The Pearl of Africa
Reaching our final destination (for now) after a flight tour through Europe and Oman, we finally touch down in Zanzibar. Our very first time in Tanzania, and actually, the first time in the “real Africa” as we’ve only been to Morocco, Tunis and Egypt. That has been a long way and too many hours to reach, however, it was actually in a very convenient and relaxed way first in Luxembourg City, then to Nancy for a day, continuing to Muscat via Munich where we had plenty of time to enjoy such a beautiful city, and now a very well deserved rest by some of the most paradisaical beaches in the world in a sumptuous resort. This would be, nevertheless, a grand arrival to such an impressive country where we will also explore some of the best safaris in the world: Tarangire and Ngorongoro; the city of Arusha, and although from the distance, the mighty Kilimanjaro.
Zanzibar is way more than an island, a small continent! You have everything in here, from the mountains to the sea, and the incredible forests and pure white sand beaches. And all within easy reach and short distances, with an impressive collection of architecture blending the colonial and traditional styles in its small and vibrant capital city, Stone Town.
We spent 3 days upon arrival in the island, where we were towards the north along the main beaches on the west, resting and enjoying the weather, the beaches and pools in the resort, and sightseeing in the afternoons around the surrounding nearby area and villages; and then a last day before our return flight for fully exploring Stone Town. Time-wise, it was perfect for us, although of course I would have welcomed to stay longer in such an impressive resort doing nothing else than chilling out; but our plans were for also experience for the first time in our lives a safari and getting closer to the “real Africa”.
Zanzibar offers many places to go and visit, but of course the great majority of people stay at any resort or hotel along the countless beaches, and spare some time for Stone Town. Don’t get me wrong, after all, this is exactly what we did and is what this place is all about. Not to mention the countless activities available, being either water sports, diving, paragliding, jungle tours, spice tour, cultural trips… all within the island; and an infinite choice when going elsewhere through Tanzania.
Something extremely important to know about the island and its beaches are the strong tides. Yes, everywhere around might look a paradise, but it’s not! The last you want in your holidays is end up at an incredible resort, I do not question that, but trapped in the pool since the water from the sea can be few kilometres away from the beach, or it’s full of stones. It can take a bit longer of a research over the internet to figure out where is best to stay to avoid this, but let me provide this ready to you: the northern tip and northwest coast, and if going in detail, at or around Nungwi and Kendwa. This is without hesitation the best beaches anywhere, the pure fine white sand, and water even at low tide. It is along this coast where some of the top 5* resorts are, obvious choice right?.
Now a few notes on history of the island, Zanzibar is always been of key importance in the spice trade, connecting Asia and Africa with the Middle East and Europe. Saffron was its “gold”, however cardamon, ginger, cloves, pepper and nutmeg were, and are, as important as saffron. Fruits are some of the most amazing and tastier you will ever try. The avocados are huge, and so the unique to the island “elephant garlic”. Yes, elephant in here refers to size so you can imagine what I’m talking about. Also, something unique you will only see in this island is the red colobus, one of Africa’s rarest primates endemic to Zanzibar of which around 1500 exist.
In the 16th century, it became part of the Portuguese Empire for almost 2 centuries until 1698, when Zanzibar fell under the control of the Sultanate of Oman, hence the very close tights with Oman, even in the architecture. Another curious fact happened thereafter, when the island was in control by the British. It was 1896, and ever since it is the place of the world’s shortest war, surrendering to Britain after just 38 minutes. And did you know this is the birthplace of world famous Freddy Mercury? Yes it’s here, in Stone Town where he lived with his family between Zanzibar and India until he was 9 years old. Small world!
For more facts and further information about the island check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Tanzania’s currency is the Shilling (TZS). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
How to get your visa for Tanzania
Unless few nationalities which do not require visa to enter Tanzania and are allowed to stay for a maximum of 3 months, everyone else need one or other type of visa. Here is the official website with the list of countries and the needs for each of them. Other nationals do need to apply for a visa, preferably before their trip. However at the main entrance ports in Tanzania (Dar es Salam, Zanzibar and Kilimanjaro) you can obtain a single entry visa on arrival, costing 50 $USD. You get to fill a form right after you land before security, queue to pay for the visa, and in matter of few minutes they do affix it to your passport. Very efficient and smooth. This was one of the easiest visa’s we’ve ever requested.
What to see and do in Zanzibar
- Stone Town The magnificent capital city, world famous for its small colonial old town, listed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its unique blend of traditional African Swahili architecture and culture with Arab, Persian, Indian and European.
-The Old Dispensary At the northernmost end of Mizingani Road, the seafront promenade, opposite the ferry terminal. Built in 1894 is one of the finest buildings, with large balconies and stained-glass windows in a neoclassical look.
-Beit el-Sehel The former Sultan’s Palace is another of the properties once belonging to the Sultanate of Zanzibar. It is nowadays a great museum about the former Royal Family with a good memorabilia and furniture collections.
-The House of Wonders Known by this name for this reasons: the first building in the island to have electricity and first building in East Africa to have a lift. Built in 1883 as the Sultan’s residence. It’s along the seafront, west from the Old Dispensary.
-Old Fort Literally next door from the House of Wonders, built in the 17th century by the Omani. Nowadays a museum, shops and small arena for live shows.
-Forodhani Gardens Precisely opposite the House of Wonders and Fort, along the promenade and the sea. This is the best sport for a nice sunset view.
-Freddy Mercury’s House In Kenyatta Road, meters west from the Old Fort where the seafront promenade ends at the intersection of the road then running parallel to the beach (Shangani Street). This is his birthplace.
