Zanzibar: Treasure Island Found

The East African islands have on offer everything you'd want from a beach holiday—and then some.

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Women in Zanzibar traditionally wear a kanga or cotton wrap, often with Ankara prints, a common East African style of wax printing (left); Dhows dotting the archipelago’s waters (middle) are built in the Nungwi area; A popular diving destination, Zanzibar is home to over 350 fish species (right). Photos by: Hauke Dressler/LOOK-Foto/Getty Images (Woman), Danm/Getty Images (Boat), Borchee/Getty Images (Diver)

Last New Year’s Eve, my husband and I, along with a group of friends, were in a speedboat on our way from Nungwi to Mnemba Atoll in Zanzibar, snorkelling gear in tow. Progress was slow because the captain had to take the slightly longer low tide route and the water was choppy. We’d been on the boat for 45 minutes and the only marine life we’d spotted was a white snapper darting past us. Suddenly, there was streak of grey to our left. We stopped. The captain shut off the motor. And then we saw them: A small pod of three bottlenose dolphins, their beautiful, grey bodies rising up from the ocean and forming perfect semicircles, like synchronised swimmers. We watched in silence, bound in collective awe, as they disappeared into the deep blue water in seconds. Someone gasped and the spell was broken. It was a moment of pure magic—one that makes its way into the recesses of the mind, neatly fitting into a jigsaw of memories.

Looking back, I see that my entire trip to Zanzibar was very much like that morning. We had been told that there were no dolphins near Mnemba, that the only place to find them was Kizimkazi, a small fishing village at the southern tip of the island. Yet, we spotted the pod at Mnemba and it made that day extra special. And that is how every day had been on this trip to Zanzibar—at every step of the way, it exceeded my expectations.

 

Below the Surface

A Sunset Sailing Cruise on a dhow from Nungwi is the perfect way to witness a sunset mid-ocean. Photo by: Danm/Getty Images

A Sunset Sailing Cruise on a dhow from Nungwi is the perfect way to witness a sunset mid-ocean. Photo by: Danm/Getty Images

With white, sandy beaches and cerulean blue waters, the Zanzibar archipelago—off the coast of Tanzania—is simply gorgeous. Unguja, the largest of the archipelago’s islands, is also commonly referred to as Zanzibar and has the most number of beaches. On the west there is Mangapwani, to the north lie Nungwi and Kendwa, while the east has Matemwe, Pwani Mchangani, Kiwengwa, Uroa, Bwejuu and Jambiani. Water sports, including jet skiing and kitesurfing, and activities like snorkelling and fishing are everywhere. Zanzibar is also a well-known diving site and it is not uncommon to find your hotel’s swimming pool taken over by an instructor giving early-morning lessons. In fact, almost every hotel has its own diving centre,  some certified by Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI). There’s no fixed price for dives and lessons and there are numerous outfits conducting them, so it’s worth exploring several options before picking one. You will also be approached by hustlers on the beach, and while they may offer a good deal, it’s safer to go with a certified instructor.

Unfortunately, when heading to Mnemba Island, about three kilometres to the north or Zanzibar, for a day of snorkelling, we had not paid much attention to choosing a certified instructor. The captain and aide of the private boat, were of no further help after they gave us the equipment. Thankfully, we were with friends who had snorkelled several times, and who helped us with the gear and breathing techniques. This part of the Indian Ocean is extremely saline, and if your mask isn’t on tightly enough, the water whooshes in, stinging your eyes and nose.

But once the gear is fitted, the experience of seeing the coral reefs near Mnemba is beautiful. I spotted bright corals, starfish on the ocean bed and colourful little fish darting around. Years of yoga have taught me to breathe through my nose, but having a piped contraption in my mouth and breathing through it was still difficult. The salty water didn’t help, and I had moments of panic, however the experience was still the highlight of my trip. If you’re a pro though, try Tumbatu Island, where the water is choppier but the marine life richer.

