Deep blue sea in Africa

Skip the safaris. The island of Zanzibar in Tanzania is where you will discover sapphire seas, a storied old town and an Arab-African vibe

On a slender sandbar that will disappear under the sublime blues of the Indian Ocean at high tide, our picnic lunch is a fancy tableau with folded napkins and bottles of wine.

On such a secluded islet in Africa, it is pleasurably unreal that two waiters are swirling around a table - adorned with frangipani and bougainvillea flowers - ready to serve chilled champagne on a burning equatorial day.

A private chef grills lobsters and prepares luscious salads, some with spicy Swahili notes.

Every element of our lunch for eight on the pillowy white beach has been ferried from The Residence Zanzibar resort (www.cenizaro.com/theresidence/zanzibar), an hour away by speedboat.

  • GETTING THERE

  • Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) inaugurated daily flights via Doha to Zanzibar in July.

    The Doha leg is on the new A350 EWB (Extra Wide Body) with a spacious cabin enhanced by a vaulted dome, and its Airbus maker says the plane is 25 per cent more eco-efficient. The airline was the first in the world to fly the plane commercially this year.

    There is a stopover in the swanky and retail-rich Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, before the journey of 17-plus hours continues to Zanzibar in Tanzania.

  • STAYING THERE

  • The Residence Zanzibar (www.cenizaro.com/theresidence/zanzibar), owned by Singapore- listed Bonvests Holdings, opened in 2011. Each of the 66 villas has a private pool and complimentary Wi-Fi. Butler service is on request.

    The property is set on a kilometre-long beach with its own jetty, and lies within 12.9ha of garden.

    There is a Kids Club, spa and watersports centre.

    The resort can arrange excursions, from a historic Stone Town tour to deep-sea fishing. A private lunch for two on a sandbar, for instance, costs US$500 (S$704).

    For stays of four nights or more, rates start at US$455 a night for two. For stays under three nights, rates start at US$606 a night for two. Prices include breakfast and dinner.

The plush resort in Zanzibar - a semi-autonomous shard of Tanzania - is owned by Singapore-listed Bonvests Holdings and, like our isolated lunch, its 66-villa property hidden in east Africa is still a bit of a secret for the city's travellers.

The island's luminous ocean and Arab-African essence are now a flight of 17-plus hours from Singapore. Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) started daily flights via Doha to the coral archipelago in July.

THE OTHER AFRICA

That day, I also spy dolphins and snorkel with fearless little zebra fishes that flit past my ear in Menai Bay, and soak in the crystalline sea around our ephemeral sandbar.

I cycle to a fishing village, sail in a dhow and listen to a storyteller as well during a five-day journey.

My travel companions and I also get a whiff of old Zanzibar, which was on the spice and slave routes for traders from the African Great Lakes, Arabian Peninsula and India, when we wander through the labyrinthine Stone Town.

And so we experience Zanzibar as the other Africa, a fusion island dipped in scintillating blues.

While Africa overwhelmingly conjures up safari holidays, its beaches and layers of civilisation are also extraordinary - and Zanzibar is one tantalising door to such less- explored realms of the continent.

Each day, I revel in the seascape and see vestiges of empires, sometimes in the same moment.

This happens the day we step into historic Stone Town and sail on an old-world dhow with photographer Paul Joynson-Hicks (www.pauljoynsonhicks.com), who turns out to be a British viscount-in-waiting from Sussex.

The aristocrat in a Hawaiian shirt is a wildlife photographer who has made Africa his home for 22 years. With aplomb, the resort jets him from another corner of Tanzania to give us photography tips and Zanzibar insights for a day.

DARK PARADISE

Stone Town is a rueful reminder that paradise on earth almost always has a dark edge.

An Anglican cathedral, designed with Roman and Moorish features, now stands on the site of a regional slave market run by Arab traders.

The British shuttered it in 1873, after an appeal by the great explorer and missionary Dr David Livingstone.

Behind the altar of the Christ Church Cathedral was a whipping post. Mr Joynson-Hicks shows us how to capture church and chains in a single image, with the light and symmetry of the altar silently contrasting with the cruel and chaotic past of Stone Town, now a Unesco World Heritage Site (whc.unesco.org/en/list/173).

We enter dungeons where men, women and children were manacled. Zanzibar was the oppressive epicentre for slaves from East Africa, who were often kidnapped at weddings and funerals, or betrayed by African chiefs.

Mr Mohammad Khamis Seif, 50, a former teacher who is our guide, rivets us with a quiet remark: "Let bygones be bygones, but we won't forget."

Later, he indicates why he is at peace, saying: "If we don't know where we came from, we don't know where we are heading to."

FUSION STORY

The rest of our Stone Town foray is much less grim. From its doors and denizens to the dining scene and dressing, Stone Town reveals its fusion story.

In the market I see durians, introduced by Indian sailors who also brought in mangoes. Imposing dark-green mango trees now dot the island, which is three times bigger than Singapore.

In an alley, I see a young woman at an outdoor beauty salon, where her hair is being braided in the Maasai style.

Elsewhere, Zanzibaris, who are mainly Muslim, waft by in flowing robes and headwear.

We have fun doing lots of door-spotting in Stone Town. Many doors are elaborately carved with flowers, vines, fish scales, geometric designs, chains and more. A flower at the top of a door, for instance, represents one family.

