Tours that include the Zanzibar. click here>>>
WHERE IS ZANZIBAR
Zanzibar is a cluster of islands nestled in the Indian Ocean just off the east coast of Tanzania, East Africa. The two principal islands in the group are Unguja, also known as Zanzibar Island (just to confuse you further) and Pemba. Smaller islands are scattered around these, which range from mere sandbanks to those with their own ethnic grouping and a fierce sense of identity.
WHY GO TO ZANZIBAR
A cliché it might be, but Zanzibar is one of those words, like Casablanca or Timbuktu, that conjures up adventure, remoteness and excitement in the minds of most Westerners. The kind of name that figured in your dreams when you first decided that travelling was in your blood. Despite its legendary status, however, many people are in the dark about Zanzibar's actual position on the map.
Zanzibar really does have something for everyone. If your idea of heaven is to lie on the most perfect of perfect beaches, undisturbed by anything more than the occasional hermit crab, you'll find tiny, abandoned coves where you can forget the rest of the world exists, and stir only to flop into the bath-warm sea.
But if lying immobile on the beach fills you with horror and your burning desire is for colourful local traditions, crumbling picturesque ruins and dim, fascinating markets, Zanzibar has all this in spades, too. And if, like most of us, you'd prefer a bit of both, the small size of the islands and proliferation of places to stay in all price ranges makes Zanzibar the ideal destination for touring.
For water sports enthusiasts, the coral reefs and open sea between Zanzibar and Pemba are justly famous for the quality of their snorkelling, diving and big game fishing.
Most accounts of Zanzibar in travel literature and fiction begin with a description of the port of Stone Town, the island's capital, from the sea. It's certainly an unforgettable sight, and one likely to make even the most hard-nosed, jaded traveller "ooh and ahh" with excitement. Minarets and graceful, curved towers rise above the turquoise waters, the smell of cloves wafts on the breeze, and Arab dhows with sails the shape of the crescent moon bob gently in the harbour.
However you arrive, you'll end up in one of two places eventually -- the narrow, winding streets of Stone Town's old quarter, or the glittering beaches of the coast. Everything will seem a little strange, a little disturbing and very, very exotic. But the people of Zanzibar have been welcoming strangers to their country since the first Phoenician ships blew into the harbour on the northwest monsoon of 600BC, or thereabouts. They've seen Greeks, Arabs, Persians, Portuguese, Indians, Chinese, American and British ships anchor offshore in the centuries since, so not much can faze them.
Ancient visitors to the island came to trade -- gold, silks, ivory, spices, animal skins and, most notoriously, slaves. But many stayed, intermarrying with the locals to form a culture that's uniquely diverse, and producing a race of people who regard hospitality to strangers as a sacred duty.
The word you'll hear first, and most frequently throughout your stay, is karibu (welcome in Swahili). And astonishingly, considering a colourful history of conquest, slavery and revolution, they mean it. So even if a whiff of drainage mixes occasionally with the aroma of spices, or exhaust fumes sometimes taint the sea breeze (this is, after all, Africa), you'll leave with the Zanzibar of your imaginings still intact in your mind.
But go soon. Zanzibar is waking up to its potential as a tourist destination, and planning permission has been sought by a number of international organizations for large-scale tourist developments in some the most picturesque and unspoiled places on the islands. Charter flights already fly in almost daily from Milan, bringing planeloads of tourists who board coaches for all-inclusive resort hotels on the east coast, not to be seen again until the day they depart. The danger signs are there, but for the most part Zanzibar today is still a relatively off-the-beaten track destination where alternative travellers can find natural beauty and an intact culture.
WHEN TO GO TO ZANZIBAR
Zanzibar is a year-round destination. The coolest months are June through October, when the temperature averages 26 degrees Celsius. This can soar to well over 30 degrees (90F) in the hot season from December to May. During November (the "short rains") and between April and June (the "long rains"), rainfall is higher, but rain in Zanzibar takes the form of a short, sharp shower in the morning or afternoon, followed by the return of the sunshine.
High season is June, July and August, and mid-November to early January. During these periods many of the more upmarket hotels may increase their prices, but smaller establishments and local guesthouses keep their prices constant throughout the year.
Zanzibar's predominantly Muslim population observes the fast of Ramadan for a month every year, during which believers are forbidden to eat, drink or smoke between sunrise and sunset. As a result, many smaller restaurants and snack bars are closed during the day. Many offices and shops are also closed in the afternoons. Tourist resorts and hotels are unaffected, but local discos, clubs and musical shows remain closed throughout the whole period.
