Zanzibar is a destination that conjures images of an exotic, tropical isle with endless turquoise seas, sweet mangos and fascinating culture. Even the name sounds exotic and alluring! Once I realised that it’s relatively cheap to fly to Zanzibar in February, I was sold!
It turned out to be what I had expected, but so much more. The villages, the beautiful dhow boats, the locals charmingly adding a ‘y’ onto most nouns and using the beach as a bicycle highway are all unforgettable and unique mental souvenirs from Zanzibar.
Many people pair Zanzibar with a safari in mainland Tanzania or the Kilimanjaro climb, or perhaps with a diving trip to the less-touristy Pemba Island. For this trip, I wanted to concentrate my time in the ocean as I’m a big fan of surfing, diving and kiting.
I love the sea, and we decided to bring our surfboards, kitesurf equipment and stand-up paddleboards, so a safari beforehand seemed a little impractical with all our gear. Next time, perhaps!
I visited in late February into early March, and we only saw rain once, it was lovely and hot. A local taxi driver told me categorically that ‘rainy season starts on the 21 March’, so if he’s right then you can bank on rain from exactly that date!
It only takes about two hours to get from Nungwi in the far North to Kizimkazi in the far south (for dolphin watching), so it’s entirely possible to base yourself in one area and get taxis to and from the spots around the island.
We travelled around the island by taxi, which wasn’t too expensive (about $30 from the airport to Jambiani and $45 from Paje to Muyuni). We stayed in five different hotels in two weeks so we could see as much as possible, but most people would settle in one or two places.
There’s plenty to get stuck into, so make sure you plan a few activities in between the inevitable Pina Colada sipping and sunrise watching.
No trip to Zanzibar is complete without a visit to Stone Town, the old part of the main city on the island. The town offers a contrast to the endless, turquoise seas and sandy beaches that you’ll enjoy during the rest of your stay.
There’s so much to see in Stone Town, which has charm by the bucket load. Think beautiful, crumbling buildings, Arabian-style rooftop bars, lively beaches, chaotic markets and dhow cruises at sunset.
While you’re here, I recommend exploring some of the moving, historical sights relating to the long-abolished slave trade, which is remembered with statues and a church. You could also visit Prison Island with its incredible, protected population of 100-year old giant tortoises, or visit Freddie Mercury’s birthplace – a reminder of the time when Zanzibar was a British protectorate.
If you head to Darajani Market, you'll find rows of tantalising spice stalls and the local fish auction. You’ll also see traditional palm weaving, and it’s easy to pass the time in meandering through the lanes full of African art and masks, seashells and Masai jewellery.
Don’t miss the occasion to dine in Emerson Spice Tea House roof terrace where you can indulge in a five-course tasting menu at sunset. Also, make sure you make a beeline to the Forodhani Gardens overlooking the beach for a culinary immersion into Zanzibarian street food. Taste sweet sugar cane juice freshly pressed, Zanzibar’s twist on the pizza and samosas with insanely spicy dip!
Zanzibar is an ideal location for kite surfers, with shallow turquoise lagoons and consistent, warm winds. The south-east is the best sport for kiting, particularly the beaches in Dongwe, Paje and Jambiani. Paje beach has the most kite centres where you can rent equipment or take lessons if you prefer. We rented our equipment from Aquaholics Kite & Surf Centre in Paje and found them to be extremely helpful, knowledgeable and perfectly positioned on the beach.
Right at the heart of the island is the Jozani Forest - the last remaining indigenous forest on the island which. It’s home to the Zanzibar Red Colobus Monkey and the only place where you can see these guys in the wild. You can walk with a guide who will show you the different plant and their medicinal uses, which is quite fascinating – it lasts about an hour.
The Rock is a restaurant with an Instagram-worthy setting! It’s a tiny eatery perched on a rocky outcrop in the sea, and you’ll never find a better setting for sundowners and seafood! Most of the seafood is harvested from the reefs around the restaurant, and the menu is a fusion of Italian and Zanzibar influences.
If you head to the south-east of Zanzibar, to Chawaka Bay near Pingwe, you can take a guided tour to discover the beautiful, endangered mangroves and its native wildlife. You don’t need to be an expert and can do this tour even if you have never been on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) before. Your guide will take you through the waterways so you can look out for monkeys. The tour finishes with complimentary fruit and drinks from the bar in a glorious roof-top terrace.
There are numerous dive sites in Zanzibar, and it’s possible to dive here all year round. The private Mnemba Atoll to the northeast of the island is the top dive site; a conservation area with excellent visibility where you can spot dolphins, green turtles, elusive little seahorses, moray eels and rays.
I dived here with Dive Point Zanzibar who were extremely professional, knowledgeable and the closest dive centre to the Atoll. At Travel Nation, we can book your diving with Dive Point Zanzibar, and I’d recommend exploring with them so that they can guide you through the reefs in safety. One of their divers is starting a programme of coral restoration as well as teaching the local community more about the aquatic life and waste management on land, so I was happy to support the enterprise.
If you are in the Paje area, I recommend taking a couple of hours out of your day for the Karibu Seaweed tour, which is another socially responsible enterprise. The tour will give you an insight into seaweed production, and you can also bag some great organic beauty gifts and souvenirs from their shop!
The tour includes learning how to make natural beauty products from raw seaweed, and you’ll spend a little time immersed in the local culture, helping to harvest and plant seaweed with the local ‘mamas’. After the tour, you get to taste some fresh seaweed juice and learn about its properties as a superfood drink.
This safari is probably one of the most popular day excursions in Zanzibar. You can get picked up from your accommodation anywhere on the island, and they’ll drive you to the Menai Bay Conservation area where you can explore the isolated sandbanks, islets and pristine marine life in a traditional Dhow boat.
You’ll get to swim and snorkel in the turquoise waters with guides, spot dolphins, swim in a hidden mangrove lagoon then feast on a delicious Swahili barbeque.
Zanzibar might not be the first place that comes to mind as a surf destination, but it is possible to surf here. The outer reefs are suitable for beginners and intermediates when the tide and swell are right.
Aquaholics in Paje was the first centre to offer surfing in Zanzibar, and I would recommend them to take you out to catch some waves as it would be tough to do this without someone who knows the spot and tides needed. You can get a ride out to these reefs in boats laden with surf boards and practice catching some waves with instructors and a surf photographer on hand to capture your finest moves!
I can wholeheartedly recommend Zanzibar. Expect some of the most stunning beaches imaginable, tasty fusion cuisines from India, the Middle East and Africa, oh-so-friendly locals and plenty of activities available, on land and sea.
I fell in love with the people of Zanzibar and also the Masai Mara who had come over from the mainland. Most residents of the island are Muslim, so be respectful and cover-up when you’re away from the beach. We found some fantastic local eateries hidden away in the villages run by locals and feeding the tourists alongside the Masai Mara and local islanders all at once!
We felt safe throughout our visit, even when our taxi broke down in the dark, some distance from the tourist area. Our driver called some friends to collect us and take us to our hotel, and they happily picked us up with our luggage and dropped us off safely.
If you’d like to include Zanzibar in your trip, we can arrange flights and show you how to combine the island with other destinations, perhaps including a safari in Tanzania. I can recommend places to visit and stay and arrange a fully tailor-made holiday for you to make the most of your visit.