I’ll tell you a secret: when I was younger I used to think that Zanzibar was a made-up place. It sounds so exotic, I thought it came straight out of a fantasy novel or children’s storybook or something! How embarrassing. But what joy it brought me to learn as an adult that it was real, and that after I had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, its beaches would make a perfect place to rest my weary limbs.
After the life-changing trek up Africa’s highest peak, I had three weeks until my flight home. Once I had recuperated, I envisaged moving on from Zanzibar and exploring more of east Africa. However, as usual, my travels didn’t go to plan. I fell head-over-heels with this otherworldly island. The beaches are right up there with the best I have ever seen, but I found so much more than sand and sunsets, and ended up staying for the full three weeks.
Best beaches in Zanzibar
Most people come here for the pristine white sand, calm waters and dazzling sunsets. If that’s what you’re after, you won’t be disappointed. This is one of those “Wow, is this real?” places, and you’ll probably come away feeling like the dictionary definition of paradise should simply be followed by the word: Zanzibar.
Top spots are the northern beaches of Nungwi and Kendwa, and if your visit falls on the full moon, you’ll get the chance to party on the beach till the early hours. Don’t worry, this is unlike any Thai full-moon party. It is frequented by islanders and the soundtrack is local African beats rather than Western pop, so prepare to pit your dancing skills against the talents of the locals. They will enthusiastically invite you to the dance-floor and not take no for an answer!
If you get the chance to take a trip down to the east side of the island, Paje and Jambiani are famed for their kite-surfing opportunities. The sea is shallow until very far out in this section of the island, and the photo opportunities are magical.
Slowing down the pace
Like most islands, the pace on Zanzibar is slower than on the mainland. You will never feel the need to rush here, and you will have to get used to the fact that no one else will either. “Pole, pole” means “slowly, slowly”, and you’ll hear it as frequently as you’ll hear “Hakuna matata”. Yep, you’ll feel like you’ve been dropped straight into the set of The Lion King, as the locals spread their “no worries” attitude into your bones.
A great example of the “pole, pole” Zanzibar lifestyle is dining in local restaurants. One day a restaurant owner strolled along the beach to where we were sunbathing and asked for our dinner order at midday, saying that it helps them to know in advance what they will need to do that night. At first the delays and “no worries” attitude can be frustrating, but just order another Kilimanjaro beer and accept the situation, it’s much easier that way.
And it’s not only the local culture that causes delays, but also the temperamental power supplies. At one evening meal along the east coast, I was sitting with some friends in a restaurant when suddenly the lights cut out. Soon after, the waiter emerged with a candle and a round of free beers, explaining that our dinner would now be prepared on an open fire, and our patience would be appreciated. “Hakuna matata”, we responded with accepting laughter.
Note: If you do prefer to stick to your own pace and not Zanzibar’s, you get a ton of free time on Intrepid trips there. The beach break lets you search for wildlife in Jozani Forest or simply sit back in a beach-side hammock at leisure. And the week-long sailing trip allows you time to visit a local fishing village, snorkel, and enjoy BBQ dinners of freshly caught fish. Divine.
Zanzibar’s Stone Town
If you catch the ferry to Zanzibar, as you pull into port you’ll get a great view of Stone Town, the island’s main city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Allow time to get lost in its alleyways and admire its ancient doorways: majestic, tall and grand in equal measure. Thick, heavy timber looms over you and will have you reaching for your camera. And if you are into photography, check out this 4-hour tour of Stone Town that’s run by a local and shows you all the coolest haunts.
So, if activity number one is exploring, activity number two in Stone Town is eating. Every night there’s a food market where you can browse and pick up plenty of cheap, tasty treats. Top of the list has to be the seafood, which is freshly caught and barbecued in front of you. Another must-try is the sugar cane juice. Vendors squeeze sugar cane through an old-school juicer – which resembles a clothes drier from the 18th century – and flavour it either with ginger or lime. It is both refreshing and delicious.
Top tip:Freddie Mercury, lead singer of rock band Queen, was born in Zanzibar, and while you’re in Stone Town you can visit the bar named after him. It’s right by the sea and you can celebrate his life and music.
Zanzibar’s spicy history
Zanzibar has quite the history. In the 19th century it was an important port for two of the world’s most traded commodities: spices and slaves. A spice tour will teach you what spices look like before they enter our food, as well as treat you to a meal featuring the island’s best tastes. You’ll no doubt be inspired by the experience and make promises to yourself to take home your new knowledge and put it to use. Our recommendation of the best spice tour? This delicious 4-hour one.
I also highly recommend visiting the Slave Caves, where even after slavery was made illegal, slaves were hidden by daylight, and transported on ships by night. It’s chilling to see these underground spaces and imagine the people who once were there, waiting for an unknown and unjust fate.
Snorkelling, Zanzibar style
To end on a high, the final activity on Zanzibar that must be ticked off is snorkelling. From the northern or eastern beaches, trips head out daily to explore offshore reefs that will take your breath away. It’s a great way to see more of this beautiful island from the water. And having a fresh, seafood barbecue on a deserted beach – that’s something you won’t forget anytime soon.
Then again, with water this beautiful, you won’t forget a single second of your time in this dreamy archipelago.
Zanzibar’s picture perfect beaches got you tempted? Check out our range of small group tours in Tanzania.
Image Credits (top to bottom): iStock, Intrepid Travel x2, iStock, Intrepid Travel x3