Zanzibar…wonderful, magical island straight out of the tales of the Arabian Nights, a place that shows you its diverse sides. Each new journey is a leap into the unknown. Still, you can contribute to the experience you desire by creating suitable parameters, so to speak, through your choice of hotels, restaurants, and activities. Here we’d like to share our experiences around Stone Town in addition to general information for a trip to Zanzibar. Ultimately, you decide which bits will also fit into your story.
The situation with money in Tanzania is that you can’t import or export the local currency. ATMs are in short supply. In Stone Town, Zanzibar’s capital, there are just 10 ATMs that, with a little luck, actually function. But you can’t take out more than 400,000 shillings (in 10,000-shilling denominations) per transaction.
In the bigger hotels or restaurants, you can even pay with a credit card, except that it always tacks on an extra 5% in cost. They’ll also accept dollars and euros, often at a terrible exchange rate. While Cash.ch will give you an exchange rate of 2100 shillings to CHF 1, in the hotels, bars, and shops it rapidly dwindles to 1800–1900 shillings to the dollar or euro. You can also get change in shillings, which means that the price with the poor exchange rate is converted from shillings into dollars and then back again—so you lose twice. But most restaurants and shops calculate a rate of 2000 shillings to the dollar.
Our tip: Bring along enough dollars, in large and small denominations, and pay in dollars where prices are stated directly in dollars. And be sure to use Tanzanian shillings wherever there’s a poor exchange rate or no other option (for tips or buying water in small shops). The best exchange rates for TZS are through credit card cash advances at the airport or at ATMs with fees. On Zanzibar, only Stone Town has ATMs.
A SIM card for Internet
For strolls through Stone Town’s winding alleys, you’ll need either a guide or Google maps. We relied on the second option and explored the city on our own—and it worked well.
Tanzania has several service providers, such as Zantel, Tigo, and Vodacom, that sell prepaid data SIM cards. On asking where we could find a shop, the locals told us: “Under umbrella—look for umbrella.” And sure enough, in Zanzibar, SIM cards are sold under the same colorful umbrellas that grace the ice cream stands at home. To buy them, you’ll need a copy of your passport (print it at home or at the hotel), and you’ll also need to fill out a contract on the spot. The cost is $5. Once purchased, you’ll need to activate the data packets with a code. Best is to ask the seller for it right away.
Blend in with the locals
Zanzibar is 99% Muslim, so even in the worst heat, women cover up and men wear shirts and long pants. Tourists are expected to be respectful of this. Even if Zanzibaris remain polite, it will be hard for them to be friendly if your mode of dress is too offensive. For women, it’s appropriate to wear clothing that covers their shoulders, neckline, and knees. For men, a T-shirt or shirt and pants will do. This makes sense not only in terms of respectfulness but also because of the heat. Loose, long clothing made of linen and wool protects from dust and sunburn and looks great in your vacation pictures. At the beach, the rules are naturally different. It’s no problem to wear a bikini or shorts.
Best places to eat
In Tanzania and Zanzibar, there aren’t really any distinctly local dishes. From fish to spaghetti bolognese and chicken curry, everything is served. Food is always individually and freshly cooked, which can mean a good 30-minute wait time for soup and another 20 minutes for the main course.
In Stone Town, we visited the famous Forodhani market, with its impressive selection of street food. In the evenings, small stands are set up and oil lamps lit. Small kebabs, skewered chicken, lamb, shrimp, and grilled calamari are heated upon ordering and served on plastic plates. We ate on a little stone wall and watched the passersby and local kids, who were having fun jumping into the water at a forbidden spot. The sun set, and all you could hear were the cries from the mosques filling the ancient town.
For those who prefer something more refined, it pays to make a visit to the rooftop of the Hurumzi Hotel. High over Stone Town’s roofs, this atmospheric terrace offers a breathtaking view across the city and harbor. The finest local dishes are served, along with musical accompaniment by the Dhow Countries Music Academy. A must for all who visit Stone Town. Be aware though, though, that table reservations fill up quickly, so it’s best to book ahead via email.
The unique history of the Emerson Spice Hotel
At the beginning of our Zanzibar trip, our search for an ATM in Stone Town landed us in front of the Emerald Spice Hotel. We didn’t find any ATMs there, but the staff was so friendly and helpful and the hotel so atmospheric that we canceled our original reservation and rebooked at Emerson Spice.
The hotel has a colorful history. The oldest part was built in the Swahili Arabic style and belonged to the last Swahili ruler of Zanzibar. Like his predecessor, he enjoyed a life of luxury with the best the world at that time had to offer: silk, silver, jewels, and hundreds of slaves. But fate was not so gracious to his descendants: his youngest heir died soon after him in this house. The house was then acquired by a merchant who dealt in spices and local wares. He was originally from India and built onto the house in the Indian style. After that, the ownership changed hands until the hotel came into the possession of Mr. Emerson. And what he did with it is breathtaking.
Each room is dedicated to a particular woman. The “Belle” room represents all the Southern belles of the world, but especially Scarlett O’Hara. The room is dominated by a long veranda, which would certainly have reminded Scarlett of Tara, her beloved home.
Moving on, we come to “Violetta” from Verdi’s La Traviata, a room veiled in shades of violet and blue, while “Camille” is inspired by Greta Garbo’s performance in La Dame aux Camelias.
“Kate,” for Katherine Hepburn, is an ode to the Hollywood legend and the largest room in the hotel. Airy and spacious, it has two balconies and even a tea room.
At this point, I’m going to stop describing these unique rooms. Best would be to convince yourself of the hotel by reading the lovingly written narrative by Mr. Emerson that’s handed out to every guest.
A spice tour on Spice Island
Our hotel organized a visit to a spice plantation for us. It’s generally recommended to make this excursion from Stone Town. The journey is much longer and consequently more expensive from all other sides of the island.
The island has about 50 spice farms, which in the 19th century accounted for the largest export volume of cloves in the world. Even today, the cloves are picked and processed by hand. The men are responsible for working on the farm, while the women handle the processing and packing. The farm grows all types of spices, but those who want to gather the wondrous nutmeg spice must come in May. Fortunately, the plants follow their natural cycle, reminding us that the year-round availability found in supermarkets is not a given.
This excursion is truly a great opportunity to learn more about the spices found in the kitchen of every home: pepper, cloves, cinnamon, and vanilla. By the way, we didn’t recognize the curry plant, but we did recognize the ylang-ylang flower, which we still clearly remember from our trip to Costa Rica. The tour costs $20 and includes the ride and the guide.