When we hear about Zanzibar, we picture a paradise with white, soft sand and bright blue crystal clear waters, just right for a honeymoon destination or one that would re-ignite the flame in your relationship. But this island is so much more than that!
Zanzibar is a kaleidoscope of images, tastes and smells which win you over possibly forever and make you want to come back here again and again. The island is fascinating both as a troptical destination, where you can get away from all the negatives in your life, but also from a historical and cultural point of view. Not to mention that they are fierce proponents of eco-tourism.
10Weather and climate of Zanzibar
Usually, the island enjoys exceptional weather throughout the year. In the rare occasions where the temperature surpasses 30 degrees Celsius, the ocean breeze makes it quite bearable, if not comfortable. Also, it’s good to know that Zanzibar has two rainy seasons: the one from March until May, with long, instense rains which will always fall just as you were about to hit the beaches or go snorkeling, and the season with short drizzles from November until the end of December.
Our trip took place and the end of June, just as the southern winter was wrapping up, as the locals told us. The temperatures were about 27-28 degrees Celsius during the daytime and somewhere around 17 degrees at night. The water is usually warm (or warm enough) during this time of the year, at about 24-26 degrees.
Now usually, the end of June is the ideal time to visit Zanzibar. However, with our luck, we brought the rains and the “cold” weather to the island. Out of 7 days, we had about 3 and half days of sun. The rest of the time we were “blessed” with more or less continuous rains. I have to say it’s quite the experience to be in the rain at 26 degrees Celsius. Anyway, most of the locals told us they never experienced such a cold and rainy June ever before. I guess there’s a first for everything!
Before we left, I managed to talk with someone from the island over WhatsApp and they told me that unfortunately they are experiencing winter-like weather, that they have 18-24 degrees Celsius during the night depending on where they were located on the island. I found this funny, because I was comparing their winter weather to our European winters, which could not be more different. The joke was on me.
We got back almost as white as we were when we went there. And to help you get ab udea on how white we were when we got there: the locals were amused by our “whiteness” and were cracking jokes that “oh don’t worry, you’re probably be as dark as we are in a couple of days”. Aren’t they the funny ones?
9Aquatic activities and sea life
There are no lions, giraffes or elephants in Zanzibar. Tanzania is known for its breathtaking safari tours, but this island is not the Serengeti: 99% of its wildlife can be found underwater. If you got here, you should definitely pay a visit to one of the diving centers, which offer scuba diving classes which will allow you to admire the beauty of coral reefs up close, among others. Zanzibar also has a few areas which are absolutely wonderful for snorkeling, especially around the Mnemba atoll. During our snorkeling tour we were able to see:
- A dolphin pod, gleefully swimming about 3-4 meters away from us. There are dedicated dolphin tours which leave early in the morning, but we usually try to abide to the “don’t f… with nature” mantra so we didn’t want to intentionally intrude on their territory, but if it happened we enjoyed the experience.
- Lionfish, very popular in the waters near Zanzibar, with its poisonous spikes.
- Blue and orange clownfish (think… Nemo) along with their inseparable anemones
- Razorfish, a ton of them
- Moray eels
- And a lot more fish, too many to count
The tour guide said that they also saw around these areas turtles, rarely whales and even more rarely reef sharks (they usually ignore humans so they don’t really pose a danger).
Apart from the marine life, the waters have a dazzling light blue color, especially at low tide. Before we got to Zanzibar, I read that only the Eastern coast enjoys significant high/low tide, as well as these beautiful blue and green colors. Only when we were on the plane during our final approach above the island did we realize how beautiful these beaches with emerald waters could be.
8The island’s flora and fauna
Like any tropical destination, Zanzibar has its own monkey colony. If you had the chance to visit south-east Asia and the monkeys around there felt a tad too agressive for your liking, we’d like to encourage you to not be afraid of the Red Colobus monkeys in Zanzibar. They were jumping from tree to tree or running on the ground around us, without any sort of indication that they were annoyed or feeling threatened by our presence. You can find these beautiful animals in their natural habitat in the Jozani Forest / National Park.
Beside these, we also saw tons of crabs on the beaches in all sizes and colors, especially at night. On Prison Island you can also find giant turtles, some of them around 200 years old.
