Zanzibar has been on my travel bucket list since I moved to East Africa. I've always fostered a burning jealousy whenever one of my friends visited Zanzibar and I would see their pictures of what looked like paradise. Ever since Eric and I took a road trip up and down the Kenyan coast a few years ago, I've fallen in love with the Swahili coast - its blend of cultures, its incredible architecture and decor, its idyllic beaches and warm Indian Ocean water - it never gets old. So Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania that is bursting with history and culture, had become kind of a Swahili mecca in my mind. And this year for Christmas, I finally took the pilgrimage.
Eric and I met his parents in Zanzibar to celebrate Christmas together on the beach, but we went with Leo a couple days early to spend time in Zanzibar's historic center, Stone Town. Once the center of trade between India, Africa, and the Arab world, Stone Town's architecture, food, and people offer a complete blend of cultures. We spent two days walking the winding streets of this old Swahili town while also visiting a smaller island nearby, Prison Island, now home to giant tortoises and historic buildings.
If you visit Stone Town, here are my recommendations:
--- You absolutely must have dinner at the Emerson Spice Hotel. It's a splurge, but it's worth it. A 5-course meal of the freshest seafood and creative use of Zanzibar's famous spices on a rooftop overlooking the city, it will be one of your most memorable meals. As a bonus, look through the hotel's rooms, which they leave open for dinner guests to browse, for a sampling of the best contemporary Swahili architecture.
--- Take a tour of the city with a local guide. They'll be able to tell you the ins-and-outs of the town's history, you'll make a friend, and you can visit places like the local markets without too many hagglers latching onto you.
--- Prison Island. It's not a far boat ride and the gigantic and huge tortoises are certainly worth seeing. I've heard the snorkeling is great, too.
--- Forodhani Gardens. Every evening street vendors gather to sell local food. Mix with the locals while you eat and watch a gaggle of energetic boys jump off a wall and into the ocean.
--- Princess Salme museum. We actually found out about this place toward the end of our stay and we only had time to poke our heads in. But upon my return (and I will return!) I'll be sure to come back and learn more about this incredible woman's life.