The date of Ramadan is decided by the lunar calendar, and the fasting periods begins 11 days earlier every year. Check a calendar. If you plan to arrive at that time, make certain to stay for the end of Ramadan, when a huge feast and party, the Eid Al Fitr, brings everyone out to the streets.
Unguja and Pemba are small islands, and thanks to a wealth of transport and (relatively) good roads, travelling around them is quite easy. The options on Unguja include renting a vehicle yourself, be it a car, jeep or motorcycle. Renting is cheap and easy, provided you have an International Driving Permit -- these are checked frequently by police, so don't be tempted to chance it. Drive with extra care, especially if you've rented a motorbike -- traffic on Zanzibar is chaotic and accidents are frequent.
For those on a tight budget, or for shorter distances, dala-dalas (trucks converted into passenger vehicles) and local buses run all over the island, with fares starting from just a few shillings. They congregate in the Creek Road area of Stone Town -- just turn up there and enquire as to the right route for your chosen destination. Bear in mind, however, that this form of transport will be significantly slower and less comfortable than a minibus, and that accidents involving buses and dala-dalas are frequent.
Zanzibar, and especially Unguja, is an ideal place to explore by mountain bike due to its flat terrain. Reasonable quality mountain bikes can be rented from several of the tour companies in Stone Town.
BEST MAJOR ATTRACTIONS
Chumbe Island Coral Park
6 kilometers south of Stone Town, surrounded by pristine coral reef, Chumbe Island is one of the world's newest and most successful eco-tourism projects. In 1994, the reef surrounding Chumbe Island was made Tanzania's first Marine National Park. The island itself, covered with lush mangrove forest, is a designated forest reserve. Chumbe Island Coral Park won the British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow Award in 1999, in recognition of seven years' conservation work carried out in co-operation with local fishermen, now retrained as marine wardens. Chumbe Island contains a lighthouse, built by the British in 1904 and still operational, a ruined Mosque and the lighthouse keeper's house, now converted into a spectacular education center and restaurant.
Visitors can come for the day to snorkel over the incredible coral reef, which contains over 90% of all coral species ever recorded in East Africa. The reef, declared the "world's best shallow water coral reef" by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, is home to over 370 species of fish, turtles and dolphins. Guided walks are also available through the island's coral rag forest, interspersed with tidal pools and huge baobab trees, which supports a unique flora and wildlife population including the rare -- and enormous -- coconut crab.
All profits from tourism on Chumbe Island are re-invested into the conservation and education programs operating in the Park, and the island is staffed and managed by local Zanzibaris from the fishing community, with voluntary support from overseas experts. Day visits are $70.
No one single attraction can beat an afternoon strolling through the narrow streets and winding alleys of ancient Stone Town, the capital of Zanzibar. You'll get lost -- everybody does -- but don't worry, you'll emerge from the cool, shady lanes into the blinding sunlight of the seafront eventually.
Until then, you'll find something of interest around every corner -- an Arab archway leading into a white-walled square, with the sound of prayer coming from behind the walls of a mosque. Or perhaps you'll stumble upon the Darajani market, with symmetrical piles of oranges, baskets of spices and enormous chunks of fresh fish arranged under palm-thatch shelters. Ladies will glide past, shrouded in black Islamic headdresses. Old, long-bearded men in white skull caps will look up from their games of Bao or dominoes to greet you gravely as you pass, and small children will take your hand and invite you to join their games in the overgrown remains of Indian townhouses.
Remember to keep looking up: below a blue strip of sky, ornate shutters are thrown open and neighbors lean across the narrow gap between their homes to swap gossip and jokes, hang out washing, or just watch the world go by below.
Look out for Arabic coffee sellers, strolling along the streets with their charcoal braziers and bronze pots hanging from a yoke across their shoulders. Or porters maneuvering wheelbarrows almost as wide as the alleyways they're passing through, shouting "hodi, hodi" (Let me pass!). As evening falls, the seafront comes alive with stalls selling fried fish and chicken on skewers, hurricane lamps illuminating piles of squid and octopus and mounds of chips. Sugar cane is pressed through an antique mangle and funneled into glasses -- cool, sweet and instantly refreshing. Small boys strip naked and leap off the sea wall into the oily sea, turning pink as the last rays of the sun fade and the muezzin begins his wailing call to evening prayer.
