Pine Cyprus trees line the road into Stone Town from the airport. It is hot, really hot in this tropical late afternoon in Zanzibar and I gape at the scenery unfolding as we drive.
Children languidly make their way home from school and roadside hawkers loudly sell their wares between chats with friends. I have waited for years to see the spice island whose name runs off the tongue like golden, vanilla treacle.
I arrive at the astonishingly beautiful Zanzibar Serena Inn hotel. Idyllically situated on the sea front of ancient Stone Town, and flanked by an exotic mix of sultan’s palaces, Portuguese forts, ancient dhow harbours and bright bazaars, the hotel is the epitome of style amongst the bustle of one of Africa’s most ancient and enchanting towns. It is the pinnacle of Swahili style, ethnic elegance and Arabic opulence, to quote their website. With high ceilings, shuttered windows and cool white walls, the rooms are constructed in the traditional Swahili manner, whereby the size is dictated by the length of the mangrove poles that make up their ceilings.
Adorned with arched niches, antique plates and brass lamps and featuring traditionally carved furniture with basket weave and ceramic inlay, the rooms are predominantly royal blue and white. The air is moist and fragrant. There is the suggestion of a breeze, languidly floating over the ocean in the setting sun. I walk outside onto my balcony after a glorious shower and drink in the sultry night and the softly lapping waves just beneath me. Daniel, the charming and extremely knowledgeable GM of the hotel joins me for dinner on the roof for crayfish thermidor. The humidity fills the hot night like the Zambezi floods the plains of southern Africa after the rains. The waiter (whom I’ve never met) greets me by name and puts a bangle of jasmine on my arm. It is these little details that make this hotel so very special.
I fall asleep in my palatial bedroom that night to the sound of the soft waves and the aroma of spice in the night air. The next morning after a delicious breakfast, a Stone Town tour awaits. The town reminds me of a James Bond set with its millions of narrow alleyways and bustling crowds. My guide tells me the fascinating and turbulent history of this island as we stride along. Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania, in East Africa. It comprises the Zanzibar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, 25–50 kilometres (16–31 mi) off the coast of the mainland, and consists of numerous small islands and two large ones: Unguja (the main island, informally referred to as Zanzibar), and Pemba. Zanzibar’s main industries are spices, raffia, and tourism. In particular, the islands produce cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper.
For this reason, the islands, together with Tanzania’s Mafia Island, are sometimes called the Spice Islands. I gather all this later from Wikipedia since all my senses are flooded by the visceral magnitude of the place and I have trouble concentrating on my guide’s informative chant. Stone Town, of course, is the capital and a World Heritage Site. Former capital of the Zanzibar Sultanate, and flourishing centre of the spice trade as well as the slave trade in the 19th century, it retained its importance as the main city of Zanzibar during the period of the British protectorate. Stone Town is a city of prominent historical and artistic importance in East Africa. Its architecture, mostly dating back to the 19th century, reflects the diverse influences underlying the Swahili culture, with a unique mixture of Moorish, Arab, Persian, Indian and European elements and the beautifully adorned, world-famous doors attest to this. The market, noises, smells, alleyways and chaos everywhere exhibit the inhabitants in all their colours, their clothes, their voices and their smiles. It is advised to get a guide otherwise you will be accosted no end. We have to hurry back since, to my great chagrin, I have a flight to catch.
I try to change my Precision Air flight to stay longer but to no avail – one day simply isn’t nearly enough to even begin to glimpse the wonders of the lovely Serena Hotel and to uncover the magic and mysteries of Stone Town. I console myself with the fact that I will be back soon.
And so it is. Jump forward two weeks or so and I am on an early 1Time flight (the airline is now defunct to my chagrin), grateful to leave a freezing Johannesburg, on my way back to paradise. This time I have my faithful Indian companion, Drink Like Fish, with me and we head straight to the coast. Our destination: Mapenzie Sandies Beach Resort, an hour’s drive or so from the airport.