7The romantic beaches
Zanzibar offers a different kind of romance. Definitely a more laid back than the tumultuous Thailand, Bali or the Carraibean, but still close to everyone’s heart. The mornings offer the most beautiful sunrises and the evenings the most picturesque sunsets. Therefore, don’t hesitate to wake up early in the morning and see the sunrise on the Eastern beaches and make sure you end the day on one of the island’s Western beaches.
The locals recommend the sunsets from Nungwi and Kendwa as the most beautiful. We’ve feasted our eyes with the ones from Kiwengwa and during our trip back from Prison Island to Stone Town.
Mornings in Zanzibar bring other delights as well: the smell of frangipani, the flower of love, as it blossoms under the first sunray’s of the day and the chance to visit the reef on foot, at low tide, when the waters withdraw almost a kilometer. Let yourself be guided by the beach boys, they know best! Don’t forget to wear a lot of sunscreen, or you’re going to get a sunburn;
6Diversity of spices
Zanzibar was also known for a good period of time as Spice Island, and for good reason. During one of our tours we saw a spice farm – it was an amazing blend of smells and tastes, where the guides encouraged us to guess what the raw plants they were showing us were called: coriander, vanilla, cardamom, lemongrass, pepper, cloves (whose export from the island is forbidden by the government, unless you pay a special tax to the state for it), cinnamon, nutmeg (used traditionally as a sort of drug by the men and aphrodisiac by the women). We also had a tasting session with fresh pineapple, cocoa, durian, jackfruit, pomelo, red oranges, passion fruit, mango (it was the sweetest and juicy mango I ever had, better even than the one in Thailand). But I think that what we miss the most is actually the fresh coconut, incomparable to whatever we find in the supermarkets after it traveled for weeks or months.
5The blend of local culture and external influences
Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania. Maybe a lesser known piece of trivia is that the country came into being by the unification of the state of Zanzibar with the state of Tanganika from the mainland in 1964 under the name of Tanzania. The name is actually a combination of the names of the two states, which had recently obtained their independence from the UK. One of the local guides was telling us that this unification was not entirely legal as far as he was concerned and not really to the benefit of the Zanzibarese and that there is a significant political movement (of which he was very passionate about) which campaigns for the island to become independent once again in the future.
Over the centuries, the island was heavily influenced by Portugal, the British Empire and, mostly, from Oman who converted the state to a sultanate and probably left the biggest mark on their culture by converting the populace to Islam (the population is currently about 99% Muslim). Arabs were the ones who pushed for slave trades, but it was the British Empire that put an end to it in 1897.
The external influences are still visible by looking at the older buildings around Stone Town, many of which were built with a colonial architecture; in the language spoken by the locals – everybody speaks Swahili, and many speak Arabic as they “caught” it from reading the Koran; in traffic – they are driving on the wrong side of the road, as we like to jest; in the local kitchen, where there is a heavy Indian influence as a result of the commercial trades between Zanzibar and India during the Oman influence.
The architecture in Stone Town is a fusion of Arabic, Indian, European and African influences. The Arabic buildings are usually square and two or three stories high, with internal court yards that facilitates the passive cooling of the house.
Indian buildings, built a few stories high as well, usually have a store at the ground level, with ornate facades and balconies.
The most important feature of the Zanzibarese house is the sculpted wooden door, the symbol of a wealthy family and high social status. The wood is usually mahogany or black wood and is ornated with brass studs. The original function of the studs, which were “imported” from the Indian culture, was to protect the door against elephants leaning against the door and breaking it. Of course there are no elephants to accidentally break down doors in Zanzibar nowadays, but tradition prevails.
Another particularity of Stone Town is the color of the buildings, that dirty stone look, which comes from the fact that the buildings used to be made out of coral rag.
Some of the most famous dishes specific to Zanzibar would be Sorpotel, of Portugese-Indian influence, a stew out of different meats mixed together with masala, tamarind and vinegar; Spice cake, the most popular Zanzibarese dessert, made of a batter mixed with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and chocolate; Boku-Boku, a mix of meat cooked with cornflour, ginger, cumin, chilli, tomatoes and onions; meats pilau style; shark with pepper and other spices; octopus in coconut milk, curry, cinnamon, cardamom, garlic and lime juice. One thing is certain in Zanzibar: you will not go wrong if you try as many seafood dishes as possible.
