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Travel Travel Photographer Aline Coquelle Shares Why Zanzibar Should Be Your Next Island Holiday

Travel Photographer Aline Coquelle Shares Why Zanzibar Should Be Your Next Island Holiday

Travel Photographer Aline Coquelle Shares Why Zanzibar Should Be Your Next Island Holiday
Image: Assouline
By Kissa Castañeda
By Kissa Castañeda
May 21, 2020
Photographer Aline Coquelle captures the mesmerising allure of Zanzibar in a new book that serves as a love letter to this vibrant African archipelago

They say it’s all in the name, and that rings true with Zanzibar. Merely uttering the word evokes mystery and wonder—it sounds like an exotic experience waiting to be savoured. The archipelago in the Indian Ocean off Africa’s Swahili coast has always held a certain mystique. In 1872, British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton described his first glimpse of its islands: “Earth, sea, and sky, all seems wrapped in a soft and sensuous repose. The sea of purest sapphire, which had not parted with its blue rays to the atmosphere... under a blaze of sunshine which touched every object with a dull burnish of gold”.

A semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, Zanzibar continues to lure modern explorers with a promise of an adventure like no other. One of these adventurers is nomadic Parisian photographer Aline Coquelle, who first arrived on its shores two decades ago. “What drew me to Zanzibar was the unknown,” says Coquelle, who calls the place “a dream before being an island”. Her first visit was thanks to an Italian friend whose father, a famous scuba diver, lived in Zanzibar and invited her to Unguja, the main island. “It was the perfect introduction to the mystery that is East Africa, which I had been wanting to discover since I read Out of Africa,” she says.

 

The sun sets over sailing dhows in Zanzibar
The sun sets over sailing dhows in Zanzibar
Fisherman at &Beyond Mnemba Island
Fisherman at &Beyond Mnemba Island

Like Burton before her, it was love at first sight. That initial encounter sparked the idea of creating a book, which Coquelle immediately proposed to Martine Assouline, founder of Assouline. “I could feel the potential of this archipelago, the universe we could share and introducing it all into the world. But that moment was not the best time. I was still a very young photographer and maybe Zanzibar was still too wild to comprehend,” she says.

This month, after a creative journey spanning 20 years, during which time she photographed the island and its inhabitants using film, her vision comes to life in Zanzibar—a tome that embodies the essence of this enthralling destination through her lens.

Zuri & Maua Wellness, Holistic Spa is a new eco-chic getaway on the north shore of Zanzibar that follows a sustainable philosophy, balancing our body and soul
Zuri & Maua Wellness, Holistic Spa is a new eco-chic getaway on the north shore of Zanzibar that follows a sustainable philosophy, balancing our body and soul
In Jambiani, on the east coast of Zanzibar, sits the private villa Casadamare—a little piece of heaven
In Jambiani, on the east coast of Zanzibar, sits the private villa Casadamare—a little piece of heaven

More than just another island

With its postcard-perfect looks, it is easy to dismiss Zanzibar as just another tropical paradise. But beyond its pristine white beaches and sparkling, azure waters lies a cultural crossroads that offers curious travellers plenty of layers to sift through. From the food to the architecture, everything reflects a heady mix of African, Indian and Arabian influences; it has also been shaped by its historic importance as a major producer of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper that earned it the moniker the Spice Island (not to be confused with the Spice Islands in Indonesia).

Read also: The Most Beautiful Beaches To Visit In Hong Kong

The panoramic view from the Emerson Tea House, Stone Town—a timeless oasis in the city that offers the best view of the Indian Ocean, accompanied by warm Swahili hospitality
The panoramic view from the Emerson Tea House, Stone Town—a timeless oasis in the city that offers the best view of the Indian Ocean, accompanied by warm Swahili hospitality

Nowhere is this intriguing past more palpable than in the labyrinthine streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar’s historic quarter, which has been designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2000. Here, “magic and obscurity are daily encounters”, Coquelle says, and an enchanted energy fills every square kilometre.