 

The Best Beach in Town

Nungwi is Zanzibar’s most popular beach. While the many hotels and restaurants along the beach make for lively evenings, the beaches are never too crowded—perfect for a peaceful evening stroll. Photo by: Franz Marc Frei/Getty Images

Nungwi is Zanzibar’s most popular beach. While the many hotels and restaurants along the beach make for lively evenings, the beaches are never too crowded—perfect for a peaceful evening stroll. Photo by: Franz Marc Frei/Getty Images

We stayed at Nungwi, Zanzibar’s most popular beach. It is barely crowded even during peak season, with clear waters that make it a great place to swim during low tide. During high tide, the water lashes at the wooden stilts most restaurants stand on—ideal spots for a sundowner.   Watch the sun set and twilight settle as you sip on a Zenji, a popular lime-and-mint drink named after the local name for Zanzibar. The soft sandy beaches are also perfect for ambling along looking for shells. Locals sell coconut water and fresh pineapples, and the beach shacks are another good spot to gaze at the sunset, accompanied by the local lager, Tusker, or the ginger beer Stoney Tangawizi. If you’ve had enough of the sand between your toes for the day, an inner lane also lets you wander seamlessly from one hotel or shack to the other. For those interested, there are also various yoga classes on offer—views of the vast Indian Ocean are a bonus.

Staying at Zanzibar can also be quite a gastronomically satisfying experience and Nungwi offered us a delicious feast. We had two delectable dinners at the Z Hotel’s al fresco restaurant, Saruche, which offers fine dining on the beach, and is lit by tea lights in the sand. The African-European fusion menu offers locally sourced seafood. The Senegalese crab curry and the Surf and Turf platter of prawns, steak and fish are recommended. At Amaan Bungalows, we picked our favourites from the catch of the day, which was then grilled to perfection. The lobster thermidor and fried octopus are among their must-have dishes. At Langi Langi, we met the chef who we realised takes a personal interest in each order. Le Macis at Atii Garden Bungalows, a small French restaurant tucked away on the inside of the beach, serves its meals, cooked by the French chef, in a garden decorated with fairy lights. The food— octopus salad, gratin dauphinois and passion fruit cheesecake—was divine.

For a nightcap or drinks before dinner, The Jetty at Essque Zalu hotel, with its extended happy hours and a gorgeous setting at the end of a long pier, is highly recommended. Head to Mama Mia for home-made Italian gelatos that are worth a walk in the night—the coffee flavour is one of the best I’ve ever had.

Zanzibar island is also a popular party location. Kendwa Rocks at Kendwa Beach, a short walk from Nungwi, is home to a famous monthly full moon party. Those who prefer a quieter area, Paje and Jambiani beaches on the southeastern part of the island have good stay options. The Rock restaurant in Jambiani, which is actually built on a large rock and sits in water, is ideal for a quiet dinner.

 

The Past Held Over

From stately cathedrals and erstwhile slave markets (right) to a night food market (left), a visit to Stone Town is an introduction to the historical and cultural heart of Zanzibar. Photos by: Steve Outram/Getty Images (Food), Anup Shah/Getty Images (Building).

From stately cathedrals and erstwhile slave markets (right) to a night food market (left), a visit to Stone Town is an introduction to the historical and cultural heart of Zanzibar. Photos by: Steve Outram/Getty Images (Food), Anup Shah/Getty Images (Building).

An hour’s drive from Nungwi will take you to Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the cultural heart of Zanzibar. The drive could easily remind you of Goa—banana and palm trees swaying by the road, small houses with roosters scampering in the backyard, and majestic views of the ocean.

Stone Town is the historic quarter of Zanzibar, and a guided walk took us through the area’s narrow by-lanes, which reminded me of Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. Zanzibar was ruled by the Omanis until 1890, when it became a British protectorate. The Zanzibari Omanis rebelled, and in 1896, after probably the shortest war in history that lasted only 45 minutes, the sultan had to surrender. By the early 20th century, the town was divided into Arab, Indian and European neighbourhoods, and the architecture is a testament to that period.

