PART 1: Stone Town

Photography and report by Bert Duplessis

High resolution photos available on Flickr!

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STONE TOWN

June 9 2014.  Soon after being picked up by our friendly and competent driver from Island Express at Zanzibar Airport, we were unpacking a few things in our attractive, high-ceilinged room at the Mashariki Palace Hotel in Stone Town.  The room was air-conditioned, it had free – and fast – WIFI – and lots of hot water in the shower.  

Friendly manager Michela – who is from Italy – showed us around and filled us in on the background, explaining that the hotel is a renovated portion of the former Eastern Palace, once the seat of the Oman empire.  Restored to all their former glory, the rooms, stairways, entrance and courtyard as well as the beautiful rooftop terrace combine for a very pleasant and private environment. 

Our room was comfortable and cool enough; it was nice to get complimentary bottled water as well.  We liked the terrace breakfast with good coffee, great pancakes with local honey and eggs to order.  Kathleen enjoyed her cappucino as well.  The only issue we had was the proximity of the Forodhani Secondary School which operates in two shifts – this meant that some really loud children could be heard from our room from around 7:30A until 7:00P; so forget about trying to take a nap.  

In its price category the Mashariki Palace is a good choice for Stone Town with a convenient location right alongside the National Museum, just off Forodhani Park, a couple of blocks from the port and with easy access to some of Stone Town’s best shopping areas on Kenyatta Street.  

Unlike our previous much more structured trip to Stone Town this one was purposefully unplanned, a bit like the town itself.  We had already done the guided tour of Stone Town (which we highly recommend); a Spice Tour (a bit hokey but fun) and an outing to Jozani Island to see the Redfaced Colobus Monkeys.  So this time, we were just going to see where the alleys would take us. 

Stone Town is colorful, bustling, seedy and – particularly on the edges – a bit squalid.  The majority of the buildings there are deteriorating slowly, being mostly constructed with coral stone which needs regular maintenance but isn’t getting it. 

We walked out of the hotel and within minutes we were in the maze of alleys which criss-cross   Stone Town like cracks on a centuries-old masterpiece.  In some ways Stone Town is like an old painting:  nice to look at but decaying before your very eyes, and needing lots of expert attention to restore it to its former glory and full brilliance.

We set off in a direction which we thought would take us to a bureau de change, but promptly got lost.  There are few street signs in Stone Town and even fewer landmarks, so there is no way of telling how close to the coastal road you are.  We wandered around for a while, recognizing some places from our previous trip to the area by sight and one by nose –  the fish market – before making it to ‘the big tree’ (as directed by one of the locals) where we found the currency exchange place.  

Having exchanged some dollars for Tanzania shillings (you get a lot – more than 1,600 TZS to a Dollar) we now had money in our pockets.  Time for lunch.  Purely by chance we  stumbled upon the Emerson Spice Hotel on Tharia Street where we enjoyed a light lunch.  Babaganoush, seafood curry, lentils, spinach and tomato salad, all nicely presented and very flavorful and fresh.  The hotel manager gave us an impromptu site inspection and we  checked out several of the hotel’s large rooms.  There was nothing understated about them:  very colorful – flamboyant may be the best word to describe it.  So if you’re feeling like really slipping into the Zanzibari style  the Emerson Spice might be just the place for you.  

Trying to fit in a run of about 40 minutes duration in Stone Town was not easy.  Running north towards the harbor got us tangled up in heavy traffic (no sidewalks!) and it was not much better going the opposite way. Few to no sidewalks and extremely narrow roads.  I tried the beach but it had too much of a slant and peters out very quickly.  Hopefully the running situation will improve at the coastal resorts over the following few days.

On this evening, we had drinks and dinner at 6 Degrees South.  The food was fine and not too pricey – we paid about US$30.00 with tip for two light main courses – and the restaurant has an exceptionally good wine list and very attractive bar.  At all times, we felt very safe walking around Stone Town at night in areas where there were other people around. I would just not wander off into any quiet streets.  