And speaking of food in Zanzibar, don’t be surprised if you’ll find chicken eggs with white yolk. Don’t be afraid, there’s nothing wrong with the chickens on the island, it’s just that they’re being fed with seeds which causes them to make monochrome eggs.
Zanzibar has accommodation options for everyone: apart-hotels, hostels and resorts. They cover all travel budgets and all of them, guaranteed, will enhance the romantic feeling of the island. Whatever you’ll choose you’ll get to know the kindness of the people on this island, their constant cheerfulness, to laugh and dance with them. Hakuna matata!
This is my favorite part of my travels: the people, this inexhaustible resource of any destination. And the Zanzibarese are no exception.
The first thing you’ll learn, once you get here, is that the greeting matters. Swahili is a language that you’ll pick up quickly and you’ll be surprised to learn that just a few basic elements will take you far. Don’t always presume that the attention you are receiving is just to sell you souvenirs or to trick you into buying all kinds of tours – it happens, indeed, but the greeting is an important part of the local culture. Often, all those Mambo and Jambo greetings are just that- greetings, and it’s a customary to return it. It might seem overwhelming at first, but in fact it’s quite cute to realize that so many strangers take their time to acknowledge your presence and ask about your day.
The second thing you’ll learn in Zanzibar, quite early, is that the rhythm of the island is quite slow. Here time passes pole pole, and things don’t always make sense or are up to our expected standards or can take longer than we are accustomed to. You’re in vacation, so it’s important to accept and dwelve in this chaotic calmness and try to adjust to their rhythm. Preparing your cocktail might take 45 minutes, but it will be delicious and the wait will be worth it.
The third thing you’re going to learn on this island is, as far as I’m concerned, the most important: although they are extremely poor, they always seem happy, with smiling eyes and infinite kindness. Out of the little they have, they make sure to share it. In traditional villages, they are all a big family, who share everything with everyone, without expecting anything in return. Maybe a kind smile and an asante sana.
A few days spent on the island will teach you a few life lessons and determine you to see everything with new eyes:
- our driver who took us from the airport to the hotel after our arrival was telling us a bit about his family: his wife and two kids. His wife was a housewife, like most women on the island; and the children – his one year old boy and his late little girl who died a few months old because of a disease. That sort of brought the mood down quite a bit because we keep complaining about our medical system, without considering that in other parts of the world people are missing basic access to healthcare.
- the biggest problem of their medical system is the lack of facilities, doctors and medicine. More often than not the locals are treating diseases with medicinal plants and use the spices they grow on the island (for example, cloves for tooth ache). That’s why tourists are encouraged to bring medicine (antibiotics, probiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, etc) instead of school supplies (although they are a second best thing you can bring), toys, clothes or sweets.
- the locals can quickly pick up foreign languages. Some of them are taught in school (English and French), but others are mostly self taught, such as German, Spanish, Portugese or Italian, so they can interact with the ever growing amount of tourists.
- being 99% muslims, the locals don’t normally drink alcohol. Try to be calm as the bartender will struggle to open a wine bottle. We had quite a funny situation with this- we had with us a bottle of wine we picked up from Doha during our layover, which we took to the bar because we did not have a wine opener in our room. As most wine from the island is imported from South Africa and the bottles are twist-to-open, the bartender had to break out a brand new unused wine bottle opener, which he quickly destroyed as he struggled to open our wine. Eventually all was well, but we weren’t expecting this.
- The clothing of the women is fairly similar to the one in India: colorful and with intricate models, because they work the fields quite a bit and the patterns help mask the dirt, as the lack of water makes washing them often difficult.
- It’s staggering to see kids whose most precious toy is an old car tyre, or a deflated ball. Not knowing any better, we brought them toffees. Many of these kids tried to eat them whole, with the packaging still on.