Sandies Mapenzi Beach Club
“We are welcomed with a eucalyptus cloth and cool watermelon drink before being escorted to our beautiful junior suite.”
The resort is as relaxed and informal as the name implies. It is barefoot beauty, the design and decor reflecting the Moorish/Arab influences. And here’s the thing about Mapenzie – it is All-Inclusive! Aren’t those just two of the most beautiful words in any language? Our room is rather perfunctory and smells a bit like disinfectant but the sea view is gorgeous and we are meters from the palm fringed white beach with its the ever-changing colours of coral reef and the water the temperature of your bath. Meals are served in the main dining room and all are buffet.
The nights are hot and humid and the mozzies travel trough you like fire ants through a cow carcass so best you spray. The following morning I go for a long walk on the beach. Activities here include daily entertainment with an animation team for kids and adults alike, water sports and scuba diving, two swimming pools and every night different entertainment is on offer. The first night we were treated to an incredible acrobatics display by the locals and the second night high-jinx ensued with the men and women pitted against each other in a furiously contested general knowledge quiz.
The resort staff is very friendly but once in a while there are communication issues. I went to reception to ask for a South African socket adapter. “Hi there! May I please have an adapter that fits the South Africa plug?” The pretty receptionist greeted me with an equally toothy smile. “Godocashier,” she replied, motioning for me to go around the corner. “Mmmm? I’m sorry, where?” I replied, somewhat perplexed. “GODOCASHIER!” she repeated, less friendly now and with an emphatic gesture. After much soul-searching I decipher this to signify “go to the cashier” and I find a little window around the corner from reception where another friendly staff member sorts me out. This then sets the tone for any and all enquires and requests. Need beach towels? Godocashier! A list of things to do nearby? Godocashier! Fancy some peace in the Middle East? Godocashier!
The following morning we set off to Sandies’ adjacent, luxurious and elegant sister resort, Diamonds Dream of Zanzibar – a gargantuan trek of about 100 meters down the beach. But we are hot. And it is humid. And we need a drink. And lo! Diamonds also is ALL-Inclusive!
Located on the East Coast of Zanzibar, Diamonds is a superb 5 star resort nestled in the midst of exotic gardens on the beachfront at Pwani Machangani overlooking the photo-shopped Indian Ocean. It offers 104 deluxe gardens rooms, 40 ocean view junior suites, 10 additional junior suites with Jacuzzi and three beach villas with private pool. They have five restaurants to choose from (each themes differently with cuisine ranging from traditional to Chinese to Italian) and you can dine at a different one each night – did I mention all-inclusive? The three bars feature relaxing environments to enjoy drinks and cocktails, and they even have lounge lizards crooning during cocktail hour.
We are welcomed with a eucalyptus cloth and cool watermelon drink before being escorted to our beautiful junior suite. The rooms are huge with DSTV, mini-bar and air con that works! We make ourselves very comfortable with pina coladas by the pool before lunch. And then lunch – what a splendid affair… As we emerge from our room into the sultry, damp dusk much later after an afternoon snooze, the aroma of barbeque wafts up to greet us from the beach.
We have a masterfully made caparinia by the pool to the strains of the four story high swaying palm trees and live jazz. Dinner is an all-African buffet affair on the beach and they really go all out.
We laze about the pool the next day like sedentary tourists but the resort has a million activities to offer guests – a water sports centre with catamaran, windsurfing and canoe; bicycles; a multi-sports court, tennis court and jogging trail; beach volley and beach soccer and daily recreation activities for kids as well as darts, billiards and table tennis. We sample the Italian fare that evening for dinner and I am served simply the best pizza I have ever had. Our last day brings with it frolicking on the beach, playing volleyball and just generally behaving like the big children we are. The evenings’ entertainment offers an incredible display of Masai jumping which leaves me speechless and hypnotised.
And then, like a beautiful dream, our trip is over before it properly began. I look back from the air at the island that will always have with it a piece of my heart. Zanzibar, of thee I sing….