Our Tanzanian bucket list trip continues in ZANZIBAR

November

We arrived in Zanzibar on a six-seater bush plane, and as soon as we caught sight of the luminous turquoise water and white sand out the window, we knew it was everything we had dreamed it would be.

Duration: 11 Days in Tanzania (6 in Zanzibar)

We’ve been to our share of island paradises, but we can’t say enough about the clear sparkling waters, the expanses of bright blue sea in the distance, and the sugary whiteness of the sand in Zanzibar that makes it all look filtered and unreal. We watched Maasai warriors walking along the beach with their regal, upright posture noticeable even in silhouette and dim evening lighting. But the island isn’t just a place to relax on a beach. We spent two nights in Stone Town, the one ‘city’ on the island, and a must-visit, before taking off for sand and sun. The history of Stone Town is unbelievably rich, situated as it is between Arabian and African influences and valuable trade routes. The island was actually part of the Sultan of Oman’s overseas holdings starting in 1698 up until the 1890s, and has a colorful history filled with palace intrigue, sultans, princesses, medina-like streets, and daily call to prayer. Some elements of stone town reminded us of Marrakesh, but melded with sub-saharan Africa, and the relaxed energy inherent to islands in paradise. The town is rich with smells, sounds, and people engaging in trade, plying wares, making street food, dancing, living, and beckoning you to get out of your comfort zone and experience new things. 

  • Sight Seeing 100% 100%
  • Food 100% 100%
  • Ease of Transportation 50% 50%
  • Activities 100% 100%

In Stone Town, we stayed at the Hiliki House, which combined comfort with a central location and low prices (around $40 USD/night for an air conditioned double). Our only agenda in town was to wander the warren of alleyways, shop, and take a load off at the Mrembo Spa we had read about. Our first stop was lunch at Lukmaan, a local institution that pops up on every ‘best of Zanzibar’ list. This popular café and smoothie stand hosts a vibrant mix of regulars and tourists from the far reaches of the earth, and is busy at all hours. We went twice on our short visit (once to dine in, and once at the takeaway counter) and observed groups of African tourists from neighboring countries, Middle Eastern tourists, locals grabbing a smoothie at the counter, Western tourists in their newly purchased African printed clothes, and everything in between. We asked our waitress what was good on the menu, pointed to a few things, and threw caution to the wind and enjoyed everything (pilau rice with fresh fish, curry sauce, and beans). While we were generally avoiding unbottled water and ice in Tanzania, we went ahead with the smoothies here and loved them.

We had drinks on the beach one afternoon at Livingtone Beach Restaurant, which is located in the former British consulate building, and splurged for a meal on the rooftop of of the Emerson Spice Hotel at their ‘Tea House‘. Make sure to reserve in advance, as it’s widely considered the best fine dining experience in Zanzibar. A five course meal incorporating local flavors and spices is $40pp, a steal for fine dining. However, after almost a week in Tanzania and considering dinner for one cost the same as our lodging for two for the night, it did seem pricey to us. For a romantic evening it’s absolutely beautiful to have panoramic views of Stone Town below, but if you you’re with friends, or want the buzzy, loud, local scene, it’s ok to skip this experience. Truthfully, we might have enjoyed the food at Lukmaan slightly more. Though if you’re more comfortable with a westernized take on traditional meals, Emerson does this well.

One of the highlights of our shopping in Stone Town was stumbling upon Rohit Oza’s photography shop Capital Art Studio. Beautiful black and white photographs of Zanzibar are available for purchase, most of which were shot by Rohit’s father, who worked as official photographer for the sultan’s family when Zanzibar was a British protectorate in the 20th century. The photographs are stunning, and include portraits and street scenes that are time capsules of Zanzibar through years. I bought a portrait that caught my eye of a man with an enormous moustache, and Mr. Oza gave context by telling me it was taken by his father, and was a Balochi trader. For a true sense of Zanzibar, and the many influences and people who have passed through over the years, a visit to Mr. Oza’s shop is a must.