As well as the magic of the streets, Stone Town does have certain historical buildings that are worth a look. The Palace museum and the Old Fort on the seafront both house collections of furniture and clothing from the days of the Sultans, and the Palace museum has a room dedicated to Princess Salme, daughter of Sultan Said, who eloped with a German businessman in the 19th century.
The Anglican cathedral, built on the site of the old slave market, has a crucifix made from the tree under which the explorer David Livingstone's heart was buried. Nearby are the underground chambers in which slaves were kept, forced to crouch on stone shelves less than two feet high.
BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTION
Most of the attractions in Zanzibar are hardly run-of-the-mill, but for a decidedly offbeat evening, dine in Camlur's Indian Restaurant, which enjoys the dubious privilege of inhabiting the building where Freddie Mercury, of the seminal rock group "Queen," was born.
Freddie (real name: Farouk Bulsara) was born in 1946 to Persian immigrant parents. His father worked for the government in the House of Wonders on the seafront, and the family moved to England when Freddie was 18, after the revolution that overthrew the Sultanate government in 1964.
If "Bohemian Rhapsody" or "We Will Rock You" are important parts of your musical memories, and you mourned Mercury’s untimely death from AIDS, you won’t want to miss this opportunity to pay homage to one of rock’s most unusual and influential -- though short-lived — stars.
BEST ACTIVITY OR TOUR
Despite being a slightly predictable thing to do on Zanzibar, a spice tour is probably the best way of seeing the countryside around Stone Town and meeting rural communities. Any guide or tour company can arrange a spice tour for you, with one of the best known being Mr Mitu's (Tel: + 255- 24-2231020). Guides will take you on a walking tour of the spice farms at Kizimbani or Kindichi, picking bunches of leaves, fruit and twigs from bushes and inviting you to smell or taste them to guess what they are.
Pretty much all the ingredients of the average kitchen spice rack are represented -- cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, garlic, chilies, black pepper, nutmeg and vanilla: the list goes on and on. Local children follow you all the way round, making baskets of palm leaves and filling them with flowers to give to you.
At lunchtime, you'll stop in a local house for a meal of spiced pilau rice and curry, followed by sweet Arabic coffee and lemongrass cake. Many spice tours include a visit to the Persian baths built by Sultan Said for his harem, and stop at Fuji beach just outside Stone Town for a swim on the way back. The average price for a spice tour is $15, including lunch.
The seafront fish market at Forodhani Gardens, in the middle of Stone Town, is THE place to come for fresh, inexpensive seafood. Skewers of kingfish, prawns and tuna are grilled on makeshift barbecues and served up with piles salad, chips or naan bread. The market opens as soon as the first catch of the day is in, just after dark.
If you're a veggie, try Zanzibar Pizza -- more like an omelette -- and wash it all down with freshly pressed sugar cane juice. A steaming plate of fish or lobster will only cost around $3.
For a more formal dining experience, try Sambusa Two Tables restaurant, located on the balcony of a private house near Vuga Road, and is so named because it does in fact only have two tables. The owner and his wife prepare traditional Zanzibari dishes -- spiced rice, curry and coconut relish -- with no choice of menu. You just get what you're given. Due to the limited
space, it's essential to make a reservation in advance. Tel: (+255 24) 2231979.
The most atmospheric place to eat in Stone Town is the Tower Top Restaurant at the Emerson & Green Hotel, usually known as Emerson’s. Again, reservations are advisable as the rooftop dining room only holds around 20 people, who can recline on cushions and look out across the rooftops to the sea as the sun sets. Set dinner here costs $25 plus drinks. Tel: (+255 24) 2230171.
Outside Stone Town, no particularly well-known restaurants exist, but the food all across both islands is consistently good and extremely well-priced, with the staples being pilau rice, fish and seafood. Sauces are usually spicy curries, with coconut milk added for flavor. Fruit abounds on Zanzibar, and banana, pineapple, coconut, jackfruit, mango or papaya follow any meal. Tea and coffee are often flavored with lemongrass or cinnamon.
Zanzibar, and especially Stone Town, is a shopper's paradise. The narrow winding streets are lined with stores selling local crafts, antiques, jewelry, clothes and spices.