“I was so enlightened by the Swahili culture of Zanzibar and by the mix of humanity and culture while exploring Stone Town—from Persians, Omanis, Africans, Indians and Europeans. It was such a dream for a young photographer and traveller to experience,” Coquelle says. It is this texture and vibrancy that she captures in the intimate portraits she took, documenting a disappearing indigenous culture that needs to be celebrated at a time when sameness permeates the globe.

A local clothes and gift shop in the archipelago
A local clothes and gift shop in the archipelago
Daudi from Zanzibar Kite Paradise, which is linked to the White Sand Villas
Daudi from Zanzibar Kite Paradise, which is linked to the White Sand Villas

The singular natural beauty of Zanzibar, coupled with its rich culture, seems to bring the poet out of everyone, or at least transform them into lifetime ambassadors. Coquelle, who is one of its most ardent advocates, recalls a particularly memorable moment—flying to Pemba island, the second biggest island in the archipelago.

“It was such a magical flight over magnificent lagoons and mangroves, and we eventually landed on an island that had an aroma of cloves. It was so pure and wild. We then immersed ourselves into Fundu Lagoon Resort, and we dove into the pristine waters of Misali Island. It is so untouched by current times and influence; it was like travelling into the beginning of the world.” The Zanzibaris themselves, she says, “greet you like no one else in the world”.

Local Maasai employees at Upendo Zanzibar wearing traditional red clothing
Local Maasai employees at Upendo Zanzibar wearing traditional red clothing
The Saudi Za Busara music festival parade
The Saudi Za Busara music festival parade

The magic of Zanzibar

Although spice and raffia production contribute to Zanzibar’s economy, tourism is its bread and butter. The islands receive roughly 500,000 travellers a year—a constant flow that has been upended by the Covid-19 pandemic. Even with the present challenges of the tourism industry and some reports of political instability, along with sporadic reports of tensions and a deep sense of antipathy toward tourists among some devout Muslims over the years, Coquelle sees nothing but a bright future for a place that has a strong sense of community and inherent tolerance brought about by its multicultural roots.

“Here, the motto is pole pole, meaning ‘slowly, slowly’.” And while the pandemic has brought both tragedy and crisis, we realise even more how important it is to come back to essential aspects of life like time and love,” she notes. “We seemed to have lost these values in many of our big cities.”

 

Author and
photographer Aline Coquelle on the shores
of the &Beyond Mnemba private island (Photo: Courtesy of Assouline)
Author and photographer Aline Coquelle on the shores of the &Beyond Mnemba private island (Photo: Courtesy of Assouline)

This, perhaps, is the magic of Zanzibar: its ability to slow down the tempo so we can truly enjoy the present, putting qualities like generosity and tolerance at the forefront, and reminding us of what it is to be human.

Falling into Zanzibar’s trance comes easily—one could get lost in Stone Town’s bustling markets, dive with whale sharks in the waters surrounding Mafia island or simply watch the sunset from the shore with taarab music playing in the background. When it’s time to leave, the best souvenir isn’t a colourful kanga (a local fabric) or a beautiful tan; it’s emerging as a brand new person.

“Zanzibar is a healing archipelago where nature and people offer you amazing, positive vibes that keep you coming back for more. It became my own form of balance, my rhythm of life. My love for Zanzibar flows in my blood,” says Coquelle. Until the time comes when we can actually travel again, we can transport ourselves to the Swahili coast through her hypnotic photographs in her new book and imagine feeling that warm, fine sand between our toes.

Photographs reprinted with permission from Zanzibar by Aline Coquelle. The book, published by Assouline, is available from May 2020 in select bookstores and online at assouline.com.

 

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Travel Zanzibar Travel Guide Travel Tips Aline Coquelle Travel photographer Travel Photography Photgrapher Assouline Travel Books Africa Tropical destination

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