A short break in Zanzibar: The best beach holiday
If I had known what Zanzibar was like, I would have visited years ago… Some of the best beaches, clear waters, and stunning sunsets I have ever seen, in addition to the friendly and welcoming people make the island one of my new favourite places!
Just driving from the airport to the east coast, the melange of influences was very apparent, and made for an interesting journey. It was early in the morning and through the villages, the working day was beginning. Men were out on their push bikes delivering goods, sitting and thatching using long palm fronds, or gathered in groups on the roadside, in the shade of the trees, talking to their peers. All of them were sporting traditional intricately-embroidered Omani-style caps. Older children were walking to school in groups, while the younger ones played barefoot in the dirt roads, or tried to cling to their mothers. Meanwhile, the ladies were busying themselves proudly sweeping the immaculate yet earthy entrances to their homes, collecting water and carrying boxes and bags, or walking purposefully along the roadside, resplendent in their abayas and brightly coloured shaylas. The Islamic vibe was strong, but more bold and colourful than we are used to seeing in Gulf countries.
The physical environment was reminiscent of South East Asia, with corrugated steel-roofed houses, and dirt roads leading from the main paved road, lined with banana, acacia, Indian almond trees, and giving way to dense vegetation. Our resort in Paje was an hour’s drive from the airport, and on the way we passed through villages with houses painted in different hues of pink, coral and peach. The monsoon season was just finishing, so there was a warm, damp, tropical feeling from the moment we stepped off the plane until the minute we left.
The road widened and the vegetation thinned as we cruised down the wide boulevard through Bungi, lined by majestic mango trees. These trees tell a rather macabre story, the legend being that Bi Khole, a bewitchingly-beautiful, rich woman had such an insatiable desire for men, that she would pick the prettiest boys from each village and take them as lovers, but she would quickly tire of them, and when she did, she would have him beheaded, and plant a mango tree at the side of the road with his head underneath. Now, there are a lot of mango trees lining both sides of the long road, so I only hope this is greatly exaggerated urban myth!
When the line of giant mango trees eventually ran out and we neared Jozani Forest, the rampant power of nature became more apparent – with moss and lichens covering every inch of the ruins of old stone walls scattered throughout the trees. Tethered cows and goats grazed by the roadside (I wonder how many of them were left after the Eid festivities), and vendors sold an assortment of coconuts, bananas and papayas. As we slowed down for a police checkpoint next to an old baobab tree – the impeccable white uniforms in direct contrast to the verdant greens of the forest – our driver explained that this area was famous for its colobus monkeys who used to regularly cross the main road – leading to a number of speed humps being added on the road, and the monkeys’ very own ladder path ‘money crossing’ being installed in the treetops, crossing the road way above our heads and the danger of the traffic.
I spent a long time researching where we should stay for our limited time in Zanzibar, and Paje was definitely the best place we could have chosen. We were delighted with our hotel – Kisiwa on the Beach – the staff were incredibly friendly, particularly Cornel and Boniface. It was quiet, clean and beautifully rustic, and the beach in front of the hotel was easily once of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
1. Mnemba Atoll
A day trip to this private marine reserve was easily the best part of our trip. The waters around the atoll are crystal clear, and the diving and snorkelling were fantastic, with an abundance of marine life, and lots of little critters to spot among the coral and sandy bottom. We were lucky enough to spot dolphins on the way back, and the boats stopped to let us jump in with our masks – the dauphins had pretty much disappeared, with a couple just about visible at the bottom of the sea, but as we were swimming back to the boat, we had two suddenly swim right past us and disappear – such an amazing moment! We arranged our trip with Buccaneer Diving as they were located just up the beach from us in Paje and seemed to have the highest reviews, and the guys were very friendly. It was a very early start for us to take the 1.5 hour drive by minibus up to the north of the island to catch the boats, but it was well worth it.
2. Dinner at The Rock
Apparently one of the most unique restaurants in the world, when the tide is in, The Rock appears to be a floating hotel, which can only be accessed by boat, however when the tide is out, it’s possible to walk out to the enormous rock that is exposed and climb the stairs to the restaurant. The location in Pingwe is stunning, and the simple rustic decor feels very authentic. The food and cocktails were delicious and we witnessed a stunning sunset as we left. Only two slots are available for lunch and dinner respectively, and bookings need to be made via their website in advance.