The Gallery Zanzibar, on Gizenga Street, sells a huge range of printed fabrics and clothes plus silver jewelry and locally made massage oils and perfumes. The Gallery is also a publishing company, and sells a range of new and second-hand books on local history, plus diaries, address books, calendars and postcards featuring photographs by the shop's owner,
well-known photographer Javed Jafferji.
The Orphanage Shop, near the Old Fort, sells crafts and paintings by local artists and the orphans themselves, plus bolts of brightly colored fabric, which the in-house tailor can make up to your own design.
Two of the best souvenirs to bring home from Zanzibar are:
The brightly patterned fabric worn by local women as a matching skirt and head covering, and which can be used as a bath towel, beach wrap or sarong.
Bao is played on street corners and in village squares across the whole of East Africa, with regional variations. In the US, it is known as Mancala, and consists of a carved wooden board, with rows of largish holes, into which seeds are dropped, functioning as both counters and dice. It's surprisingly easy to pick up and very addictive. Bao boards come in all shapes and sizes, from small folding ones ideal for rucksacks, to huge, ornate antique boards which double as tables. Be sure to buy some spare seeds at the same time as they have a habit of getting lost.
Beware of buying large polished shells, lumps of coral or tortoiseshell products in Stone Town or on the beach. Their collection and sale is illegal, and many of the species they derive from are already endangered.
VISAS AND OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS
Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous state within Tanzania, so although you don't need a separate visa to visit the islands, you will need to show your passport. Also compulsory is a certificate to show you've been vaccinated against yellow fever. A $25 departure tax is levied if you're leaving by air, and an $8 port tax applies when you book a ferry ticket. This is payable in US dollars only.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Visitors to Zanzibar are required by law to have a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate when they enter the country. See your doctor for other inoculations -- Hepatitis A, Typhoid and Tetanus are recommended. You must also take a malaria prophylaxis, and continue the course four weeks after leaving the malarial zone.
Choloriquine and Nivaquine-based drugs are inefficient in coastal East Africa as the malaria parasite has developed resistance to them. Mefloquine (Larium), is therefore the drug of first choice. Take care to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes when possible -- wear long socks, long sleeves and DEET mosquito repellent. Always sleep under a net (most hotels and guesthouses provide these).
As in almost all African countries, drink bottled water and avoid uncooked foods that may have been washed in untreated water. Sunstroke and heat exhaustion are common, so drink enough water and wear protective clothing and high-factor sunscreen.
Zanzibar is a safe country, and most locals are friendly and honest. But avoid flaunting wealth by wearing expensive jewelry or waving camera equipment around in rural villages. Don't walk with all your valuables on you in Stone Town -- leave them in the hotel safe. Avoid walking alone on beaches, especially at night. Muggings have been reported on the beach at Nungwi, so never carry valuables onto the beach.
MONEY AND COMMUNICATIONS
The unit of currency in Zanzibar is the Tanzanian Shilling. There are around 1300 to the US dollar. US dollars are accepted in all tourist restaurants, bars etc. By law, visitors have to settle hotel bills in US dollars or other hard currency, but this can be waived in smaller establishments.
Internet and email communications are excellent in Stone Town, with a proliferation of cheap Internet cafes. But telephone communications can be still be frustrating and expensive -- the Tanzanian telephone system is temperamental.
Outside Stone Town communications are harder, with very few smaller hotels and guesthouses having email, and not all even having telephone access. The postal system out of Tanzania seems reliable, but parcels posted into the country frequently go missing, often arriving up to 9 months late! Never send money in the post -- it WILL be stolen. Use a money transfer company like Western Union instead.
IMPORTANT CULTURAL CONSIDERATIONS
Zanzibaris have a long history of religious tolerance and although the islands are 99% Muslim, alcohol and tobacco are freely available. Visitors are, however, requested to show consideration for the culture of Zanzibar by dressing modestly and refraining from public displays of affection. When walking in towns and villages, women should wear clothes that cover their shoulders and knees. Men should not walk bare-chested or wearing swimming trunks.
Many visitors refuse to cover up and this causes offense and often outrage amongst the local population, even though these feelings may not be directly expressed. As one sign says, "Short skirts are like nude!" On the beaches swimwear is acceptable, but topless sunbathing is
During the fast of Ramadan, it is considered the height of bad manners to eat and drink in public places or while walking down the street.
Non-Muslims should not enter mosques unless specifically invited to do so.
Only take pictures of people if you have their permission, and don't peer too obviously through the doorways of private houses in Stone Town.