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Zanzibar: A very cultural beach holiday

By Oliver Robinson, for CNN
updated 7:11 AM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
Zanzibar -- beloved by honeymoon couples, beach bums and Freddie Mercury fans. At low tide the azure waters at Paje Beach retreat for miles, leaving a landscape of silver sands punctuated by beached fishing boats. Zanzibar -- beloved by honeymoon couples, beach bums and Freddie Mercury fans. At low tide the azure waters at Paje Beach retreat for miles, leaving a landscape of silver sands punctuated by beached fishing boats.
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Low tide on Paje Beach
The Palace Museum, Stone Town
Streets of Stone Town
Stone Town discoveries
Off to work, Paje Beach
Seaweed farming, Paje Beach
Kitesurfing, Paje Beach
Forodhani Gardens, Stone Town
Zanzibar pizza
Minarets of Stone Town
Shopping in Stone Town
Paje Beach
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Zanzibar is famed for its beaches, but there's plenty of history, culture and architecture here
  • Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar in 1946 -- his life is commemorated at sites around Stone Town
  • One of the most striking features is low tide at Paje Beach-- azure waters retreat for miles, leaving a landscape of silver sands

(CNN) -- Just off the coast of Tanzania, the African island of Zanzibar isn't simply a sunny, sandy paradise geared toward honeymoon couples -- it's an island of bright beauty and dark history.

Every building, boutique hotel and narrow street in UNESCO World Heritage Site Stone Town has a story -- from the slave trade to the birthplace of Freddie Mercury.

Yes, the beaches are stunning, the breezes are warm and the beer is cold.

But there's a lot more to see, do and enjoy on this small island in the Indian Ocean.

The Palace Museum

Against the Old Fort walls, the former Sultan\'s Palace perches on the seafront like a pearl.
Against the Old Fort walls, the former Sultan's Palace perches on the seafront like a pearl.

Built in the 19th century, the former Sultan's Palace (also known as Beit el-Sahel) perches on the seafront and is one of Stone Town's iconic buildings.

One of the palace's most famous residents was Khalid bin Barghash, who was forced by the British to outlaw seaborne slavery in 1873.

This edict -- more can be learned about it in the museum -- was a significant step toward the abolition of the Arab slave trade, memorialized by the nearby Cathedral of Christ, which was built on the site of the old slave market.

It's said that the altar is positioned where the old whipping post once stood.

More on Stone Town and the Palace Museum.

Streets of Stone Town

The historic center of Zanzibar, Stone Town is the archetypal Arabian Nights town.

Guests can spend days losing themselves in the winding, narrow streets, marveling at the minarets that spear the skyline, as well as exploring the colonial buildings leftover from the Portuguese, British and Germans.

Fans of Freddie Mercury (born Faroukh Bulsara in Stone Town, 1946) will appreciate the Zanzibar Gallery, which features a gold plaque commemorating its most famous son.

Mercury's Bar & Restaurant (Mizingani Road, +255 77 741 3081) capitalizes on the singer's adopted name.

Unsurprisingly, Queen's greatest hits permeate the venue's soundtrack, and staff are eager to tell you where they think the singer was born -- though it seems no one can agree on an exact location.

Mercury's is one of the few restaurants in Stone Town located on the beach, and is conveniently close to Forodhani Gardens.

Many such buildings have been converted into stunning boutique guesthouses, including Mashariki Palace Hotel (doubles from $220) and the more affordable Stone Town Café bed and breakfast (rooms start at $80 per night).

Forodhani Gardens at Stone Town

The Forodhani Gardens food market comes to life as the sun goes down.

People wander amid the food stalls for snacks including Zanzibar pizzas, sugarcane drinks and fresh seafood.

Even if you're not hungry, Forodhani Gardens is worth a visit for the sights and sounds.

Forodhani is located close to the Zanzibar ferry port, walking west along the Mizingani Road (keeping the sea to your right).

Zanzibar pizza

As the name suggests, Zanzibar pizza is the island's signature dish.

It's worlds away from the kind of pizza you're probably familiar with -- it's more of a crepe, which can contain anything from bananas and Nutella to shrimp, chicken or tomato and cheese.

Shopping in Stone Town

Authentic African and Arabic trinkets in bazaars and backstreet shops.
Authentic African and Arabic trinkets in bazaars and backstreet shops.

Stone Town has a huge number of bazaars (top choice is Darajani Market) and backstreet shops stocked with ornate Zanzibar chests, authentic African and Arabic jewelry and all manner of trinkets designed to bring out the latent antique hunter in visitors.

Many shops offer shipping services, though you'll likely have to collect your purchase from the airport, rather than have it delivered to your door.

There are antique and curio stores at every turn in Stone Town, but the best market experience can be found south of Creek Road/Benjamin Mkapa Road, at Darajani Market on the right.

Low tide on Paje Beach

One of the most striking features of this beach on the east coast of the island is its low tide -- the azure waters retreat for miles, leaving a landscape of silver sands punctuated by beached fishing boats, stranded shellfish and the occasional bemused traveler.

From Stone Town, Paje Beach is a 50-minute drive along the Karume Road, which runs all the way to the east coast of the island, via the Jozani forest. Buses run from the Maganami Kwa Najim on the Karume Road. Taxis will come to your guesthouse. Taxi prices vary around $10 per person (haggling is expected).

Seaweed farming

Women from the eastern and southern coasts of Zanzibar farm seaweed just off the beach.

Their harvest is sold to a local factory just outside Stone Town, and is used for soaps, creams and treatment scrubs.

Much of the seaweed farming on Paje Beach is part of a charitable initiative set up by SeaWeed Centre.

Fishing is the primary source of income for many Zanzibar residents.
Fishing is the primary source of income for many Zanzibar residents.

Fishing

Aside from tourism, fishing is the main source of income for many inhabitants of Zanzibar.

Flanked with stabilizing outriggers, Zanzibar's distinctive dhows have been used for hundreds of years.

Kite surfing

For all Paje's sleepy serenity, the village is popular with kite surfers thanks to occasionally blustery winds.

Kite Surfing Centre (equipment rental starts at $60 for half a day).

Zanzibar can be reached from Dar Es Salam by fast ferry (ticket prices start at TZS 57,000 ($35). Ethiopian Airlines and Kenyan Air both fly to Abeid Amani Karume International Airport, Zanzibar.

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