Most of my trips start off with me wanting to eat something. So when I heard that Zanzibar, a small island off the coast of mainland Tanzania, had a version of one of my favorite Trinidadian dishes, pelau, that was all I needed to start planning a trip. What I didn’t expect as I embarked on the 24-hour-plus journey that included three flights was that finding this dish would end up being the last thing on my mind.
The first thing I saw when I exited the plane was a sign that read “Karibu Zanzibar. Roam with the locals.” I was home, and totally in love.
I sleep pretty well in crappy economy seats, so I was able to hit the ground running when I landed in Zanzibar. From the moment I stepped outside the DoubleTree Hotel and into the winding alleyways, Stone Town captured my heart. The bustling markets, vendors selling handmade goods, men selling fresh sugarcane juice, women carrying groceries and kids rushing off to school filled me with a relaxing vibe reminiscent of the Caribbean.The massive, ornate doors that line the streets speak to the island’s Arab, Indian, and European heritage.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Stone Town is full of history, so taking a tour is almost necessary. Grassroots Traveller is a great guide for exploring the last open slave market, presided over by Arab traders until it was shut down by the British in 1873; the oldest building in the city, the Old Fort and the House of Wonders — a former palace of the sultan of Zanzibar.
One of the first things I noticed about Zanzibar aside from the laid-back vibe was the abundance of color. Coming from New York City, a literal concrete jungle, I rarely see bright, vibrant colors that aren’t on a billboard in Times Square. People joke that the official uniform for New Yorkers is anything black. Not in Zanzibar. From the multicolored tin roofs to the gorgeous kangas local women wear, the island is full of bright colors that play a supporting role to the natural beauty and make you feel you’re enveloped in pure sunshine.
Just before sunset, everyone gathers in Forodhani Gardens to watch an amazing spectacle — the sunset jumpers. These local kids compete to see who can do the best flips into the water, and with the sunset as their background, the results are nothing short of amazing. Once the show is over, stick around for a taste of Zanzibar’s local cuisine. The Night Market is a foodie’s dream, with everything from seafood straight from the ocean to fried cassava chips and the island’s famous Zanzibar pizza. Before you think, “I’m not going to fly all the way to Zanzibar to try pizza,” know that this is no ordinary pizza. Zanzibar pizza is more of a delicious crepe filled with whatever sweet or savory topping your heart desires. Trust me — just eat it.
While we’re on the subject of food — because who doesn’t love to eat — make sure you don’t leave Zanzibar without eating at the Rock Restaurant. Just looking at this restaurant is an experience. It literally sits on top of a rock in the Indian Ocean. During high tide, a small boat carries you to the restaurant steps; during low tide you can simply walk. Either way, the views are spectacular and only matched by the delicious seafood they serve. Make reservations in advance because seating is limited and spots fill up quickly!
After spending a few days in the city, I headed out to the coasts to experience Zanzibar’s beaches. The village of Nungwi on the north coast boasts amazing beaches and a more personal view of Zanzibari life. You can watch local women cast nets for fish along the sandbanks or watch children play soccer along the shore as the sun sets. However, if you want jaw-dropping, breathtaking, uninterrupted views of the Indian Ocean, there is only one place to stay. The Melia Zanzibar provides a feeling of true luxury in Africa. From the wonderful and helpful staff and beautiful rooms to delicious dinners on Gabi Beach and the stunning, iconic ocean views from the jetty, the Melia Zanzibar did not disappoint.
However, what I loved the most about Zanzibar — and what I know you’ll love the most about Zanzibar — are the people. Every single person I encountered in Zanzibar was happy. Even if they were explaining to me some hardship they were experiencing, they did so with a smile. Everywhere I went, people greeted me with, “Hakuna matata! Welcome to Zanzibar.” No worries indeed.
The more I walked around, the more I let go of my Brooklyn grouch face and found myself smiling and talking to everyone as well. The children played with each other, not apps on their phones. I zipped through streets on the back of motorbikes, sang Zanzibari songs with taxi drivers and had coffee on a street corner with elders. It was like a Pharrell video, and I wanted to bottle it up and take it home with me.
I never did find that pelau; instead, Zanzibar stole my heart. Just like the sign said, I was welcomed and roamed with the locals. I found more than I was looking for in Zanzibar and it changed me. As I boarded my flight home, I carried the spirit of the island with me and knew I would be back.
Asante (”thank you”) Zanzibar, asante.