Swahili. Taarab. Bandas. A trip to the Tanzanian island isn’t your everyday beach getaway.
A sexy beach vacation in Africa is nothing new. But prices in Cape Town have soared, and the once-pristine Kenyan coast has evolved into an African Cancún lined with high-rise hotels for the package-tour set. So where to now? Zanzibar. Go for its rich history, colorful blending of Arabic and Swahili cultures, great shopping, world-class reef diving, and clove-scented air. Summer is the perfect time—the rainy season is over, days are balmy, and nights are cool. You need at least a week to explore Stone Town and the surrounding countryside, with time for snorkeling, diving, or just plain relaxing on some of the world’s best beaches.
1. Book your flight on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, JFK or London to Amsterdam, then change planes for Dar es Salaam via Kilimanjaro (21 hours, from $1,540 round-trip). Sit on the left for great views of Mount Kilimanjaro. Then hop on Coastal Aviation’s $55 one-way service to Zanzibar.
2. Spend two nights at the Aga Khan’s 51-room Serena Inn (from $365; 255-272-504-158) in historic Stone Town. It’s one of the only area hotels with its own beach; comfortable canopy beds, heavy brass-trimmed doors, and antique carpets give it a warm sense of place.
3. Stone Town’s architectural history is so rich that the entire city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Focus on the House of Wonders (former home of the third sultan of Zanzibar); the Palace Museum, packed with artifacts from the era of the sultans; and the Anglican cathedral, built over a slave-holding pen.
4. Where do your spices come from? At the government-run Kizimbani spice farm, 33 miles outside Stone Town, you’ll see cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, and ginger, plus coffee and cacao all growing in one place. Half-day spice tours through Island Express are $60 for two people with a private guide and driver (zanzibarsafaris.com).
5. Some of those fresh spices end up in the redolent creams and soaps you’ll find in the dozens of tiny shops tucked along Stone Town’s winding streets. There are also colorful batik fabrics (perfect for pillows), and khangas, large rectangles of handwoven cotton that can be worn as a skirt, a swimsuit cover, even a dress (if you’re artful with a knot).
6. Spend an evening soaking up the local music scene. Start with cocktails on the terrace of the Africa House Hotel, which often features bongo (African hip-hop). Then head to the restaurant at the Mtoni Marine hotel to hear Swahili jazz or Taarab music, often described as Arabic soul sung in Swahili.
7. Check out the late Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury’s childhood home on Kenyatta Street. Now the Gallery Zanzibar, it stocks everything from beaded boxes and local paintings and carvings to exquisite, brass-trimmed Zanzibar chests and other antiques.
8. Have someone at your hotel arrange for dinner at the aptly named Two Tables restaurant (there’s no telephone); the menu features Zanzibari fare like linefish flavored with lemongrass and cumin. Another night, try the Tower Top restaurant on the roof of the Emerson & Green Hotel. Time it so you can watch the sun set over Stone Town’s rooftops, minarets, church spires, and the ocean beyond.
9. Take a ten-minute boat ride to blissful Mnemba Island Lodge and settle into a private banda (a cottage made from woven palm fronds). Your butler will deliver gin-and-tonics at sunset, followed by a lantern-lit dinner on the beach ($730 per person per night, including meals and drinks, and two dives per day; 888-882-3742 or ccafrica.com).
10. At Mnemba, spend your days snorkeling (marvel at 200 varieties of tropical fish, in colors Crayola never imagined), taking massages on the porch, or reading (napping) on your outdoor chaise. You’ll need at least a few restorative days to prepare yourself for that long trip home.