Winter Warmers

Why moan about winter when its arrival is the best excuse for a holiday?

Us Brits, being creatures of habit, like to holiday in the middle of summer. Wary of mixing seasons, some are even encouraged by the long, cold nights to head to the ski-slopes, the one place even more wintry than what we’ve left behind.

But the ‘warm’ winter break has steadily gained currency. And not just for the well-heeled who take holidays like the rest of us drop Anadins. Why go away the one time the rain eases off enough to see our green and pleasant land without sporting a sou’wester and wellies? A week away at the end of January, for example, gives you something to look forward to while all around are contemplating the futility and blackness of their existence. And by the time your suntan’s faded it’s almost spring! Favourable deals for flights and accommodation off-season can be easily found though find out why first: monsoons and coup d’etats can become tedious and unsatisfying.

As September 11 may have scared many off travelling, bargains are likely to appear so you can help keep the tourist industry afloat as well as your finances. Holidaying on the hoof has its advantages. While it’s comforting to have a room booked when you’re new in town, you may want a little variety in terms of place, price and atmosphere. So why commit yourself  now when you might find attractive alternatives there? Local places not only offer the character ruthlessly scrubbed out of most hotel chains – they also tend to charge local rather than international prices.

And talking of such places – where better than an island which hasn’t, so far, let anyone build a single one of these cold, anonymous clones...


Lost Souls in Zanzibar

If anywhere is worth visiting for its name, it’s got to be Zanzibar. And if you are that impulsive you’ll be far better rewarded here than from that surprisingly cheap weekend away in Ulan Batur.

I first heard of Zanzibar when a character in a play I was reading claimed he’d sold his soul to the Devil there. I grabbed my atlas and was too, soon sold. To find it on a map you’ll have to look very carefully for a couple of small dots off the coast of Tanzania. Less than 100km long and a third that in width is Unguja or Zanzibar Island. Along with the smaller, and less visited, Pemba, the pair are technically part of Tanzania though largely independent, politically and culturally. 

Zanzibar is found by boat or plane across the 35km channel from the Tanzanian capital Dar-es-Salaam. It can also be reached by the same means from Mombassa in Kenya. Dire Slum, as one of my travelling companions affectionately called it, has less to recommend itself than Zanzibar. But it’s a good base for travelling onto some of Africa’s best safari parks such as the Serengeti or trekking up Africa’s biggest mountain, the snowcapped Mount Kilimanjaro.

After disembarking at Zanzibar town and getting that glamourous stamp in your passport, its Islamic culture is soon evident in Stonetown – the oldest part of town whose ancient labyrinthine quarters are now a world heritage site. Architecture built and influenced by the myriad of European and Arab traders is lent colour by the calls to prayer from the town’s minarets. The harbour bustles noisily and colourfully day and night – its modern traders dealing in carvings, artwork and fruits of the seas, their quayside stalls illuminated by the flames of the cooks’ grills.

The island’s history marks it out as more than just a pretty place. Two trades: spices and human, elevated the territory to a major market between east and west. Slaves were captured from east Africa to work on the island’s plantations or sold to Arab traders.
The arab influence was consolidated by the rule of the Sultan of Oman from the 1800s whose descendants were not overthrown until 1964.

Nowadays, the turquoise warmth of the Indian Ocean, the white sparsely populated beaches and its warm temperate climate makes it a genuine island paradise. The lack of established Western hotels makes it a destination suited to those interested in the place they are travelling to rather than the inside of a resort. That’s not to say luxury lodgings can’t be found – they just happen to complement the surroundings. But otherwise it’s difficult to bankrupt yourself.

People are generally honest and friendly. The hassle is relatively light though the tourist dollars attract some unwanted attention around the food and art stalls about the quayside and backstreets. Once out of town, the island has various idyllic settlements with basic, cheap apartments to rent. And once you’ve strolled along some of its pristine beaches you’ll realise how irrelevant the decor of your room is. Unsurprisingly, it’s excellent for diving and snorkelling though concern is mounting over reef damage.

Most people use Zanzibar town as a base for staying at one of the island’s beachside settlements or taking trips such as a spice tour or visit to one of the small nearby islands.  While the culture is clearly muslim, it’s one which exists in harmony with the Western visitors who are the island’s largest source of income. You can drink alcohol, it’s just that the locals, like most sober people, might not appreciate your frolicking drunk and naked in the town fountain, however wittily it’s done.

While there’s plenty of beachside entertainment, the emphasis is on relaxation. Sipping cocktails against a tropical sunset while waiting for another succulent mystery fish to do its turn on the barbecue can be repeated surprisingly often. A fish supper in Bermondsey struggles by comparison.

For good or worse, the world is shrinking in inverse proportion to the travel industry’s ever widening net. Zanzibar still retains a large slice of old world exoticism. And while it may capture your soul, you no longer have to sell it.