3. Watching the seaweed farmers on Paje Beach
When the tide is out, you can walk for kilometres on Paje Beach, without any hassle, the water is incredibly clear and warm, and makes for some beautiful photos. Ladies squat in the shallows farming the seaweed they have planted in order to sell to the cosmetics industry – just note that whilst there is no issue taking a look at what they are doing, it’s clear they don’t want to be disturbed or have their pictures taken.
4. Exploring the labyrinthine streets of Stone Town
We spent our last night in Stone Town (the old part of Zanzibar Town, the capital, and a UNESCO World Heritage site) at the sister property – Kisiwa House – a gorgeously preserved old Omani home, which was one of the first buildings constructed in Stone Town, and which has now been converted in a boutique hotel (although still owned by the same family). We arrived in the evening and, on the recommendations of friends, had dinner at the rooftop teahouse of Emerson Spice, which offers a daily-changing set menu of five courses, that must be booked at least a day in advance (there are only twelve tables). The Swahili fusion food was outstanding, as was the atmosphere and hospitality, even down to their staff walking you back to your hotel at the end of the evening. The following day we didn’t fly until the evening so had plenty of time to wander the streets and take in the iconic buildings and famous doors, as well as the markets and coastline. For some history and insight into the heritage of the city, the sobering heritage centre at the former slave market is worth a visit. The exhibits and information was very engaging – shocking and fascinating, educational and concise – a real insight into the horrific reality of the city’s former life.
To keep ourselves refreshed, we took respite with a coffee and cake on the lovely rooftop of the Zanzibar Coffee House, and had a fantastic lunch and dinner in the Secret Garden, whose lovely lush crumbling ruins we stumbled upon during our exploration of the city (and were surprised to discover it was also part of Emerson Spice). As the day drew to a close, we were hot and dusty, and so treated ourselves to a massage at the Park Hyatt Zanzibar, which meant we were able to take a shower and change afterwards, and have a last sundowner and dinner before taking a taxi from the hotel to the airport (only 20 minutes outside of town) – cheeky, but so worth doing to ensure a comfortable overnight flight back!
5. A day’s boat trip with Safari Blue
Or so we thought… We booked the Safari Blue trip that we had heard so much about through our hotel, were picked up and driven 1-1.5 hour journey from Paje to Fumba to meet the boat, only to find that it wasn’t actually Safari Blue, it was another company offering the same tour! We later realised there were lots of companies offering the same itinerary, and in fact we passed the Safari Blue boat at several of the same spots and they didn’t seem to be doing anything different to what we were doing. It was a fun day out – we got to do some snorkelling, and then take a walk and sunbathe on a small sandbank in the middle of the ocean that is covered by water at high tide, visit an island with a famous baobab tree and have a fresh seafood BBQ on the beach, finally stopping at a green lagoon for a swim. If you have time, then it’s a nice trip to do, however I think we had been spoiled with the trip to Mnemba Atoll, and therefore, while we enjoyed it, I wouldn’t say it was an absolute must-do.
Taking the tours that we did enabled us to see plenty of Zanzibar life, even if only from a car/minibus window. Nature reigns supreme across the island, and every inch of land is covered in a verdant carpet until you reach the impossibly white sands of the beaches. Forests are interspersed with cornfields and rice paddies, whose small huts at the centre are almost obscured from view – up to the eaves with long green shoots. People in the villages go about their daily business and life is very calm (‘pole pole’ as we kept being told – Swahili for ‘slowly slowly’, ‘maniana maniana’, ‘shway shway’!) until we passed through a local Sunday market where things were much more bustling, with the roads full of cars, and swathes of sugarcane loading the roofs of pick-up taxis, piled on among sacks of rice, boxes of plastic crocs, clothes, and fruits.
As you can probably tell from the length of this post, we thoroughly enjoyed the trip and would not hesitate to recommend Zanzibar as a holiday destination. The people were so friendly, and the blend of cultures on the island served as a reminder that we are all connected – the regions of the world merge into each other, cultures adopt some influences and yet maintain their unique traits, offering individuality with the commonality. It’s such an amazing thing to witness, and really makes you feel humble and appreciate what a small presence you have in the wide world. So if you’re unsure about making the trip (5.5 hours flight from Dubai) for only a few days, I would definitely encourage you to do it – it’s so worth it!