Tatler - Island Fling
January 2010

Once a far-flung hippie hang-out, Zanzibar has blossomed into a proper paradise. Michelle Jana Chan is captivated by the spirit of an African outpost.

Does anywhere in the world have a more enticing ring to it than Zanzibar? Mysteriously exotic, with a potent history of sailors, spices and strident explorers (think Livingstone hunched over a table of maps in the English Club in Stone Town and Stanley searching for him there a few years later), this is an Africa where the big game has vanished but the big blue sea and sky remain. It is an Africa where you can swap dusty safari for buttery golden sands and fresh blasts, where minutes trickle into day. During the scramble for Africa, Zanzibar was the site of the so-called shortest war in history - the Anglo-Zanzibar War in 1896 - which lasted a mighty 38 minutes. Far away from a mother continent beset by conflict, it's clear nothing here happens in a hurry. No wonder a bohemian crowd loves it, drawn in by simple beach bungalows and full-moon parties.

But what is exciting about Zanzibar today is that the whole island is, at last, growing up. For a long while smart traveller, en route from Tanzania, skipped it entirely and made a beeline straight for one of the few hotels worth heading to: Mnemba Island Lodge, a blissful barefoot hideaway on a tiny islet (it draws a punchy crowd – Bill Gates, Naomi Campbell). But now the main island, with its layer upon layer of Portuguese, Omani, British and Swahili influences, is reasserting itself. The notorious rubbish, once piled high on the streets, has been whisked away (plastic bags are banned: take canvas for shopping). Oversized tourism developments are on hold, smaller hotel jewels - this year in particular - are breaking fresh ground. And a more modern-minded island is making the most of its gin-clear water and becoming green, clean and truly serene. Zanzibar is waving goodbye to its student days and emerging with a whole new polished gleam. Now, more than ever, it makes for the perfect African sidekick.

So, where to start? Don't, whatever you do, skip Stone Town, the old quarter of the island's capital. This bustling, buoyant harbour - unlike its blander oceanic neighbours in Mauritius and the Maldives (Male especially is beyond disappointing) - has a magnetic heritage and lively spirit that you can see and smell and grab. You'll find women in voluminous patterned dresses - more like walking rolls of wallpaper – balancing baskets on their heads and babies on their backs, and traders on bicycles wearing English football shirts and knitted bobble-hats, carrying clumps of spinach, bundles of firewood and long poles of sugar cane. Children walk to school in immaculate uniforms – girls in blue pinafores with matching hijab, boys in starched white shirts and pressed shorts. On market day, the place is jammed with taxis, bikes and barrows of wares. CD-sellers fill the air with music, singing 'Jambo, Jambo, Bwana'; tables are piled high with loofah pyramids, bottles of sesame-seed oil, bricks of dates, bicycle bells and unleavened bread. The air wafts with bags of perfumed spices: star anise, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom and the tiny torch-shaped clove that Zanzibar is famous for. Twist some black sticks of vanilla between your fingers - you'll be reminded of Berthillon ice-cream on warm Paris days.

There are some official sites you may want to tick off - former slave chambers, slave-owners' fancy houses with their heavy brass-studded doors, the Anglican cathedral, the old Arab Fort (now an amphitheatre used by film festivals and theatre) and, next door, the colossal House of Wonders, so named because it was the first place in Zanzibar with electric light, now home to the Museum of History and Culture. But to truly get under the skin of Stone Town all you have to do is walk and watch. Immerse yourself in the old town's winding alleyways, stacked with dozens of retro-style Piaggios (the effortlessly cool way locals get about town), and you will stumble across all manner of life. Around one corner a group of men play Bao, a traditional board game using a simple plank of wood and polished seeds (games can last for days, with the players smoking roll-ups and drinking rich Arabic coffee). Down by the waterfront, where rusty container ships pull up beside billowy dhows in the ocean, a market scene unfurls against a shot-blue sky. Men in foot-high chef hats cook up local delicacies - skewers of lamb, spiced octopus and falafel wraps. Each stall is lit by a naked bulb illuminating swirling thick smoke and spitting fat. Crowds jostle to be next, elbowing to the front to buy samosas, spicy soup with fenugreek and naan bread. Beautiful veiled women wear heavy mascara and plum-coloured lipstick. This is what you come to Stone Town for, if only for a night or two (any longer and you'll go stir-crazy it's surprisingly small). Don't expect the high-fashion sense of somewhere like Marrakesh, with its sleek restaurants and riads - you will be sorely disappointed by the grittiness here. But this doesn't mean that Stone Town doesn't have its own eccentric charms. And don't fret – you can still sleep in style. Stay at the beautifully bohemian but simple 236 Hurumzi, formerly famously known as Emerson and Green. The new rooms in the Peace of Love wing are the most comfortable, but no less evocative or colourful than those in the main house, and the rooftop restaurant is as inviting as ever. If you don't stay here - and you may prefer the unspectacular but reliable Serena Inn - then come, at least, for an icy planter's punch and a magical Swahili dinner (fresh spicy kingfish, raisin-dotted rice) served at knee-high tables as the sun sets and a calming call to prayer winds its way through a skyline of minarets, church spires, laundry lines and palm fronds.