-Beach Towards the entire western tip of the old town it’s the city’s beach, aligned with some of the finest mansions housing traditional hotels and top luxurious ones, restaurants and bars. This and the streets behind contain the best preserved houses.
-Cathedral From the Old Fort it is 2 streets south, right in the heart of the old town of Stone Town. Built by French missionaries between 1893 and 1898 basing the design on Marseilles’s Cathedral in a smaller scale.
- Kendwa Before reaching the northern tip of the island, Nungwi, along the west coast this is one of the best spot for the nicest beaches in the entire island since even at low tide, there is water in the white sandy beaches. Some of the top luxurious resorts are located here.
- Nungwi The northern tip of the island, around 55 kilometres from Stone Town. The second largest city, very vibrant thriving day and night, and great luxurious hotels by the beach. You can easily reach for 2000 TZS in dala-dala number 116 departing every half an hour from Creek Road in Stone Town.
- Matemwe to Pongwe Another of the main resort areas in the island, along the eastern coast. A beautiful place that’s for sure, however the tides do affect a lot, and having beaches without water happens daily. Also another “downside” is the great amount of seaweed plantations, taking over the beaches. Expect this coast not as nice as the western one, here are more stones as well.
- Pingwe A very nice beach, one of the most pictured for the travel catalogues, home to the most renown landmark in the entire island, The Rock. This tiny islet off the beach with the little house on top.
The international airport is few kilometres south from Stone Town, the capital city of the island. With the time, more and more airlines are opening direct routes here, however it is almost guaranteed you will need to have an intermediary layover. Ours was in Muscat with Oman Airways, country which has strong tights with Zanzibar as it was once belonging to the Sultanate of Oman.
From the airport, is best if you take a taxi if you are for the first time in the island. It will be hassle free and will save you time. It is 2.6 $USD per person to Stone Town, with the rates increasing the farther you need to go, being Nungwi area the farthest from the airport and as such, the most expensive. Expect to pay $50 per way. Once you are a couple of days, without luggage to carry and more relaxed, you will see how easy is to move around by dala-dala (buses), which are inexpensive and very frequent.
If something I can strongly recommend you (I did already all this big research for information on our trip so ready to hand you over) is to book in advance a transport to take you to your hotel/resort, especially if landing in Zanzibar late at night. From the many companies, one stand above and beyond the others, with the most competitive prices. Check Suntransfers for a quote and hassle free booking in less than 5 minutes.
Zanzibar has one of the largest hotel/resort choices ever for an island of this size. Of any kind, but it’s famous for the incredible paradisaical top 5* resorts. These are another world, but also are another band of cost of course. Anyway, someone making it this far here, treat yourself if you can and be in heaven. A few more notes on this, Zanzibar is an expensive island in every sense. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the basis on enjoying a coffee, a beer or whatever the refreshment will set a large cost for the duration on your stay. However most of the resorts offer half and full board, and even all-inclusive. You simply cannot imagine how much this can save you. So what you “over spend” in one side, you save it in the other while treating yourself to a fantastic experience.
Then a mandatory point to consider before doing any research, is limiting your search radius to the north tip of the island (Nungwi), and the nearby northwestern coast (Kendwa). This is where the beach has water even at low tide, and you have the white powder-like sand, without rocks. Elsewhere in the island and you risk not having your dream beach instead of a bad taste experience. A good and reasonable point to start your search would be checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms, Ebookers or TUI.
On our first days in the island we stayed at the Royal Zanzibar Beach Resort, one of the top 5* properties in the island, right by Kendwa along the nicest beach. We got a great deal (considering what other resorts were charging, even the lower category ones), and it was an all-inclusive. This property was simply stunning! In every aspect, the quality of everything, the food, the drinks, the staff. The huge and beautiful rooms (we stayed at G32), decoration, landscaping, and the countless facilities. The amazing 4 infinity pools, and just there, few steps down the astonishing beach. The many restaurants, bars and lounges all over were fantastic, my all-time favourite of course, the pool bar with such a kind water. We loved speaking to each others. Then if you wish to stay sleeping longer and miss breakfast at the main restaurant, don’t worry! Do so, you can always go to the restaurant near the infinity pool by the beach where they serve brunch all day and much more! Fancy a pizza any time? They will do fresh stone oven baked for you in no time, carry it with you to the beach or pool and enjoy. Their lunch and dinner buffets spectaculars. Very well done to everyone, especially the waiters/waitresses, what a service and what a smile always in their faces making you feel comfortable and appreciated. Their thematic dinners, one day in the pool area and another down in the beach so they break the monotony of being at the same restaurant each day. I miss their “jambo”and “hakuna matata” constantly from their mouths :). I cannot emphasize how much I strongly recommend this place! I wish we were longer here.
As for our last night at the end of our holidays before leaving the country we stayed in Stone Town, the capital of the island. We selected to be here on purpose, hassle free and right there in the middle to enjoy the day sightseeing and resting. Also why not to take the chance by staying at one of the nicest traditional architecture properties this city is so famous for! Our great candidate was the Mizingani Seafront Hotel. As the name says, right there by the promenade and next to the major landmarks in the city. This hotel was beautiful outside and inside, a proper colonial structure transporting you to another time. The rooms were large and comfortable beds, however the bathroom a bit tricky fitting in the space the toilet because of the traditional Arabic shower there. I suspect the UNESCO did not allow for heavy interior transformations on original fittings, anyway this is not a complaint. Nice friendly staff and nice breakfast too. We enjoyed the time here, resting in the pool and the rooftop solarium too.
Across the island