The island of Zanzibar is located about 30 miles off the coast of Tanzania and is a very popular destination for those wishing to enjoy some rest and relaxation after completing a wildlife safari on the mainland. (A holiday from a holiday – it’s no wonder all successful empires collapse!)
On the west coast is where you will find Stone Town: a cultural hub that is the ‘old town’ of what is now Zanzibar City. It is a diverse mix of Swahili, Persian, Indian, Arab and European culture and influence. There are no Irish pubs. Respect!
Formerly the center of both the spice and slave trade in East Africa, Stone Town is now a major tourist attraction and was made a UNESCO heritage site in 2000. More than 99% of the population is Muslim so it is expected that ladies in particular cover their arms & legs when walking around.
On the east coast is where the majority of the most popular resorts are to be found. With seven nights at our disposal, we decided to split our time between a beach resort (5 nights) and Stone Town (2 nights).
The vast majority of visitors fly directly into the International airport though one can also take a passenger ferry from Dar es Salaam on the mainland. The airport is small and when you exit you will have many taxi drivers asking for your business. More on that below!
Unless you hire your own transportation, you’ll need to use taxis to get around. There is no government owned transportation on the island.
The airport is on the west of the island, about 5 miles from Stone Town. As most of the resorts are located away on the east coast, the taxi ride is going to be expensive. One can either negotiate a fare up front (usually in US dollars) or use a meter if available. Here are some estimates:
- Stone Town to/from Airport: $6 – $10
- Airport to east coast: $30 – $60
- East coast to Stone Town: $25 – $35
Booking transport directly through the big resorts is way more expensive and should be avoided if possible.
Finding a reasonably priced hotel or B&B in Stone Town isn’t a problem. The same cannot be said when it comes to beach resorts – though plentiful, each come with their own set of pros and cons. Of course, one could eliminate most of the cons by paying at least $500 per night!
Consider the following when choosing a resort:
Good snorkeling opportunities directly from shore are limited so you’ll have to choose your resort carefully.
Many resorts are remote which limits or even eliminates alternative dining options. As a result, you are forced into choosing a half-board, full-board or an all-inclusive package.
Food is generally served buffet style. Unfortunately you don’t know whether the quality will be prison buffet, school buffet or warren buffett!
The moment you step onto the public beach, beyond ‘the fence’, you are surrounded by vendors selling anything from massages to necklaces, snorkeling trips to magic beans. These boys, girls, men and women are very persistent. It is not unusual for them to follow you into the water or just wait for your return!
Day trips from the resorts are very expensive unless you can successfully negotiate a trip using one of the aforementioned beach vendors.
Ocean Paradise Resort
The Ocean Paradise Resort is highly rated and this is where we stayed for 5 nights after our safari on the mainland. For the money we paid, we left a little disappointed, especially after the wonderful experience we had in Thailand at a quarter of the price. While nothing was terrible, everything about the place screamed mediocre*. Perhaps the poor weather contributed to this feeling too.
* Alternatives: meh, fair, indifferent, middling, ordinary, passable, run-of-the-mill, second-class, second-rate, so-so. (Thank you thesaurus!)
In addition to the general cons listed above I would add:
The reef enclosing the beach means you only get waist-deep water even at high tide which was a big disappointment for this avid swimmer. (5 feet is my comfort level!) One must wade out anywhere beyond a quarter mile to get past the reef into deeper water.
This specific resort seemed devoid of atmosphere or any fun. The bands that play at dinner each night look like they would rather be playing opening night on the Titanic.
Free WiFi is available in one small location and is tragically slow. What’s worse is that people who PAID for premium WiFi found themselves coming to use the free version as it was more reliable!
It would be unfair not the mention the pros:
All of the non-management staff were extremely friendly and engaging. Each morning one of the ground staff went out of his way to give us fresh coconut.
Nice pool. Great looking beach and beautiful blue water.
Our room was an entire bungalow which offered nice privacy and quietness.
We got to meet Ross and Matt from the UK who were on their honeymoon and were great company.
The beach. Is that a sail boat or a kiosk cunningly disguised as a boat?
The fence that separates the resort from the vendors…
There they go…
The Hiliki House is a small guest house (~ 5 rooms) in a good location on the edge of Stone Town. Though the rooms are small, they are nicely decorated and ours had a private bathroom. Breakfast is served each morning with freshly baked bread and eggs.
Places to Eat
Zanzibar Coffee House Cafe
The Zanzibar Coffee House is located right in the middle of Stone Town and is a place where you can enjoy some locally grown Tanzanian coffee. The baristas are professionally trained no less!
Grab a seat by the window for some good people watching or on the roof for a nice view.
Tea House Restaurant
We had a great lunch at the Tea House Restaurant – the food is terrific. After climbing 4 flights of stairs, one is presented with a terrific 360° view of the city and a dining area where you seat yourself on the floor.
Immediately I was reminded of how little flexibility I have. Or ever had, for that matter.
Probably my favorite meal in Tanzania. Everything about this spot is great, especially the staff who were very friendly. The outdoor patio is the perfect environment for lunch. Though the restaurant has an expensive dinner menu, the lunch we tried was more reasonably priced and definitely worth a visit.
These doughnuts are sold on the street and wrapped up in some old newspaper. Apparently I need to put on more weight so Alina insisted on me eating her doughnut too!
Things to Do
Wander around the narrow cobbled streets of Stone Town and get lost! Unlike the beach resorts, the town is full of life, color, culture and noise.
An example of 19th century architecture. Originally built as a ceremonial palace for the Sultan, the building is now the National Museum of History & Culture. Suffice to say it has seen better days…
Taking in the newspaper headlines the old fashioned way…
Morning prayers at the mosque…
The market is not unlike any other market we had visited to date on our travels – lots of raw meat & fish, fresh vegetables and of course a huge selection of loose and prepackaged spices. It’s still worth a visit especially if you’ve not experienced such a market before. Not surprisingly, one must beware of pickpockets operating in this very crowded area.
Slave Museum & Anglican Cathedral
A small museum is dedicated to the history of the east african slave trade. A small entrance fee is required though this includes a tour and access to the Anglican Cathedral too.
No remnants of the actual slave market exist today except for the two small holding cells below a hostel which one can visit as part of the tour.
Stone Town had one of the largest slave markets in east Africa. Slavers would travel into the interior of the continent, capture people, and bring them back on boats to the market. They were kept in the aforementioned cells for about three days with little light or fresh water while awaiting their sale. In fact, only the occasional intake of sea water through a small hole in the wall cleaned out the feces and other nastiness accrued from the seventy or so people imprisoned within each cell.
Many perished under these conditions thus ensuring only the strongest survived. It wasn’t until 1873 that the last legal slave market in the world closed down thanks largely to the pressure exerted on the Sultan by the British government.
Here is a monument to that era. According to our guide the statues were originally at ground level but because the local school kids played on them, a pit was created.
If it wasn’t for those pesky kids…
The Anglican Cathedral sits on the site of the old slave market and was undergoing construction when we visited. The altar stands on the location of the whipping post from the slave market.
The Serena Hotel is a great place to grab a drink at sunset. In fact, one can walk into any of the nice hotels that line the waterfront and enjoy a beer and a great view at a reasonable price.
Despite the exotic and romantic images conjured up by the name, Zanzibar did not quite live up to our expectations especially when it came to the beach resort.
Stone Town, on the other hand, is intriguing and most certainly worth a visit for a couple of nights. In fact one can take full or half day snorkeling trips directly from the port in town so you don’t necessarily have to go to a resort to enjoy the water.
A trip home to Ireland for some nice beach time.