Magical and romantic, the Island of Zanzibar is a relatively undiscovered gem in Africa’s crown.
Zanzibar (locally known as Unguja) or Spice Island is an extensive group of islands and islets. Located in the Indian Ocean 40 kilometres from the Tanzanian coast, the island only occupies about 1700 square kilometres. Characterized by colourful coral reefs, endless white beaches and the historic footprints of Stone Town, the only functioning ancient town in East Africa, Zanzibar is a delight for tourists.
Zanzibar has had a colourful history, indicated by the diverse mixture of the ethnic backgrounds of its 800000 inhabitants. Locals speak Swahili, an East African language.
Cloves, spices and coconut are major export products, as fishing and agriculture remain the main economic activities for locals. Tourism is fast becoming a major driving force as primary foreign exchange earner, but the main regulatory body, the Zanzibar Association of Tourism Investors (ZATI), aims to ensure that the tourism industry must remain beneficial both to visitors and the local community.
One of the must-see places in Zanzibar is Stone Town, the old city, the cultural heart of the island and recently declared UNESCO World Heritage Site. It might not sound very dreamy, but it is like walking into history. Most of the houses were built in the 19th century when the island was one of the most important trading centres in the Indian Ocean region. It is said that nothing much has changed in over 200 years as you wind through the alleys and walkways, take in the bustling markets, marvel at the extravagant houses with big, brass studded wooden doors seen as a sign of affluence and opulence in times gone by. Although a lot of the old homes seem in a dire state of disrepair, a concerted effort has been launched to coordinate the restoration of this historic town to its original splendour.
The beaches provide the backdrop for stories worthy of movie scripts. The coastline offers some of the best sunspots in the world, but sand and surf vary depending on what side of the island you’re on. On the east coast, waves break over coral reefs and sand bars, and low tide reveals small pools of colourful sea life. Up north, ocean swimming is much less subject to the tides. Scattered between picturesque fishing villages where people have continued to live simple lives, the pristine beaches beckon holidaymakers with the gentle lapping of waves providing the soundtrack to their invitation to come and unwind.
From the shores you will see several small offshore islands or islets, ideal for a daytrip. Near Stone Town, the islets of Chapwani, Chumbe and Bawe offer great accommodation and superb snorkelling. Mnemba, a private island located on the north-eastern coast is often visited by water sports centres in the area, especially for scuba diving and snorkelling, because of the rich coral reef off the island. Changu (or Prison) island is the most popular tourist islet that was originally used by the Arabs to detain unruly slaves until a jail was built by the British although it was never actually used.
There are various tours to take on the mainland of Zanzibar. Some of them include a tour of the historic Stone Town with visits to the House of Wonders, the Palace Museum, Dr Livingstone’s House and the Arab fort. You can also find out why the island is referred to as Spice Island with a tour of the magnificent Spice Plantations which brought even the Sultans of Oman to the shores of Zanzibar. Stroll through pathways winding through the Jozani Natural Forest Reserve and learn about the rare Red Colobus Monkey among other endemic species that reside there, and be on the lookout for the illusive Zanzibar leopard that only hunts at night.
But if we’re honest, most people know Zanzibar for images of its sundrenched white beaches and the brilliant (and warm) turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean at sunset. Instagram moments. Feelings of relaxation, the aroma of coconut oil and the taste of a pineapple-infused cocktail accompanying the urgent need to get away from the mundane for a while to lounge on a hammock hanging on palm trees gently swaying in the breeze in the middle of paradise. Google flights. Google accommodation. Booking confirmed. “Hujambo” Zanzibar. I’m on my way.