- We were excited to see the famous Maasai, originating from Tanzania and Kenya. In Zanzibar, they were swarming the beaches in front of the hotels and were approaching tourists to sell them tours, trinkets, bracelets or various souvenirs. They can be irritating initially, especially if you were not expecting this before you came here, but there’s nothing to fear. They might follow you to the water, but they’re always super friendly – you will always have a my friend – hey friend relationship with them, and you treat them fairly and friendly you will find valuable allies. Don’t forget that they make their living out of interactions like this, so thy know that if the services they provide to you are good, they’ll be further recommended to more customers. Our experience was very positive with them – we said hellow when we met them, spoke nicely to everyone, all of them wanted to know where we come from and what is our life like and eventually they invited us to their “houses”. Here’s where things become interesting, because their houses are 2 square meter huts set on the beach, near the hotels and don’t have electrical power nor water; they all have famous names such as mazon, Hugo Boss, Louis Vuitton, Ikea, Kaufland etc.
Visiting a traditional village in Africa is an experience you will remember for a long time. It makes you understand how lucky we are and how hard it is for them. Our first visit was in Nungwi village, a village that has become overly commercial, where all tourists are brought. The kids surrounded us, dragged us by our arms and hair, they even became a bit aggressive so they would receive a piece of candy. Our experience was completely opposite in the traditional village from the Mchangani area, well organized, with very welcoming locals, well behaved children who surrounded you just to know you better, to learn your name and where you’re coming from, to offer you shy smiles and to hide as you smiled them back.
The selfie below was purely random, the innocent result of the fact that the oldest of the girls, Mia, noticed my phone as I was taking pictures throughout the village and came to me to ask me how do you use it. While I was showing her, other kids joined us. I told myself that the best way to show them is through the power of example – a selfie. We could barely leave the place because they had so many questions for us and wanted to know everything about us.
Beyond the stunning exotic landscapes of Zanzibar, there’s so much to do here for these children and only now did I understand why so many choose to be volunteers in Africa. If you will ever visit, make sure you bring them medicine, school supplies, medicine and, most importantly, the very best of your person – smiles, kind looks and love.
In another day, we took to the seas for a Safari Blue experience, but we had the bad luck of really nasty weather. Not knowing how to swim, I was panicking as the boat was bouncing over the rather large waves, but our guide along with the crew were laughing, singing and kept repeating Hakuna Matata (no problem!).
As we arrived to Zanzibar, ABK was our guide in Stone Town and took us on a trip throughout the history of the old town. His story is impressive: during the day he works as a tour guide and in the afternoon and evenings he’s teaching English to children, sometimes even pro-bono. That’s because he loves helping others, giving to others what he was lucky enough to receive from life. He hasn’t left the island yet, but his brother works in Tanzania in the Serengeti and hopes to save enough money to get there and maybe be a safari guide.
ABK is a sunni muslim. We did offer him a beer, but he told us he never had any and he doesn’t intend to do so now. He’s a big football fan so we asked him in his opinion who’s the best, Messi or Ronaldo? He answer in the rather typical Zanzibarese style: They’re both great, I like them the same altogether. Actually when he started the tour he made sure to let us know that in Zanzibar, the people are super tolerant with each other, no matter the religion. In their eyes, we’re all the same.
His story, the way he was talking to us reminded us a lot about Morocco.
Travel card: 🇹🇿 Zanzibar
🛬 How do we get there?
The following airlines have flights to Zanzibar airport:
- Oman Air
- Air Italy
- Qatar Airways
- Ethiopian Airlines
- South African Airways
- Turkish Airlines
- Kenya Airways
🛎️ Where do we stay?
- Miramont Retreat Zanzibar, from 40 USD/night
- Zeru Zeru Eco Local Wild Lodge, from 15 USD/night
- Lost & Found Zanzibar, from 20 USD/night
- Demani Lodge Zanzibar, from 20 USD/night
- Makofi Guest House, from 24 USD/night
- Bwejuu Beach Palm Villa, from 21 USD/night
- Bellevue Guesthouse, from 59 USD/night
- Kae Funk Zanzibar, from 40 USD/night
- Baridi villa, from 60 USD/night
- Zenji Hotel, from 65 USD/night
- Nungwi Dreams, from 240 USD/night
- Konokono Beach Resort, from 305 USD/night
- Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa – Relais & Chateaux, from 315 USD/night
- Villa Fleur De Lys, from 110 USD/night
- Natural Kendwa Villa, from 94 USD/night
- Marafiki Bungalows, from 94 USD/night
- Sunshine Marine Lodge, from 139 USD/night
- Sahari Zanzibar, from 109 USD/night
- Ocean Paradise Resort & Spa, from 200 USD/night
🏖️ What can we do here?
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