Zanzibar is an island paradise with so many things to do. Located off the Tanzanian coast, Zanzibar is full of soft sandy beaches that stretch for miles, bordered by clear, turquoise water and lush green trees, swaying in the breeze. Add in some local culture, delicious food, and rich history, and you will understand why you should visit Zanzibar!
The ocean here is lovely and warm, with barely a wave to disturb the peace. Men clothed in masaai garb walk alongside women clad in burqas and traditional dhows dot the waterline. You could while away your time by lazing on the beach and sipping mocktails all day or participate in group tours and activities.
Zanzibar is still relatively undiscovered, and aside from the beach resorts, there’s little else in the form of developments. This means that there are fewer people, smaller crowds, and more authentic experiences to be had. So visit now and enjoy a slice of paradise, before the secret gets out!
WHAT TO DO IN ZANZIBAR
Zanzibar is one destination where you can while away your time at the water’s edge without getting bored of the startling views. But there are also tons of activities on offer if you’re looking for things to do.
RELAX IN THE OCEAN
With miles and miles of pristine turquoise water, Zanzibar’s beaches are their crowning jewel and you should spend as much time as possible enjoying it.
Not to exaggerate, but as we flew over the island, there were audible ooh’s and aah’s rippling through the plane, as everyone caught sight of the indescribable waters. I never knew that such colours existed in nature without the need for Photoshop or Instagram filters!
There are very few, if any waves here, and the beach feels like a gigantic swimming pool. You could walk and walk, and still have the water barely brush your shoulders.
One thing to keep in mind though is that depending on the time of the month you visit, you could have the pristine waters or a seaweed invasion.
Our first six days, we were blessed with the former, but on our last day, the tide brought in tons of seaweed, which made it difficult to swim and walk around the beach areas. As it dries up, it also gets smelly, so make sure to check ahead and time your visit well.
GO ON A SAFARI
We didn’t know that ocean safari was a thing, but Safari Blue is the most popular thing to do in Zanzibar, with good reason. A full day trip, that includes transfers to and from your hotel and a full lunch, it is well worth the price, starting at $70 USD per person.
You will get fitted with flippers and assigned a life vest and snorkel mask, before setting off on a traditional dhow boat. You then jump off of the boat for some snorkelling, and if you’re a strong swimmer, you could even swim with wild dolphins. Next up is a visit to a large lagoon for some swimming and relaxing amongst the mangroves.
Lunch is a seafood barbeque on the beach, along with some fresh, seasonal fruit. You can also explore some of the magnificent trees on the small island or do some souvenir shopping at the little stalls before you depart.
The last stop is a little sandbar with the most heavenly water, before sailing back to shore powered by the wind instead of the boat’s motors.
EXPLORE ZANZIBAR’S STONE TOWN
With small, winding alleys and bright wares for sale, Stone Town is a feast for the senses. As you walk through the town, make sure to pay special attention to the elaborate doors, rumoured to be strong enough to withstand elephant attacks, which were apparently common a long time ago.
An unexpected building we happened upon was the birthplace of Freddie Mercury– you cannot go inside but people queue up for a chance to take a picture of the city’s most famous citizen.
If you find yourself in town on a Saturday night, make sure to check out the food market at Forodhani Gardens for some great local food. Try to buy from stalls that are busy, to make sure that the food is relatively fresh and hasn’t been sitting out in the heat all day.
Don’t expect big malls or international brands, but you can do some souvenir shopping while you’re in town, too. As always, be sure to bargain!
VISIT A SPICE FARM
While most farms aren’t as expansive as we’d pictured, they all have a staggering variety of spices growing.
It was really interesting to see the form various spices grow in before they reach our supermarket shelves in their powdered form. You also get to taste some of the spices and play guessing games to identify which spices are which.
The highlight of the tour is a performance by a fearless man, who climbs up an extremely tall coconut tree unaided, while loudly singing ‘mambo jambo hakuna matata.’ As if climbing the tree wasn’t enough of a spectacle, he then proceeded to perform some acrobatics, kicking his legs out and dangling from the treetop.
Afterwards, the whole group is treated to fresh coconut juice, straight out of the shell, and some tours include lunch as well.
SPEND TIME WITH THE LOCALS
If the idea of wandering around the villages alone isn’t your cup of tea, most resorts offer walking village tours, where a member of staff accompanies you into a nearby village and shows you around. We really enjoyed the experience, as he was a goldmine of information and answered any questions we had about the island, its history, and its people.
He also acted as a translator when we came across anyone we wanted to speak to, and took us inside one of the huts to visit its occupants. It really did strike us how simply they live, yet how content they all seemed.
By law, none of the beaches on Zanzibar can be privatised, so even resorts can not lay claim to the waters on their doorsteps. While this means that touts can try to sell you things if you’re beyond resort boundaries, it also makes it easier to connect with locals passing by. We took some toys with, and enjoyed building sandcastles and blowing bubbles with local kids.
Many people take toys and gifts for local kids, but we were told that this encourages children not to attend school in the hopes of bumping into generous tourists. If you want to donate, rather ask your hotel to put you in contact with the local school, and donate through the school instead.
THINGS TO KNOW
Zanzibar’s primary export is spices, hence they are commonly known as the ‘spice islands.’ The population is mostly comprised of Swahili people, and almost all of the inhabitants of the island are Muslim. As such, it is best to dress modestly when exploring the towns.
The local currency is called the Tanzanian shilling (TZS), although US dollars are widely accepted. The current exchange rate is approximately 1 USD to 2,300 TZS. You can check the latest exchange rate on Google.
Swahili is the main language, but a lot of the people in the tourism sector can speak English. The island motto is ‘hakuna matata,’ and saying that at any point is guaranteed to get you a cheerful smile in return.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ZANZIBAR
Zanzibar is ideally located for trade, and the Portuguese seem to be the first Europeans to recognise its potential in the sixteenth century.
