The beauty of Zanzibar lies in its dramatically differing scenery – from bustling Stone Town, with its tumbledown buildings, fascinating history and working marina; to the secluded west coast with its rugged coastline and rocky beaches; and on to the south-east, where the sand is white and fine and the seawater a mesmerising shade of turquoise.
From coast to coast it’s in the south-east, in Paje, that you will find the five-star White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa. Designed by one of East Africa’s leading architects, Neil Rocher, each villa was created in an environmentally-friendly manner and manages to reside effortlessly beside palms, baobabs and other tropical flora, perfectly ensconced for the utmost privacy. Each beachfront villa has its own garden, private swimming pool, elevated deck, spacious bedroom and bathroom, and separate entertainment and dining area, plus the highlight – an outdoor bath like no other. This is the windier side of the island and Paje is known as one of the best kitesurfing spots in the world, which is why White Sand opened its own professional club here. At Zanzibar Kite Paradise, everyone from total novice to hard-core pro can experience the thrill of the sport. For those less adventurous, the open-air spa is a tonic for the soul. Surrounded by tropical greenery and complemented by a waterfall, it has a good mix of treatments, and experienced therapists who use locally produced natural products.
If you’re after less seclusion and more atmosphere, head to Nungwi on the island’s northern tip. As one of the largest villages in Zanzibar, and a tourist hub, there’s lots to do and see here, and plenty of luxurious hotels and resorts to stay at. Diamonds La Gemma dell’Est has repeatedly been voted one of the leading resorts in Zanzibar (and Africa) – and it will not disappoint. With four restaurants, four bars, a swimming pool, a gym, a spa, a PADI-certified dive centre and a gorgeous stretch of beach; as well as an all-inclusive policy (all meals, non-alcoholic beverages and a range of activities are part of the flat rate), the resort lives up to all the hype. The daily activities on offer should cover every taste – from beach volleyball and soccer, waterpolo and wakeboarding, to African line dancing and Swahili lessons.
Back in the heart of the island, Stone Town, there is no shortage of places to stay – from well-known chains such as Park Hyatt and Hilton, to smaller B&Bs and boutique hotels. However, the most authentic Zanzibari experience is to be had at the Zanzibar Serena Hotel. Situated on Stone Town’s ancient seafront, with Prison Island visible off in the distance, this small hotel offers respite from the heaving town surrounding it. Accommodation is comfortable and unfussy – influenced by Swahili design –with high ceilings, shuttered windows and dark wood offering a cool escape from the heat and humidity. The sheltered courtyard with its private pool is where most guests while away the day, and the long terrace is the best spot for watching the dhows glide tranquilly in and out of sight while you sip on a pina colada.
Things to do
You can’t visit Zanzibar without spending at least a day exploring Stone Town, which includes taking photographs of as many of its famous carved doors as possible and getting lost in its winding, similar-looking streets and alleyways while locals smile and nod knowingly as you pass them for the third time. Seeing as you are visiting one of the renowned Spice Islands, a spice tour is a must. You can expect to be transported to a nearby plantation and guided through the various aromatics (turmeric, vanilla, cinnamon, cloves and more). While you’re at it, hop aboard a traditional dhow before dusk and enjoy the varying shades of the sunset with a cool sea breeze (and perhaps a sundowner). Afterwards, head down to the Forodhani Gardens food market, where islanders and tourists alike congregate for delicious local cuisine (a mix of Swahili, Arab and Indian): spicy seafood curries, flavourful chapattis, coconut cocktails and freshly squeezed sugar-cane juice. Near Paje, on the Michamvi Peninsula, The Rock is a tiny seafood restaurant that’s perched – you guessed it – on a large rock just offshore. It must be one of the most-photographed restaurants in Africa and it is booked up months in advance, but it’s a favourite with tourists and makes for an exciting outing – especially if the tide is in and you have to wade through the water to get to your table.
Nearby is Jozani Forest, which is a must for nature-lovers. Spot the rare red colobus monkey and cute bushbabies, among more than 40 species of birds and 50 species of butterflies. The flora is incredible too.
Things to avoid
The Spice Island is definitely mysterious and enchanting, but it is also filled with many wheeler-dealers looking to make a quick buck. This is especially prevalent in Stone Town. Keep your wits about you and be firm with hagglers if you’re not interested in their services or wares. Try to book outings through your hotel, which will know reputable taxi and transfer drivers, day-trip organisers and other tourist services. While trips to the chaotic markets, ‘cruises’ to Prison Island or excursions to Freddie Mercury’s birthplace are always listed among the ‘top 10 things to do in Zanzibar’, these experiences can turn out to be overrated and underwhelming if you choose the wrong guide.
Need to know
- You might require a visa to travel to Tanzania.
- Always ask before taking photographs of locals.
- During the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the daylight hours, avoid eating, drinking, smoking or chewing gum in public (unless in a hotel or restaurant).
- Women should always carry a scarf with them and cover their shoulders when in public.
- Ensure you have an international driver’s licence if you plan to rent a car – there are many roadblocks.
- National roads are mostly in good condition, but in more rural areas, drive with caution.
- Hot and dry weather can be expected between December and March, and cooler between June and October. From March to May, expect intermittent heavy rainfall.