Seduced by Zanzibar

Forty years ago this week, Queen’s Greatest Hits topped the album charts, and it’s back again this month. Paul Hopkins recalls a visit to the birthplace of Freddie Mercury and the exotic romance of this beautiful East African island that never fades

It is the smells of Africa that get to me: the scorched, ochred earth at sunset, the strong smoke of sinewy stew, the oscillating breeze of the Indian Ocean. The air is rich now with aromatic spices wafting around me. I inhale: aniseed and anise, basil and bayleaf, cardamom and chilli.
Now tell me, says the old man with skin like parchment, what is this? And he proffers me a sliver of berry he has pared with his knife from a small flowering crocus.
Cumin, I say in my flat Irish tone, twitching my nostril past it.
Yes, it is common, very common, he says, but what is it?
This is a small co-operative farm six miles north of Stone Town, capital of the island of Zanzibar, East Africa. In the predominantly industrial town of BuBuBu, a collective of peasant folk eke out an existence by selling their fruits and spices. It’s a tough, competitive business and relies heavily on the purchasing power of neighbours and the casual curiosity of tourists.
There is no shortage of these intoxicating condiments. They grow in abundance: dill and fennel and ginger, lavender and liquorice, nutmeg and neem, and saffron, the one that slipped past my senses — silly me.
We lunch 10 miles further up, in Mangapwani at The Serena Beach Club, backed by coconut palms, fronted by secluded white sandy beaches and rocky coves, looking out over an expanse of translucent turquoise ocean where dolphins arc, turtles potter and curtains of fish drift among rainbow coral gardens. Is this the ultimate island paradise, I ponder.
There is much to do for the holiday-maker or honeymooner: swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, diving, dhow (that Arabic-like boat) trips and nature trails plus visits to the brooding caverns of the Mangapwani Slave Caves where the kidnapped were hidden after the abolishment of slavery made their shipment illegal, only to be smuggled down to the waiting ships at the dead of night.
Lunch is billfish, lobster, shrimp and curried peppers and potatoes, charcoaled in their jackets, and chapati bread. Fruit is in fine supply, paw-paws and mangoes, washed down with chai, the local tea served sweet in small glasses, and bottles of Safari, the kick-ass local lager.
Sated, by late afternoon, and still in the high 30s, it is time to head to Stone Town and settle in for the night in the colonial splendour of The Serena Inn.
It is an exotic romance of sorts that increasingly draws visitors to Zanzibar. Last of the great slave colonies and once home to the sultans and conquerors of Arabia, the very name conjures up images of treasure chests, romantic dinners in perfumed court- yards and those dhows with their billowing sails, one of which I capture magnificently against a fierce and fiery setting sun.
Birthplace of Freddie Mercury, Zanzibar — or Unguju in Swahili, the Arabic-derived language of the ethnic peoples of East Africa — is one of an archipelago or cluster of islands off Tanzania (and part of that country since soon after independence in the 1960s) that left the explorer David Livingstone “mes- merised’’ 100 years before that, and today has me and my fellow travellers soundly seduced, as if by the wiles of a wanton woman.
Unquestionably the best hotel in the capital, the Serena Inn is a pervading property set in two historic seafront buildings that have been respectfully restored into what is now Zanzibar’s only member of the ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World’ group.
The hotel has a prime location at the end of Shangani Street, less than five minutes meander from the heart of Stone Town. As well as a very good seafront restaurant, there is a comfortable bar and lounge area and a grand swimming pool overlooking the ocean. There are 51 air-conditioned rooms, colonial in style and all en suite with mini-bars, satellite TV (shame on you), and a balcony, though the giant palms outside of mine sadly obscure a better view.
A walking tour of Stone Town is a must, with its winding, sometimes-cluttered side-streets, hawkers and stall holders and colourful characters, the predominant Muslim influence in dress and etiquette; its rich architecture, the Sultan’s palace, the giant ornate doors of the old Arabian and colonial buildings and the choral chant of those called to prayer in the local mosques.
Silks, perfumes, paintings and local trinkets entice one to entreat for a bargain and I bag one, an antique silver bangle with inlays of opal.
Music and traditional dance and long, iced-cold G&Ts under a starry, balmy sky and dinner and fine wine at Serena — though a better curry, for which the island is renowned, awaits me further up the coast — finds my appetite and senses richly rewarded and by midnight has me sleeping soundly to the light of the moon and the gentle lapping of the Indian Ocean, the bobbing dhows drifting homeward.

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