However, over time, their passive manner of ruling led to the island’s takeover by the Sultanate of Oman. In the nineteenth century, the sultan began to rule from here, thus leading to increased development and trade during this period.
Unfortunately, this also made Zanzibar a major player in the slave trade, and when the British outlawed the slave trade in the Indian Ocean, their economy suffered. In 1896, the shortest war in the world was fought here, and after less than an hour, the Sultan surrendered to the British.
Zanzibar remained as a Protectorate of the British until 1963, when it was declared as an independent country. In 1964, it merged with Tanganyika, which then became known as Tanzania, but still remained semi-autonomous.
BOOKS ABOUT ZANZIBAR
I like to prepare for upcoming trips by reading both fiction and non-fiction accounts, ideally by local authors. This helps to immerse yourself in local culture and create a connection with the place before you get there. There weren’t many options available, but they were still a lovely introduction to this island nation.
- Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah is an intriguing novel about a young boy who grows up in Zanzibar, then moves to the United Kingdom, while a family secret haunts him. It describes his life and thoughts in both places, making them both come to life. It is wonderfully written, and with the current plight of immigrants in the world, it was an interesting insight into the mind of someone trying to find their place.
- Memoirs of an Arabian Princess by Emilie Ruete is believed to be the first book written by, and about, an Arabian woman. Although there are doubts as to the authenticity of the book, it is still an interesting account of life in the palace. Some parts are difficult to read in the context of current societal norms, but it certainly transports you to another time. Written in 1886, the book is currently in the public domain, and thus easy to access.
- The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley was one of the most absorbing books I read before our trip. It is a book of many parts, and each works with the rest to paint a complete picture. Part of it is a travelogue, that details his journeys in Africa, while the other part of it delves into his family history and the horrors suffered on the continent. It becomes meandering in some parts but it deals with a lot of difficult subjects deftly and I’d highly recommend it.
- Death in Zanzibar by M.M. Kaye is written in the style of an Agatha Christie murder-mystery and was my least favourite book from the list. It showcases a Zanzibar from times gone by while the protagonist gets caught up in a murder investigation. Aside from the perspectives on the island, there wasn’t much to grab my attention, and months later I can barely remember who the killer was, let alone his motivation.
- Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar by Abdul Sheriff was an interesting account of the history of Zanzibar, from its rule by the Portuguese to the establishment of the British Protectorate. However, instead of being told from an anthropological perspective, it is rather an economic account, detailing its trade relationships. It is very well researched and straightforward but doesn’t fill in all the historic gaps.
BEST TIME TO VISIT
Situated relatively close to the equator, Zanzibar enjoys a lovely, tropical climate. The best time to visit is during the dry season, which stretches from June to October, and again from January to February.
From March to May, you can expect high humidity and long showers. In November and December, there are chances of showers as well, although not as severe.
We visited in late September, and the temperatures ranged between 27 and 30 degrees Celsius. But, it felt much hotter, and we could feel the heat draining our energy when we embarked on tours. Thankfully, the ocean temperature hovered around the 25-degree mark, making it warm enough to enjoy swimming in, but cool enough to wash away the day’s heat.
HOW TO GET THERE
There are actually two islands off the Tanzanian Coast, namely Unguja and Pemba. The larger Unguja is usually referred to as Zanzibar.
Pemba Airport, also known as Wawi is located on Pemba, and Abeid Amani Karume Airport is located on Unguja. However, this is no fancy airport, so don’t expect bells and whistles, or even a lot of duty-free shopping. If you’re going to be there for a while, take snacks and entertainment with you.
From South Africa, you can reach Unguja on direct flights from Johannesburg on Mango Airlines every Tuesday and Saturday. You can also fly in via Kenya or Tanzania from a number of African and European countries.
From Dar Es Salam, you can get to the islands on a twenty-minute flight or a two-hour ferry ride.
Once you get there, don’t expect to find public transportation. The only way to travel, aside from taxis, are dala-dalas. These are essentially minibus taxis that locals use, and one of the biggest regrets of our trip is not getting a chance to ride in one.
WHERE TO STAY IN ZANZIBAR
We spent our week-long trip at the DoubleTree in Nungwi, and would highly recommend it.
Perched at the northernmost point of Unguja, it is relatively unaffected by tides. This means that you get access to the beach all day. With little else to do, this was a big consideration for us.
Some areas lose their beaches completely at high tide, and you’d have to jump off a pier to get into the ocean. Others have their beach recede hundreds of metres back, making it quite a walk to reach the water. The relative stillness is also deceptive, and you could find yourself racing the tide back to shore if you aren’t paying attention.
If you decide on the DoubleTree, splurge a little and stay in a sea-facing room. It would be a shame to be so close to the most beautiful beach and have to wake up to a garden or pool view.
Note that the ground floor rooms have direct beach access, but little privacy. We stayed on the third floor and had the benefit of privacy and breath-taking views.
Our suggestion is to go for the all-inclusive option, as there are very few places to eat nearby, aside from restaurants and bars at neighbouring hotels.
There are a few local cafes in the area, but they are basic. Like, really basic. Think: a woman squatting over a stove to make your food, and then either sitting on the floor or low plastic chairs to enjoy your food, in the same room.
If you opt to stay in Stone Town, there are tons of food options around, that will give you a chance to fully enjoy the local cuisine. You would also be close to history, but far from the idyllic beaches.
Ideally, split your stay between a couple of days in the city, followed by a restful stay on the beach. You can read a great rundown of the pros and cons of each area that will help you to make an informed decision on where exactly to stay.
I hope this article has helped you plan your trip and discover some of the amazing things to do in Zanzibar!
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