Have lunch on your own private sand dune in exotic Zanzibar

Have lunch on your own private sand dune in exotic Zanzibar
PHOTO: AsiaOne

Your own private island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. A secluded white sand dune in one direction, and the vast expanse of a clear blue sea the other.

This is your dining spot for lunch, complete with a nicely set table, a shady umbrella, champagne on ice, and the promise of freshly grilled seafood. Is this a dream?

No, this is Zanzibar.

Off the coast of Tanzania in Africa, Zanzibar is an island filled with powdery white beaches, villages surrounded with lush forests bustling with unique wildlife, and even a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the form of a city with a slave trading past.

If that's already a lot to take in, try their food. It's a cultural mish-mash of African, Omani and Indian influences that promises to satisfy.

Getting to Zanzibar from Singapore involved flying for 13 hours.

It may sound off-putting for those averse to long-haul flights but it was all worth it, as I found on a journey there.

Where I called home for the following five days was at The Residence Zanzibar by Cenizaro, a group of 66 villas, each with its own swimming pool, located about an hour's drive from the airport and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Stone Town.

I've experienced a number of hotel reception greetings on my travels but having a group of Masai Mara warriors, who are the local tribesmen, do an energetic song and dance item for us was probably the most elaborate I've seen to date.

Most guests at the hotel seemed to be there for a long break by the beach - about two weeks on average, I was told.

And it came as no surprise because a trip to Zanzibar for most doesn't normally just end being a faraway beach holiday.

Tourists typically take the opportunity to go on safari trips in Tanzania - a short boat ride away - to take in the sights of exotic animals at the famous Serengeti National Park.

But while you're in Zanzibar, here's what can you do:

One-day dolphin excursion

You could book yourself on a one-day sea excursion with the hotel where you can watch dolphins in the wild, snorkel in Menai Bay, and enjoy a spot of lunch in that dream-setting mentioned earlier.

"It's going to cost you, it's not a cheap thing because of the logistics," said Mr Francois Liebenberg, director of sales at The Residence Zanzibar.

But you get to arrive by boat and, if you choose, leaving on a traditional dhow, making this the most amazing lunch experience I've had. The view itself was breathtaking, surrounded by pristine turquoise waters dancing in the mid-day sun over a clear blue sky.

Spice Island

Zanzibar is also known as Spice Island as it used to be the world's largest producer of cloves.

In fact, our guide also said that all spices (except saffron) such as nutmeg, pepper, vanilla, and cinnamon, originated from Zanzibar.

This was until fertilizer was used by other countries such as China and India who then took over the spice trade. Oh dear.

The Spice Tour is a guided walking tour that passes through spice plantations where farm workers climb trees, seek out specific plants and cut off various barks, letting visitors see, feel and taste everything along the way.

Our guide told us: "In Zanzibar we use spices in three ways - as flavour in our food, traditional medicine, and in cosmetics."

One interesting plant we came across was the lipstick plant or Annatto Bixa Orellana, its scientific name.

A farm worker demonstrated how the plant got its name by opening its fruit before rubbing the red-coloured seeds inside on his lips. The natural lipstick stayed on him throughout the tour. Good sport!

We were also told how common spices such as cinnamon and clove could be used as natural remedies for ailments and as beauty treatments.

I also learned that nutmeg could be used as a natural aphrodisiac for women. Well.

And an interesting fact is that the henna tree is also known as the abortion tree in Zanzibar, as its roots boiled in a funky concoction is said to help to get rid of an unwanted child.

Jozani Forest

Out of the spice plantation and into the wilderness, I went.

That began with a tour of the Jozani Forest, Zanzibar's first and only national park as well as the largest area of mature forest found within the island.

I walked through the fairy-tale-like woods filled with tall trees, looking out for a Zanzibar red colobus monkey, one of the rarest monkeys in Africa. The national park also has a rich mangrove forest where you can walk through via a well-structured bridge.

Stone Town Tour

One another day, I checked out Stone Town which is famed for having brass-studded, mahogany doors that stand out at every building when you navigate through its alleyways.

Traditionally, when a house was built in Zanzibar, the front door is the first to be erected. The greater the wealth and social position of the owner of the house, the larger and more elaborately carved his front door.

This was also evident in the villages I saw.

In principle, there are two main types of doors found in Stone Town.

One type is the Indian or Gujarati doors, with square shutters and made into smaller sections so that the door can fold together.

The second type are Arab doors often found with an inscription in Arabic on the top frieze, and richly decorated around the frame.

Stone Town is home to 50 mosques and four Hindu temples but it also has an Anglican Cathedral that was once a former slave market site. Zanzibar comes with a sad slave past where Arabs used to be the main slave traders for East Africa (the Americas and Europe were involved in West Africa).

The market was closed on June 6, 1873 but not everyone gave up their slaves. It is unnerving to know that slave trading in East Africa officially ended only in 1907.

In the slave chamber I walked into next to the church, I was told that no less than 75 women and children were once chained on one side of the chamber, while the men were separated in an adjacent one.

There are no toilet facilities, you can't fully stand up straight, and there's barely any light coming in. That was not a fun part for me.

Despite this unfortunate history, Zanzibar gave me the feeling of something familiar and yet not.

Like a place I've been to before, but still so new.

The people are especially friendly (you hear "Jambo!" which means hello everywhere you go) and curious.

It is a great holiday destination, because, really, how many times can you keep going back to Bali and Phuket for a beach getaway?

Zanzibar is that exotic destination you need to do at least once - for me, I may even go back again soon.

Qatar Airways and The Residence made this trip possible. Qatar Airways flies daily to Zanzibar from Singapore.

spanaech@sph.com.sg

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