I had never seen a Maasai warrior dance until I came to Zanzibar. He was jumping up and down, like they do in their tradition, to a 50 Cent song, and he seemed to be enjoying himself. It wasn’t exactly what I imagined when I thought of a Maasai warrior, but since it’s the 21st century and this is Zanzibar, the birthplace of Freddie Mercury, anything could happen. Zanzibar is one of the many small African islands in the Indian Ocean and is a hot spot for backpackers, safari junkies and curious travelers alike. With its palm fringed beaches, azure blue waters, and African culture with an Arab twist, Zanzibar is a beach lover’s paradise. Forget what you’ve heard about the islands of the Caribbean or Thailand; no island is more exotic than Zanzibar. I went there for the first time in 2008, and even though I had done my reading on Zanzibar and seen pictures, seeing it in person was nothing like I had imagined.
The first glimpse of Zanzibar you get is from the skies. As you fly over from the mainland, Tanzania, you gradually begin to see the turquoise blue sheet of the Indian Ocean. Your eyes are met with different variations of blues with tiny and larger pockets of land perfectly placed around the waters. Finally on the ground, I’m greeted with an enthusiastic “Jambo” (hello in Swahili, the language spoken here) from immigration before being driven to Stone Town, where most travelers start their journey. Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and you understand why when you arrive to its grey washed colonial buildings and old slave trading ports full of narrow streets with running school children, street vendors’ selling lychee fruit, coconuts and papaya. This is where Africa meets Arabia, the merge of both cultures is seen everywhere, from the grand and ornamented wooden Zanzibari doors to the muezzin call to prayer in the morning, you get a sense of being somewhere truly special.
Zanzibar is a small Island, so you can easily move around. It takes about 45 minutes to drive from Stone Town to the north-eastern part of the island and the same amount of time from the north east to the south. It is worth traveling around the island, as each part of the island comes with beaches that have their own unique vibe that worth discovering.
My beach explorations started in Nungwi, located in the north. The beach here is laid back but there are beach bars, which makes it a lively spot for those wanting a bit more than some peace and quiet. The beach is stunning, from white powdery sand for miles to glimpses of the everyday lives of the locals, women clothed in brightly coloured kangas (a cotton fabric worn by women) walking along the beach, Dhows, traditional Arab styled boats, are carefully planted on the ocean sailing out into the turquoise-green-blue waters. One thing I love about Zanzibar is that you’re never too far from the culture and the people who live there.
A few kilometres south of Nungwi is Kendwa village, which is on the eastern coast of Zanzibar. Kendwa has more of a party scene vibe. If you arrive on the last Friday of the month, you might catch one of the famous “moonlight parties,” parties at various bars under a full moon. The atmosphere here is young and fresh, so it’s a great opportunity to swap stories with other travelers. The beach here is a perfect postcard. The water and sand seem to just mesh into each other. The water is crystal clear and quite low so it’s perfect for snorkeling. The coral reef in Zanzibar is colorful and filled with so many species, and would definitely recommend booking a snorkeling trip with one of the hotels. There are also other water activities like windsurfing, diving & fishing to choose from.
I then travelled south on the eastern coast of the island to Ras Michamvi, where things got a lot more peaceful. If you’re looking for relaxation and tranquillity, this is definitely the place. My hotel’s policy was all yoga classes, switched off mobiles, lazy afternoon naps in hammocks and long meals overlooking the beach. The beach here goes on for miles and you’ve got the whole beach to yourself for hours on end to swim in the warm waters. The special thing about this region is the scenery. You’ve got the beach in plain view and a tropical forest filled with the Zanzibar red colobus monkeys behind you — a sight that you can only find on Zanzibar. You might even see one run on the beach next to you. It’s as close to nature as you can get.
If you decide to stay in Zanzibar for a week or more, there’s still a ton to do, from hikes in mangrove forests to swimming with dolphins. Zanzibar’s very unique culture, relaxed atmosphere and untouched beaches make it a place you will keep dreaming about long after you’ve come home. I can’t wait to go back and do it all over again.
Top 10 things to do in Zanzibar
- Talk a walk around Stone town and visit the food market to get a feel of what Zanzibar life is like.
- Get a glimpse of bottlenose dolphins in Kizimkazi in the south and if you’re brave enough hop in and have a swim with them.
- Take a day trip to Jozani forest; get up close and personal with the red colobus monkeys. If you’ve got time, visit the mangrove forest near by, this usually comes as a package with Jozani.
- Visit “Prison Island” also known as Changuu Island which is home to the Aldara giant tortoises, brought from the Seychelles in the late 19th century.
- Zanzibar is surrounded by beautiful coral reefs, which makes it ideal for snorkelling and diving. You can easily arrange trips from anywhere on the Island and there are several PADI centres including Zanzibar Watersports. (http://www.zanzibarwatersports.com)
- Hang out with the Maasai’s at one of the “full moon beach parties”; they’ll be sure to show you a dance move or two.
- Indulge in the amazing seafood. You can get freshly caught king prawns, barracuda, tuna, lobster, kingfish, octopus, squid cooked in spicy coconut sauces or grilled on open fires on the beach.
- Make sure to catch the Zanzibar International Film festival from the 27th of June to the 4th of July every year. Although, it’s a film festival, local musicians tend to perform also. It’s a great way to experience the musical side of Zanzibar culture. (http://www.ziff.or.tz/)
- Accept an invitation for lunch at home with a Zanzibari for some authentic traditional food of green bananas cooked in coconut milk with fried tuna, delicious!
- Or you can just lie in a hammock and watch the sunset on the beach, total bliss.
Some great websites I used in planning my trip: