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Spice Island

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The island of Zanzibar awakens every sense with its sights, sounds and spicy aromas, as Emma Gregg discovers


ZANZIBAR is there anywhere in Africa with a more evocative name? Timbuktu, Ouagadougou, Limpopo and Mozambique are all contenders, of course, their syllables bouncing off the tongue like a soothsayer's spell. But none suggest the ancient and exotic quite as beautifully as Zanzibar.


Like many travellers before me, I've been drawn to this Indian Ocean archipelago by a swathe of romantic associations. In my mind's eye, Unguja, the main island, is a paradise of spice chests, sea breezes, perfumed courtyards and dhows with billowing sails. So when I catch my first whiff of spice on the hot, tropical breeze as I step off the plane, I'm already half-dizzy with the sheer seductiveness of it all. To my delight, even the little airport, its tarmac fringed by slender palm trees and dotted with island-hopper planes, looks like something out of a rum advert.


My taxi skirts the capital, Zanzibar Town, and drives east, through villages where dogs snooze in the open doorways of palm-thatched houses. Chickens scurry to and fro and men with silver-stubbled jaws sit in the shade playing bao, the African game of holes and seeds. Walking along the verges are women carrying large bundles, their heads and shoulders wrapped in bright cotton kangas printed with nenos – carefully chosen proverbs.


We're soon deep in the interior, bowling along beside thick vegetation. Suddenly, our driver brakes, stops the car, and leaps out. We wonder what's afoot.


Striding up to a tree, he yanks down some leaves, rubs them between his fingers, sniffs them, and presents them to us with a triumphant expression.


"Can you guess what this is?"

 

We inhale the scent. It reminds me of Christmas, mulled wine and old-fashioned pomanders.

 

"Clove?"

 

"Top marks!"


Delighted, our self-appointed guide rushes off to find another botanical sample for us to identify and before we know it a guess-the-spice quiz is in full swing. We lay out each discovery on the dashboard. Warmed by the sun, they fill the car with rich aromas. "Make sure you visit a spice plantation while you're here," he says. "You'll be amazed at how many different varieties there are to smell and taste."
After a few days chilling out on a sugar-white beach, we do exactly that.


Zanzibar is rightly synonymous with spices. The islands' reliably humid climate creates perfect conditions for cultivating edible and medicinal leaves, flowers, seeds, fruits and bark.


We roll into a plantation and join a guided tour. Many commercial estates have show shambas crammed with dozens of different plants; you wander around, your guide playfully cajoling you into sniffing, stroking and sampling species after species until your senses feel ready to explode.


Cloves, we discover, are the dried buds of a myrtle tree. As we've already learned, its leaves also smell of clove. Prized for centuries, cloves remain Zanzibar's signature spice. Other specialities include cardamom pods, cinnamon bark, cumin seeds and ginger rhizomes. Then there are the pods of the lipstick bush, which contain a scarlet dye. Our guide demonstrates with flamboyant glee.

 

OMANI INFLUENCE


It's partly thanks to the wealth generated from these plants in times past that Stone Town, the heart of Zanzibar Town, is so richly endowed with beautiful architecture.


We decide to spend a few days in its grandest hotel. The sea laps a sliver of beach under the windows of the old-fashioned dining room. One afternoon, feeling bold, we leave our map and guidebook behind and set off on foot, taking each alleyway as it comes.


There's a strong echo of the Middle East in the medina-like streets. This is no coincidence – by far the strongest influence on the city came from the Omani Arabs. In 1841, Sultan Seyyid Saïd shifted his capital here from Muscat. Quickly, Zanzibar became a leading producer of cloves, its wealth stupendous.


Stone Town was also the haunt of East Africa's most notorious slave and ivory traders and a provisioning post for missionaries and explorers. In the 1860s, David Livingstone used one of the Sultan's properties, today known as Livingstone House, as his expedition base, writing that he found Stone Town a "mesmerising place… where nothing is as it seems."


It does indeed harbour secrets. We long for doors to open, revealing the courtyards within. But as we wander the labyrinth, every twist yields new discoveries – intricately carved teak and sesame wood balconies, Swahili doors studded with ornate brass knobs and souk-like curio shops stuffed with textiles and paintings.


The shadows deepen, the last of the sun tinges the rooftops with gold and our thoughts turn to supper. We begin to make our way back. But something makes us take a detour towards the wharfside gardens on the north side of town.


There, in a haze of woodsmoke, the Forodhani Market is unfolding. The aromas are irresistible. So we treat ourselves to one last adventure – a feast of grilled seafood, goat meat, naan bread and sharp, rhubarby tamarind sauce. Like a mouthful of the island itself, it's deliciously scented with cloves.

WAY TO GO

The best time to visit Zanzibar…

is June to October when the weather is driest. There are direct flights from Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, which can be reached from London with British Airways, Kenya Airways or KLM.

 

To Escape To

Tel. 020 060 6747/www.toescapeto.com

Offers an excellent range of accommodation, from small, local establishments to luxury resorts.

 
RAINBOW Tours

Tel. 020 7666 1250/www.rainbowtours.co.uk

Or you could opt for a bush-and-beach holiday, combining Zanzibar with a wildlife safari in Kenya or Tanzania: Rainbow Tours offers both possibilities.

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