Finally, our visit to the Mrembo spa was the perfect way to transition from our time on safari, into our time on the beach. We were scrubbed with locally made coffee and spice rubs and slathered in local oils and ointments. We bought soaps, lotions, and sprays from their shop, and left feeling like new people.

Notes on safety and best practices: 

Zanzibar, unlike mainland Tanzania, is predominantly Muslim, and we had read that Stone Town is more conservative than other areas of the island. We took care to cover our shoulders and not wear low cut tops and short skirts, and were fine. Tunics, linen pants, and light scarves are a good way to stay cool while staying covered. (Once we were at the beaches, dress code is no issue and we were fine in bikinis, shorts, and uncovered shoulders). As we were two female travellers, we tried to avoid walking at night in Stone Town, but after dinner we were so close to the hotel, so we walked with purpose, tried not to get lost in the medina in the dark, and were fine, although we felt moderately on edge.

When it was time to head to our first beach hotel, we asked Hiliki House to arrange a driver for us across the island, and they organized the price and introduced us to Selima, our local driver. (Note: drivers only accept cash for the most part). We would advise never to get in any vehicle that hasn’t been pre-arranged for your through your accommodation or tour booking if you go that route.  We asked for Selima’s cell phone number after he dropped us at our beach hotel, and we ended up communicating directly with him via what’s app to arrange several more rides during our 6 days in Zanzibar. We always agreed to a price ahead of time on text, and there were never any shenanigans changing the price after the fact.

However, since we were organising our rides directly with Selima for the remainder of the trip, it required some leaps of faith that all travellers might not be comfortable with. Similar to our wonderful island experience in Tobago, we found that people in Zanzibar share a strong sense of community and share their resources (cars, rides, gas, cash-paying gigs…) Although we organized our rides directly with Selima via What’s App and expected to only see him, several times there was an elaborate system where a friend of his would actually show up to pick us up, then we would pick up Selima midway across the island, and they would drop us at our final destination. There were a few different cars in rotation as well. The first time this happened, we were unsettled and called Selima, who explained in broken English that this was his friend, and everything was ok. We told the guards at our pickup location where our end destination was, and maybe we were kidding ourselves with these precautionary ‘measures,’ but we took a small leap outside our comfort zone and after the first ride when Selima’s friend picked us up, then picked Selima up, then delivered us where we needed to go at the agreed upon rate, we were more relaxed for the rest of the week getting rides and accepting that a rotating group of friends would hop in and out of the vehicle at various points on the road. Learning Swahili phrases from them was one of the highlights of our time in Zanzibar, and we can’t emphasize enough how far a few words of Swahili will take you. Learning to say good morning, how are you, please, and thank you, opened the door for so many interactions throughout the week. 

One final note, we were stopped on the road by police a few times, which is apparently quite common in Zanzibar. At first we were nervous, but after speaking with other travellers, we were assured that the police stops are ubiquitous and routine, and by the end of the week, we were old hand. Across the board in Zanzibar, we found the people to be extremely kind, generous with their time, advice, and resources, and honorable in our dealings. We can’t speak for others and would advise people to absolutely not take risks they aren’t comfortable with (pay a bit more to have your hotel arrange transfers directly for you. In our experience, it will be about double the price than direct dealings with a local driver, but might be worth the peace of mind). However, we found that a little leap of faith brought us closer to locals, into more ‘real’ experiences and exchanges, and ultimately enriched our time, making us feel like we got to know more of Zanzibar than a typical tourist visit. 

Two nights at most should suffice for Stone Town, as you really want to get out to the unspoiled beaches on the rest of the island as soon as possible. We spent one night at the beginning of our trip, and allowed ourselves an afternoon of shopping in the markets at the end of the trip before flying out, which worked out well.

We found information about which beaches to visit convoluted. We read about the dramatic tides in Zanzibar, and tried to glean which parts of the island would have the best beaches where we could swim in the sea (we had read about tides so low that it could be more than a mile to walk out to water), and where there weren’t too many tourists. We decided to split our time between Matemwe, which was the best place to stay for scuba diving around the Mnemba atoll, and Jambiani.