One you've had your fill of Stone Town, it's time to go horizontal. Because the real quest in Zanzibar is for the beach. What joy, then, to welcome two dreamy new hotels - at last, at last, something different to old hands like Ras Nungwi (only worth it if you stay in the Ocean Suite), Chumbe (isolated nature but basic) and six-villa property The Palms. For while Zanzibar has long offered a lovely clutch of barefoot boltholes, until now none of them had quite achieved smart boutique individuality. In the southwest, Baraza might be mistaken for a whitewashed sultan's palace, with shimmering mosaic interiors, lots of creamy, carved marble and battered brass lanterns. It is wonderfully grand and Arabic in style, alluding to the past but totally up to the minute on both comfort and design. The oil lamps are so large that any genie must be a giant. There are big wooden drying pans of pungent, perfumed cloves and guinea fowl scuttle past the long and languorous pool, amid lanky palms and a blaze of bougainvilleas.

You can bring your children and, because this is a style-conscious hotel, it delivers so much more than campbeds, a kids' club and fries. Half of Baraza's sprawling rooms are designed for families with up to three little ones and a baby. The ocean-front Presidential Villa could take your Christmas card list too (or at least some staff). It's this decadence – the private plunge pools, the lush gardens blended with Swahili style that hits just the right pitch, perfectly walking the tightrope between local authenticity and high-end flair. The ocean-view rooms are not actually on the beach but no matter - the sands are whiter than white and the sea is like a soothing warm bath. If you want your children to live out Zanzibar dreams, hotfoot it to Baraza. They will have a ball. There is a watersports centre (snorkelling, scuba, kite surfing), the local staff are on hand – babysitters included - and the food is local and fresh: pineapple and mango smoothies magically appear in frosted glasses. For grown-ups there's a dangerous shop - beaded jewellery, striped kikoys and enough enticing wares to kit out your entire house - as well as the Frangipani Spa with its own lap pool playing underwater music (cool or what?). The whole place smells of spice and the yoga teachers are from the Himalayas. This is the new Zanzibar - young, sexy, superbly private.

Zanzibar's other hot new address, Kilindi, is the island's shiniest star, perfect for clever couples wanting to avoid Baraza's children. Down a dusty lane, a dozen or so kooky villas mushroom up between the rise and fall of a jungly landscape. Conceived by Neil Rocher (the man behind some of the most stunning properties in Africa, including Shompole and Luangwa Safari House) in a zany style imaginatively coined as 'Zanzibaroque’, the architecture is captivatingly curvy - in an organic kind of way - with twirly turrets resembling Smurf hats. On the inside, rooms are charming, with not one but two plunge pools connected by running rivulets and a waterfall. The shower head hangs on a ship's rope from a domed roof so you can splash all over the big round bathroom. Shutters fling open to frame the Indian Ocean - it's a bright, breezy affair.

The northern lad behind Kilindi, Bobby McKenna (who launched A&K's adventure portfolio), is enthusiastic to say the least. Ideally he would get his hands on some Oompa-Loompas to carry guests around in Ottoman chairs. He may have fallen short in this respect but his staff are brilliant, from the army of sugar-sweet butlers to the Masai security guards, hiding clubs in the folds of their scarlet regalia. The restaurant team are London luminaries - an ex-E&O manager and a chef from Fifteen - who have created a simple but sensational menu (soft-boiled eggs with Marmite soldiers for breakfast, yellowfin tuna sashimi for lunch, octopus masala for supper). Find a plump mango fallen off a tree on the path to your house and they'll slice it into your crab salad.

Kilindi is something fresh in Zanzibar: small, serious about service and very personal. McKenna says he knows exactly what guests coming to Africa want, especially after a week beating about in the bush. Yet he also hopes his hotel will become more than just an add-on after a week in the Serengeti or Selous. And herein lies the point - Zanzibar, as we are beginning to realise, deserves more attention than that. Island life here seems captured from a different era. Hot new arrivals like Baraza and Kilindi, one splendidly child-friendly, the other a romantic renaissance, prove that the island's hotel scene has taken a quantum leap forward. This is the dawn of a new era of sophistication in Zanzibar - an exotic island which is, at last, living up to its name.