Our guide Domingo told us that the doors of homes, now centuries old but still inhabited, were part of a game of one-upmanship. They are therefore unbelievably ornate—almost jarring—though the houses, constructed with limestone and coral, are decrepit. In some neighbourhoods the doors help distinguish the communities. There are Arabic letters carved into many of the wooden frames while the ones in the Indian neighbourhoods are decorated with brass fittings.

Stone Town once had one of the world’s last open slave markets. The site of the old slave market now has an Anglican Cathedral, with 12 upside-down pillars—apparently a result of an error made by construction workers. A visit to the site still leaves a deep impact forcing you to reflect on the atrocities people had undergone here.

Around the cathedral and in the market, narrow lanes are dotted with shops selling souvenirs and carved wooden curios. However, some also sell fabrics with local African Ankara wax prints. Jewellery and other baubles made with tanzanite, a lustrous purplish-blue gemstone found and commercially mined only in Tanzania from the base of Kilimanjaro, are also popular.

Make a stop for lunch at the Lukmaan Restaurant. The cafeteria-style restaurant is right under a Baobab tree and usually teeming with tourists. We had a very satisfying lunch of chicken biryani, grilled octopus and fresh juices. Round up your evening with coffee at The Africa House Hotel known to have the best sunset view in Stone Town.

 

Island Explorer

Zanzibar, once an important spice route port, now has a flourishing spice industry (left); Jozani forest is home to the endangered and indigenous red colobus monkey (right). Photos by: Nurphoto/Contributor/Getty Images (Spices), Michael Cook - Altai World Photography/Getty Images (Monkey).

Zanzibar, once an important spice route port, now has a flourishing spice industry (left); Jozani forest is home to the endangered and indigenous red colobus monkey (right). Photos by: Nurphoto/Contributor/Getty Images (Spices), Michael Cook – Altai World Photography/Getty Images (Monkey).

There are various options for day trips and activities you can partake in when staying at Nungwi and Stone Town. One of them is the spice tours offered by the farms and plantations in and around Stone Town. Though Zanzibar was integral to the East Africa trading route, it was the Arab rulers of the 18th century who recognised the island’s potential as part of the spice trade and developed a flourishing industry. While the tour is a great way to explore the cultivation process, the best place to buy the spices is the centuries-old wholesale market in the heart of Stone Town. It has a huge variety of spices and other condiments on offer, from cocoa beans, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon, to meat masala, flavoured tea and spice-infused handmade soaps.

The Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park, about an hour’s drive from Stone Town and about two hours from Nungwi, is home to the red colobus monkey, a species endemic to Zanzibar. There are only about 1,000 of the species left now and you get a chance to spot them in the guided forest walks organised at the reserve.

For those looking to explore more about the region’s history, a destination worth a day trip is Prison Island or Changuu Island. The island, as its name suggests, used to be a prison and can be reached on a motorised wooden dhow, a throwback to the island’s Arabian past. It is a ride worth taking to understand Zanzibar’s history. Locally called Changuu, the Swahili name for a common fish found there, the island was used by the Arabs to hold rebellious slaves until they were sold or shipped out. In 1893, after Zanzibar had become a British protectorate, the British purchased the island from the Arabs and a prison complex was constructed. It soon became a place to quarantine those who had contracted yellow fever, so that trade in Stone Town would remain unaffected. Today, the island’s main attraction is its population of Aldabra giant tortoises. Four tortoises arrived here as a gift from Seychelles in the late 19th century. The oldest surviving male is now 158 years old, while the female is 192. Looking at their size and their wise old eyes, I couldn’t help but think of Oogway from Kung Fu Panda.

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

  • Geetika Sasan Bhandari has been a lifestyle journalist and editor for two decades. She's currently on a sabbatical from full-time work and spends her time binge-watching TV shows, baking, perpetually making travel plans, and occasionally, writing. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

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