Zanzibar: Explore an island paradise
Zanzibar- the name conjures up images of exotic beaches, antiques and spices. I am happy to report that the reality is no different. When most of us talk about Zanzibar, we are really referring to the island of Unguja. Zanzibar itself is the name of an archipelago made up of many small islands and two big ones- Unguja and Pemba. Unguja is the largest of the two and home to the capital- Zanzibar City. For this reason, when someone talks about Zanzibar, you can safely assume they are referring to Unguja!
Zanzibar’s history has been influenced heavily by the spice trade. Even as far back as the 3rd century it was used as a port for trading spices. In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama landed in Zanzibar marking the beginning of European influence. Also evident is the influence of the Arab world, the remains of many Sultan’s palaces can be seen. Sadly, Zanzibar also has strong ties with the history of slavery. Malindi, in Zanzibar Town, was one of the main ports used for the slave trade.
Zanzibar eventually merged with Tanganyika to provide the ‘zan’ in Tanzania. So much influence for such a small island makes it truly as magical as the name suggests! As I plan my third trip to this African beach paradise, here are my 5 favourite things to do in Zanzibar.
1. Get lost in Stone Town
So many visitors come to Zanzibar as an “add on” after safari. As a result they head straight to the beach and miss out on the history and mystery of Stone Town. There is a reason it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site! From nightly performances at the Old Fort to the bustling food market at Forodhani Gardens, there is plenty to keep you fed and entertained. Of course you must spend at least a few hours shopping for antiques, clothes or souvenirs. A hidden gem is The Coins Shop where you can buy beautiful jewellery made from old coins!
2. Snorkel at the Mnemba Atoll
Having never snorkeled before (and having a fear of putting my head under water), I was more than a little apprehensive. It didn’t help that everyone else on our boat was doing the full scuba dive so I felt a right baby getting nervous about snorkelling. I needn’t have worried- our guide put me at ease straight away…and even helped distract me with a starfish when I did have a panic attack in the water! Although crowded in places, the scenery in Mnemba is out of the world. Why not splash out on a night on the private Mnemba Island? It will only cost you $1200 for the privilege!
flickr photo by mattk1979 https://flickr.com/photos/mattkieffer/2969259925 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license
3. Go Stand Up Paddle Boarding in the mangroves
This well kept secret is something I heard about after my first trip to Zanzibar, so of course I had to go back! Located in Michamvi on the east coast, Surf Zanzibar do pick ups from most hotels in Paje and Jambiani. Suitable for beginners as long as you can swim, the SUP (stand up paddle boarding) tour takes you through the narrow passageways of the mangrove forest. Navigating through the trees is just as hard as it looks, but you are guaranteed a laugh and some amazing views that are only accessible by paddle board. We took the tour at sunset and enjoyed some fruit and local history in Surf Zanzibar’s tree house. You can also feel happy in the knowledge that the money from the tour goes to preserving the forest and funding local community projects.
4. Eat in the middle of the Indian Ocean
Usually I avoid tourist traps like the plague, but sometimes there is a reason for all the hype! Your journey to The Rock Restaurant begins with a tiny boat at high tide or a short walk or wade at low tide. Try time your visit well depending on what kind of scenery you’re after. We booked for sunset at the full moon. While you can’t actually see the sun set on this side of the island, we were treated to a spectacular moon rise. Make sure you have a drink on the outside terrace to really appreciate the location. The food is a little expensive compared to land based restaurants, but when will you have the chance to eat in the middle of the Indian Ocean again?!
5. Catch the sunset
African sunsets are hard to beat but a Zanzibar sunset is really something special. For the best views over the ocean head to Nungwi, Kendwa or Stone Town (try the rooftop bar of 6 Degrees South of the Africa House Hotel). At the beach you can take a sunset cruise on a traditional dhow sail boat for a really special experience. Everyone, local and tourist alike, stops for a perfect sunset.