A QUIET DAY IN STONE TOWN

We took it easy this morning in Stone Town.  I was woken up quite early – around 530A – by a disembodied voice emanating from a speaker at a nearby mosque.  The Muslim dawn prayer.  Being up early, I caught up on some e-mails and then Kathleen and I did our daily ‘prison’ exercise routine, consisting of burpees, squats, jumping jacks, mountain climbers and pull-ups.  Ideal for traveling with minimal to zero access to a gym, such as when on safari.

Next on the ‘to do’ list was breakfast on the rooftop terrace of the hotel.  It was a good spot to experience the various flavors and colors of Zanzibar and of Stone Town in particular.  To the right there were half a dozen or so small sailing boats slowly making their way across a dead calm sea, between Unguja (aka Zanzibar) and Prisoner Island.  Closer in a motley collection of rusty barges, small freighters, ferry boats and a few sleek motorized yachts were all peacefully at anchor and bobbing gently in the mild swell.  

Right next to the hotel there’s the Forodhani Secondary School where this morning a demurely dressed but noisy group of youngsters were being instructed in the intricacies of reading, writing and arithmetic, no doubt.  And all around, the rusty tin roofs of Stone Town were sticking out at odd angles.  On the immediate right there was a family living in what seems to be rather primitive conditions under a few sheets of corrugated iron, on the very top floor of a building.  I suspect they have chickens because one loud rooster competed with the guy from the mosque in waking up the neighborhood.

To the left, the slowly decaying tower of the House of Wonders, the one-time National Museum but now seemingly closed indefinitely, towers over the renovated Forodhani Gardens and park.  At night a blizzard of food stalls spring up here with tourists and locals alike buying a variety of grilled sea food, chicken and other meat on skewers. Having seen the unhygienic food preparation conditions and flies all over the food, I would never eat there and would advise anyone else to look and browse but to have dinner somewhere else.  

In the near foreground I could see a dirty, black-stained wall, a crumbling fence, a few palm trees, some exotic vegetation and pockets of trash which have seemingly avoided collection for several years.  And always in the background the noise of the ubiquitous small motorcycles which take young men and their passengers on perilous trips down tiny narrow streets en route to unknown destinations on urgent tasks, judged by how often they lean on the hooter.  

Then it was time for some shopping and Kathleen picked up a few items at Fahari.  All of their products are made on Zanzibar island by local women, under the direction and training of Julie Lawrence, a British accessory designer and maker.  We also needed an adapter – ours went on the fritz – and found one not too far away, for just a few dollars.  In Zanzibar as elsewhere in Tanzania and Kenya you will need a 3-point rectangular adaptor for recharging batteries.

We bumbled around some more and somehow made it to The Post, a small restaurant and bar complex above the Kenyatta Road Post Office, the entrance being on Shangani Street.  We found a cozy corner at the Tapas wine bar and enjoyed a glass of South African rose with a potato frittata and a red bean salad.  The adjacent Cafe Miwa serves mainstay items such as steaks and seafood and a third restaurant – the Lemongrass – will be offering up Asian items soon.  

Late this afternoon it was time for another run – this time I took the road to the airport and managed about 40 minutes or so without too many life-threatening moments on a road without much in the way of sidewalks.  Lots of people out and about playing football, no doubt getting into a World Cup frame of mind. 

Dinner this evening was back at the Emerson Spice Hotel where we tried the 5-course tasting menu, a bargain at US$30.00 per person.  It was one of the best meals we’ve ever had on our Africa travels.  Each delightful course made use of a fresh local ingredient such as octopus and snapper but with a delicious twist.  Devilled egg & caviar, fruit ceviche & spinach leaf – it all was too much and too good by half.  A nice touch:  one of the hotel employees escorted us on the short walk back to our hotel. 

Continue to Part 2

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