About the island
Thanks to its unique location, Zanzibar has always been a magnet for travellers from the world over. First discovered by Persians, in early 16th century it was taken over by the Portuguese Empire. A hundred years later the island became part of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman and also home to its capital, transferred here in 1840 by order of Said ibn-Sultan. His reign brought about a time of blooming commerce and agriculture. Numerous clove plantations were built and the scent of clove hangs in the air until this very day. In 1890, the island which had also become a centre for slave trade was taken over by the British and did not regain independence until 1963. One year later, by merging the archipelago with mainland Tanganyika, the United Republic of Tanzania was created.
Zanzibar enjoys a warm and humid sub-equatorial climate. Air temperatures often exceed 30°C (86°F) and the water temperature rarely drops below 25°C (77°F). A year is divided into two rain seasons and two dry seasons. The long dry season lasts from June to September/October; rain is scarce and the average air temperature is 25°C (77°F). It is a perfect time for those who like warm weather but are tired by extreme heat typical for Turkey or Egypt.
The second dry season occurs in January, February and March. This is Zanzibar’s summer, with temperatures reaching up to 35°C (95°F). Some say water in the ocean is so warm that you can even work up a sweat while swimming! It is also high tourist season on the island.
The long rain season occurs between late March and late May and is characterised by brief but intense rainfall occurring at irregular intervals; this does not mean rain every day. This is the least crowded period in Zanzibar. The short rain season occurs between November and December.
The rain and dry seasons are tied to monsoons in this part of the world: the northern monsoon (called ‘Kaskazi’) coming in December and January and the southern (‘Kusi’) blowing from June to August.
Fauna and flora
As befits a tropical island, Zanzibar boasts tall coconut palm trees amidst sandy beaches and a rich vegetation. Banana trees, papaya trees, lemongrass, clove trees and massive mango trees all grow within grasp. Towering over crossroads are humongous baobabs; the coast is shielded against the ocean’s invasion by mangroves, home to various crustaceans, birds and butterflies. Hermit crabs running across the beach are not an uncommon sight; during low tide, the sea leaves behind a wealth of sea urchins and seaweed fields. A unique sight is a miles-long alley of mango trees in the southern part of the island. According to legend, the trees were planted by the order of Bi Khole, the fairest daughter of Said. Each tree is said to be a monument to one of her many lovers that she would have killed when the flame of passion had gone out.
The Zanzibar cuisine is a mashup of culinary traditions of various cultures, chiefly African, Indian and Arabian. Staples include fresh fish, seafood and root condiments. Local specialties rarely lack ginger, chilli and coconut milk. The locals are also fond of red beans, cassava, plantains and sweet potatoes. Popular side dishes include rice, ugali (a cassava or corn flour starchy porridge-like meal) or chapatti flatbread. Most popular dishes include:
Biryani – aromatic rice fried with meat and vegetables;
Samosas – deep-fried triangular pastries with a vegetable or meat filling;
Mandazi – a staple for a Zanzibar breakfast: a kind of deep-fried, triangular donuts;
Pilaw – Basmati rice cooked with potatoes and condiments: garlic, onions, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, pepper and curcuma, sometimes with added bits of fish or chicken;
Kachumbari – a salad made of fresh tomatoes, with red onions and chilli, sprinkled with salt and lime juice;
Mchicha – various types of spinach, stewed in coconut milk, with the addition of onions, tomatoes and a fresh chilli pepper;
Urojo – a stew with bits of meat, potatoes, fried manic, a hard-boiled egg, sprinkled with lime juice, chilli and curcuma;
Mishkaki – little skewers of tender beef, often served with a hot and sour garcinia sauce.
Zanzibar is a paradise for those who love exotic fruit. Markets sell aromatic mangos, papayas, pineapples, jackfruit, rambutans and avocados, along with juicy oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruits. If we get peckish during a walk, plenty varieties of bananas are within reach. Thirst can be sated with freshly squeezed sugar cane or what is often called ‘Zanzi cola’ – coconut water that you drink straight from a green coconut.