We started at Villa Kiva Hotel in Matemwe, one of the more luxurious hotels on the island, but very reasonable at around $130/night. We had a gorgeous room with a deck overlooking the water, top tier food and amenities, and a lovely, relaxing time. That said, the minute we crossed the magical barrier from our beachfront hotel onto the actual public beachfront, we were accosted by dozens of locals hawking everything from wares to massages to shells (warning: we later saw signs at the airport alerting travellers that it is illegal to bring these large beautiful shells out of the country with you! So don’t buy them, don’t take them, and don’t try to leave Zanzibar with them. Even if you meet the colorful local character who guys by ‘the shell man.’)  It was tiring and a bit stressful to have to tell dozens of people no in dozens of ways while they followed you down the beach, and the result was that we barely left the confines of the hotel, which is never how we like travel. We joked about it with a few other tourists staying at the hotel, and some seem to have perfected the firm but polite ‘no’ better than us. We wanted to be kind, greet others politely with ‘Jambo’ when they greeted us, but it didn’t do us any favors and ultimately was a huge irritation. We ended up feeling a bit like we were kept captive in our gilded hotel, able to use the pool, but not go out and swim in the ocean (people followed us out into the water on our first attempt to show us where not to step and then asked for money for pointing out the sea urchins we needed to avoid, so we ended up just avoiding the beach altogether). For a much more relaxed experience, head to our next destination, Jambiani.   

Matemwe is a good base if you are planning to scuba dive (or snorkle), as Mnemba atoll and most of the island’s dives depart from here. We went with One Ocean Dive Centre which runs professional and popular scuba and snorkle trips (make sure to book in advance, they do fill up). It was nice to get out on a boat, the crew were professional and kind, and we met some nice people on the dive that we ended up spending a few evenings with in Zanzibar. The actual sea life itself was a bit underwhelming. It wasn’t quite the plethora of bold colored fish that you might imagine (less variety and color than we’ve seen in Australia, Hawaii, and Central America). Some of the dives had seen Sea Turtles, which we missed, but it still made for a nice day in the water. 

When we arrived at Red Monkey Lodge in Jambiani, we breathed a sigh of relief. Now THIS is what we were looking for. An early evening football match with local kids and adults of all ages was taking place on the quiet beach in front of us. The owners of the hotel were in the midst of a deep planning session with local business owners for an upcoming benefit concert, but took a break to offer us a drink from the outdoor bar. The lodge is famous for their Monday live music jam sessions, crazy Monday, and our biggest regret of the trip was not having a Monday in Zanzibar. Next time we come back (and we absolutely will be back), we plan to stay at Red Monkey Lodge and catch one of the Monday sessions. While a bit more basic than Villa Kiva, we fell asleep to the sounds of the waves just outside our room, we swam in the bathwater-warm sea at all hours of the day un-hassled, and we found this stretch of beach to be paradise. At around $60/night, it was a steal. In the morning over our coffee and fresh mango, we watched local fisherman wade into the sea with their trawl nets, and observed Maasai warriors strolling peacefully down the beach. We walked for miles down the beach, and found the same relaxed atmosphere pervasive throughout Jambiani – though Red Monkey has that extra something special. We did make a dinner reservation (with one of our new scuba friends) at the most famous restaurant in Zanzibar, the oft-photographed Rock Restaurant. Given its popularity, we were expecting more of a tourist trap, but the people who work there are lovely, the food is decent, and the prices aren’t as marked up as you’d imagine. It’s worth a visit. 

We know we’ll return to Zanzibar, not because there is anything else we have to do there, but because of the feel of the water, the sun, the people, the relaxation, the food, the animals, the culture and the local history. The Indian Ocean is now top of list for favorite bodies of water. It truly was paradise. We’ll stay in Jambiani again at Red Monkey, go to Stone Town to wander the narrow alleyways and eat at more of the local restaurants. We might try to visit the Jozani forest National Park to see all the monkeys (having come straight from safari, this was less of a priority for us).

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