Anyone ever heard of Unguja? How about the island’s more common name, Zanzibar? It’s known as the Spice Island as well as the birthplace of Freddy Mercury. An Indian Ocean archipelago off the coast of Tanzania, Africa, it’s also a diving and snorkeling mecca. Here are five reasons to visit Zanzibar.
Five Reasons to Visit Zanzibar
Reef Diving, Snorkeling, Surfing
A coral reef runs along most of the ocean side of Zanzibar for about a mile offshore. Levan Bank, off the northern tip, is one of the island’s most famous and impressive dive sites. There, you can see huge kingfish and impressive tuna. Inside the reef, the waters are calm and crystal clear. When the tide goes out, you can actually walk from the beach to the reef. According to many professional divers, Zanzibar offers some of the best dive sites in Africa, and possibly the world.
There are official and unofficial guides who can take you diving or snorkeling, depending on what you want to spend or what type of boat you’re looking for. Seeing some of the rickety wooden boats along the beach may send you in the direction of a resort that offers more professional services. If getting up close and personal with scaly fishy friends isn’t your style, Paje, further south, offers pristine beaches and some of the best kite surfing anywhere.
The Spice Island
Zanzibar has an abundance of spices, and therefore, an abundance of spice tours! They’re not only informative but an interesting distraction from the beach, where you can explore small villages set right in the jungle, and see first hand how exotic spices are grown and harvested for sale. You get to sample cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper that are plucked right from trees and shrubs growing all around you. Local guides encourage you to smell and/or taste the indigenous spices.
Retreating under the thick jungle canopy, the spice tour was a nice escape from the 90°F heat. About halfway through the tour, they offered a cornucopia of fresh local fruit. Local guides receive training at a young age on how to climb trees and harvest spices. They make their village huts out of nothing more than grass and mud. Using hammocks for beds, furnishings remain simple and sparse.
We took a leisurely three-mile boat trip to Prison Island (Changu) from Stone Town, the main port and largest city on Zanzibar. The trip was relaxing. Our arrival at the beach pier offered the most amazing shades of blue I’ve ever seen. The locals have opened the prison, once hell on earth for rebellious slaves incarcerated in the 1860s, for public tours. The island has also functioned as a coral mine in the past. Despite its grim history, Changu remains in the top five reasons to visit Zanzibar.
The main attraction of Prison Island is the gigantic tortoises. Some weigh up to 500 pounds, live until 150 years of age, and are about the size of a Smart Car. At one time, there were as many as 200 of the unique creatures, but now there are about 50. Since Zanzibar has become a world heritage site, the tortoises have been offered protection from theft and poaching.
The Masai and Freddy Mercury
Whether it’s on the beach or in Stone Town, you’ll surely notice the people of Zanzibar come from a variety of backgrounds. We saw Muslims in robes and hijabs, native Swahili, and Masai in their traditional red Shuka. No matter their religion or heritage, the people were welcoming and friendly. Many of the tourists are European, with some flocking to the upscale Italian-focused resorts.
Zanzibar is like any other exotic tourist destination, with people trying to sell their wares on the street or beach. Fortunately, street sellers were nowhere as bothersome or persistent as some we’ve encountered elsewhere. There is a colorful market in Stone Town, offering all kinds of fresh produce and seafood. If that’s not good enough, you can buy fresh fish and octopus right on the beach from the fishermen who caught it.
We stayed in Stone Town for a night, hoping to explore as much as we could. Unfortunately, even with a city map, we found the narrow and winding streets confusing. The personal tour we booked was the way to go. We saw and experienced so much more, and our guide explained things that we had no idea about. For dinner, we sought out Mercury’s, a beachfront restaurant with an awesome sunset view. The kitchen is an open-pit barbeque, and there are autographed photos from Freddy Mercury and Queen on the walls.
The stone architecture pays tribute to the town’s name, and buildings have taken on a lichen-stained patina that shows how gracefully they’ve aged. There is no room for cars on the inner-city streets. They are more like alleys or sidewalks, where everything has to be carried in or on wooden carts. Beware of some locals who buzz through the cobbled maze on motor scooters.
Try to imagine what your favorite beach looked like before it was invaded by massive resorts and the throngs of tourists that come with them. That is what the deserted beaches of Zanzibar offer. Miles of white sand with swaying palm trees on one side and turquoise water on the other. The northeast beaches of Nungwi, Kendwa, Pwani, Waikiki, and Kiwengwa were some of the prettiest that we’ve visited anywhere.
There are a handful of resorts on the island that exist mostly on the north end. Nonetheless, you’ll find more fishermen and wayward cows on the beach than noisy jet skis or other pleasure craft. Small sailboats are more the norm. We stayed in an AirBnB and ate most of our meals in, but found plenty to eat and drink by visiting the mom-and-pop restaurants scattered along the beach.
When not cooking at home, we found ourselves strolling down the beach for fresh homemade dinners, rather than taking a taxi down the road. Outdoor restaurants and patios can be nice, but they can’t compare to sipping cocktails in a shaded beach restaurant, listening to the waves roll in, and watching the moon rise over the ocean.
Friendly Locals, Beautiful Locale
In conclusion, we found Zanzibar to be one of the most interesting places we’ve ever visited. We consider it quite safe and Cathryn walked to the beach and local village for groceries by herself. She worried when one local man followed her around the village, but it turned out he was only there to protect her and help carry things.
The man even helped me carry a five-gallon jug of water all the way home. You’d think I gave him 100 dollars when I tipped him a buck. Not being resort people, we stayed in the Kamili View Apartments in Kiwengwa, a gated complex with a beautiful swimming pool. Our second-floor unit offered ocean views and breezes.
I don’t pick favorites and rarely return to places I’ve visited, but Zanzibar is one destination that both Cathryn and I agree we’d definitely return to. These five reasons to visit Zanzibar represent a short summary that doesn’t give this beautiful island justice. Book the trip and see for yourself.
If you enjoyed this article and wish to read more of Ed’s adventures check out my website at www.edmondgagnon.com.