanzibar City from Nairobi in the middle of the night; our flight had gotten delayed as we were trapped in flash floods in Kenya, once unheard of in December, now commonplace from climate change effects. Upon our arrival, we went into the old part of the city, known as Stone Town. We stayed in the Fungate (Swahili for honeymoon) Suite at the Tembo Apartments and Hotel overlooking the Indian Ocean and on the sandy beach, with an old, classic décor that combined Victorian, Middle Eastern and African elements. Choosing this place was intentional, for not only was it in an ideal location, but this hotel and its adjacent apartments were the childhood home of a boy named Farrokh Bulsara, who would later become known to the world as Freddie Mercury. However, aside from this fun piece of music history that we got to experience as we pictured little Freddie playing in the cul-de-sac of our hotel, we would soon immerse ourselves in a place that is like nowhere else. Despite being a small island right off the coast of Tanzania, Zanzibar played a significant role in history as a crossroads of trade for spices… and people, in the western Indian Ocean.
The roofs of Stone Town
To understand Zanzibar, one must understand its history. Zanzibar has been home to human civilization for at least 20,000 years. During the Middle Ages it was a center of commerce for traders from Africa, Arabia, Persia, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, and China, before being colonized by Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese. Later, Zanzibar would become part of the Sultanate of Oman, with the Omani Sultan eventually moving his capital to Stone Town. After the sultan’s death, in a dispute between his two sons, mainland Oman would remain the Sultanate of Oman, ruled by one son, and Zanzibar would become its own kingdom ruled by the other son. Afterwards, Zanzibar became a part of the British Empire and then a sultanate and protectorate under the British. Later, Zanzibar had a revolution and declared independence in 1963 and then merged with mainland Tanganyika. The mainland and the island combined their names to become the United Republic of Tanzania.
Today, every layer of Zanzibar’s tumultuous history is evident in its modern culture, which is a blend of many parts of the world. Many Zanzibari people claim a diverse heritage of Indian, Arabic, and African roots, making many Zanzibaris appear different than mainland Tanzanians. Likewise, while Tanzania is mostly Christian, the island of Zanzibar’s population is 99% Muslim.
Zanzibar has history and water like this!
As we walked through the winding, old streets of Stone Town, we passed numerous bazaars and markets, selling spices, fruits, and crafts. We eventually found the Tea House Restaurant, where we climbed half a dozen flights of stairs to a beautiful rooftop eatery. As we looked out over the setting sun with our drinks and heard the muezzin call to prayer boom throughout the city, I could not help but think, “You hit the honeymoon jackpot.” On this rooftop we were treated to a performance by a local traditional singer while being served a set menu for dinner.
The next day was for plunging into the history of Stone Town. When I think of the African slave trade, I think of the tragic history of people largely from Western Africa being transported across the Atlantic to the Americas for forced labor. However, a slave trade that went on for longer, even into the early 20th century, was the African slave trade to Arab lands. One place that this sad event took place was here in Zanzibar, and you can go to the Anglican Cathedral to visit the old slave market that operated until 1873 and see the deplorable conditions in which people were kept.
A monument to the slave market
Following this sobering visit, we took a speed boat to the tiny Changuu Island, better known as Prison Island, or Quarantine Island, off the coast of Stone Town. This island was initially designated to be a prison. However, in an all-too-relatable turn of events, it was never used as such, but rather as a quarantine center for individuals with Yellow Fever. The highlight of the island is the Aldabra giant tortoises, the males weighing over 500 lbs. and females 300 lbs. Today there are a couple hundred of the tortoises on the island, but initially four of these tortoises were given by the governor of the Seychelles as a gift in 1919. Incredibly, some of those original tortoises are still alive with their ages written on their backs. When else will you get the opportunity to stand with a massive, living creature that is over 190 years old that was born during the presidency of John Quincy Adams? To think of the historical events that happened during these tortoises’ lifetimes gives you the unique opportunity to interact with a living time capsule.
The giant tortoises are not the only unique animals in Zanzibar. The Jozani National Park of Zanzibar is the only place in the world that is home to the red colobus monkey. Explore this small national park and appreciate that you are seeing a creature that you can only see if you can say, “I have been to Zanzibar.” While you are there, walk through the mangrove forest and look down to see the earth moving with hundreds of crabs scurrying beneath you. As we continued our journey northward on the main island, we stopped at a spice farm. The archipelago of which Zanzibar is part is known as the Spice Islands, and at these farms all over the island you can sample and taste different spices and fruits; it is especially fun to try to test your pallet, to see if you can differentiate between cumin, paprika, pepper, and dozens more spices picked straight from the plant.
The red colobus monkey
Finally, we reached our northern destination of Matemwe, a sleepy fishing village away from the tourist haven of Nungwi. There, miles of unspoiled beach greeted us, as we watched waves crash on a distant barrier reef only to be followed by hundreds of meters of still, mirror water coming up to the shoreline. As a part of the respite we snorkeled off the shore of Mnemba Island, and while doing so, a pod of approximately twenty dolphins decided to join us and the thousands of colorful fish and swim alongside us. Back on the shore, we saw over a dozen women in traditional African garb walking in a circle together in the water. As they spun, their circle tightened, until they all came together. Splashing in the water between them occurred and they lifted up a net to reveal fish that they had caught, before returning to a large circle and spinning their way down the coastline taking part in an archaic fishing practice as their ancestors had done for hundreds of years. This experience capped our fungate.
The circle of women fishing
If you want to go to a place where you can experience a plethora of cultures, interact with unique nature, eat some of the world’s most flavorful and fresh food, ponder the complexity of colonial history, and enjoy some r&r in a tropical paradise, add the mythical-sounding Zanzibar to your bucket list.
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