Located 35 km (22 miles) from the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean is Zanzibar, boasting white sand beaches lined with palm trees, native forests and an abundance of coral reefs perfect for snorkelling and diving. Today it offers a tropical paradise for holidaymakers, but this low-lying coral island has a chequered history of foreign occupation, intensive commerce and slavery.
The island was first inhabited by the Hadimu and Tumbatu tribes who came here from Africa. In the 10th century, Persian merchants arrived, brought to the island by monsoon winds as they sailed through the Indian Ocean. As they needed the monsoon winds to take them home again, they had to stay on the island for months at a time. They eventually decided to build permanent settlements on Zanzibar, and it soon became a centre for trade in its own right. This busy hub was influenced by the merchants who passed through, with Arabs, Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British leaving their mark here and blending together to create a unique culture.
Shirazi Persians and Omani Arabs settled on the island and ruled the Sultanate, which is why there is such a strong Arab influence evident today. Stone Town, the centre of the old city, has changed little in the last 200 years with its mosques, busy bazaars and grand Arab houses with their ornamental carved wooden doors studded with brass. The Indian influence can be found in the coloured glasswork and decorative balconies of many of the buildings, while the British left some staid colonial houses in the wealthier parts of town.
Today the economy is based on tourism, although fishing is still a major occupation. The island also exports many different types of spices, as well as cocoa and coconuts.
As well as the beaches and beautiful architecture, the island is also home to abundant wildlife, including red colobus and blue monkeys, which can be observed in Jozani Park, a large area of mature native forest which is now protected. There are also many other types of mammals here, including red-bellied squirrels and sun squirrels, and over 200 species of birds. Zanzibar is also a good place to see turtles, including the green turtle and the hawksbill turtle, which can be seen laying their eggs on the beaches near the lighthouse at Ras Ngunwi .Whale watching is also popular here, with humpback whales migrating through the channel in spring and then again in September.
Long-snouted spinner dolphins and bottlenose dolphins are also favourites in these waters and it is possible to swim with them if you join an organized tour.
Population: 1.070.000 (2004)
When to go: June to October.
How to get there: Fly to Zanzibar International Airport or by ferry from Dar es Salaam.
Highlights: The beaches – the island has many lovely beaches for sunbathing and swimming. The East Beaches are popular as the sand is brilliant white, and the warm waters are deep blue. The scuba diving is good here, with plentiful corals and rich marine life.
Swim with the dolphins or arrange a ride in a local’s dhow.
Stone Town – explore the lovely buildings, like the House of Wonders and the Arab Fort. Arrange a walking tour with a local guide who can explain some of the fascinating history.
Jozani Park – this beautiful forest has excellent nature trails, featuring some very exotic (and large) trees. See the Red Colobus Monkeys which are native to the island but now nearly extinct. They are curious and playful and will pose for a photograph.
Spice tours – these enjoyable organized tours explain how the different spices grow, allowing you to tour the beautiful plantations of cardamom, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and saffron, and sample some luscious tropical fruits.
You should know: Zanzibar was the last place to abolish the slave trade.