A mansion may house a dozen families and its door will sport a dozen blooms.

Doors have brass studs, a style with origins in India where spikes on doors deterred rogue elephants.

Besides Indian designs - mainly Gujarati and Punjabi - there are Arabic doors with Quranic inscriptions.

To see Stone Town doused in sunset colours, we set sail in a dhow, the Arabic name for traditional vessels with triangular lateen sails.

From our dhow, Stone Town, a Swahili coastal trading town, has a glistening seascape and fine facades that celebrate many styles and eras.

Through the centuries, Zanzibar has been an Omani sultanate, outpost of the Portuguese empire and British protectorate, and its exotic cocktail of Arabic, African, Indian, Portuguese and British influences is clear in Stone Town and in the Zanzibar lifestyle.

SONGS AND SPICES

In the same harmonious way, taarab music blends Swahili sung poetry with Egyptian, Indian and Western sounds.

During one dinner at our resort, where we dress in resort chic and our cuisine is Middle Eastern and Mediterranean, I see a double bass and violins among ethnic instruments in our lively open-air taarab orchestra.

The performance has a touch of old-world glamour, yet feels home-spun. Indeed, I am told that the songs tend to be about daily matters, for example, women picking cashews.

We do not harvest cashews, but we do touch, inhale and taste spices. We spend a couple of hours at a spice plantation amusingly named Big Body, nestled in the interior of Zanzibar in Kizimbani.

I get a leaf-cone, a tiny trove for the fragrant spices we will collect - green peppercorn berries, lemongrass stalks, spherical nutmeg seeds wrapped in red "lace", a furry "lipstick fruit" that leaves a neon orange-red stain on my fingers and camera, clove buds and slices of fresh, moist cinnamon bark.

An English-speaking guide tells us about the healing or beautifying properties of each spice. Cloves are a folksy remedy for asthma, for instance.

While a young man shimmies up a tree to pluck young coconuts to cool us off, he belts out a version of The Lion King with its catchy chorus "hakuna matata", a Swahili phrase which means "no worries".

Meanwhile, our plantation hosts, young men in jeans, swiftly weave and ply us with coconut-leaf necklaces, bracelets, rings, baskets and crowns. Soon, we feast on the sweetest fruits - including mango, white jackfruit, banana and grapefruit.

RARE, RED MONKEYS

Apparently, the soil in Zanzibar is so fertile that all an executive at The Residence Zanzibar had to do was to toss an over-ripe sweet potato into his yard and it has never ceased sprouting.

It appears, too, that though the unemployment rate is high, Zanzibar abounds with food and the barter economy is alive, so people do not starve. Seventeen per cent of youth aged between 15 and 34 years are jobless. Again, paradise and pain are juxtaposed.

Other excursions, arranged by the resort, include a short trek in the Jozani Forest of eucalyptus and mahogany where we look for rare Zanzibar Red Colubus Monkeys - small, four-fingered beauties with rich, red fur.

The forest is intriguing with its marooned corals, for it sits on an ancient coral bed.

Another day, we ride mountain bikes on 4km of unpaved road and 7km on a rustic road to the Kizimkazi fishing village.

We bring books and candy for the children, and catch slices of local life.

A woman peddles Zanzibar's beloved street food, urojo, a mango and tamarind broth served with chickpea fritters, spicy mashed potatoes or other "fillings".

PRIVATE POOLS

Our resort itself abounds with activities even as it is an ideal retreat. At my villa, which has Wi-Fi, I relax on the sun deck of the private pool and tweet, or dip into the water.

I watch bright-yellow, squabbling weaver birds that nest in my mini-garden.

There is a spa where we have treatments, and I also pop by to soothe my sunburn with a chilled liquid aloe-and-coconut salve concocted by the spa.

The resort has a dive centre, and I take a refresher course in the pool of the spa. I do not dive as it turns out that our itinerary is full, however.

For a local touch, a troupe of Maasai dancers welcomes us when we arrive while storyteller and historian Farid Himid Abdallah highlights all things Zanzibari under a tree one evening with the waves creating a natural soundtrack.

With so much to see and do, I think of Zanzibar as a destination in its own right, though many travellers tend to treat it as a luxurious little post-safari respite.

Zanzibar has many sibling rivals within Tanzania - from the wildlife of Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater to Mount Kilimanjaro and Lake Victoria.

Though Zanzibar is waiting to be discovered by more travellers, others before us had traversed it in the past, made their fortunes here, or dwelt on the island - among them sultans and spice merchants, explorers from the prosperous Victorian era and conquerors.

The French poet Arthur Rimbaud searched for inspiration in Stone Town. The late Freddie Mercury who flamboyantly fronted the rock band Queen was born on the island in 1946 as Farrokh Bulsara, a Gujarati.

One early wanderer, the Victorian explorer Richard Burton, was mesmerised.

"The sea was a sheet of purest sapphire,'' he wrote in 1858. "The lucid depths were stained with amethyst... and each ship anchored in the bay hovered over her own reflected image."

Today, Zanzibar still appeals with its brilliant blue depths and stories arising from many epochs.


• Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua


• The writer was hosted by The Residence Zanzibar and Qatar Airways.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline 'Deep blue sea in Africa'. Print Edition | Subscribe