A Country or an Island?
Zanzibar is an archipelago made up of two main islands, namely Unguja (the one that everybody calls ‘Zanzibar’) and Pemba. Few visitors know that Zanzibar is actually a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania. This means that Zanzibar has its own government (The Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar) elected to take charge of access to health, education, and other key services. Their history, in brief, involves being put under the Portuguese empire in the early 1500’s before being and later taken over by the Oman Sultanate in around 1698. In the late 1800’s Zanzibar became a protectorate of Britain. However, by 1963, this protectorate was abolished and Zanzibar declared itself an independent monarchy. Just one month later, after a brief revolution, the monarchy fled into exile and the People’s Republic was born. By April 1964 Zanzibar merged (although retaining semi-autonomy) with the mainland to form the United Republic of Tanzania, the union of Zanzibar and Tanganyika.
A Visit to Zanzibar
What visitors do know about Zanzibar (by which I mean the island of Unguja) is that it is surrounded by beautiful beaches with soft white sand and calm turquoise waters. This is no understatement although there are incredible differences across the four ‘corners’ of the island and knowing which one to pick on your visit (or even if you have to pick one!) can make or break your holiday.
The North Coast: Kendwa and Nungwi
The beaches on the north (and north-west) coast are truly pristine. These are the most popular beaches for tourists coming for a relaxing week at a resort. The sand feels like flour under your feet, the water is accessible at all times of the day and there are lots of activity centres all along the beach offering diving, snorkelling and the ever-trendy SUPing (Stand-Up Paddling)!
Due to its popularity with tourists, this area has become very built up (well, in comparison to much of the rest of Zanzibar anyway!) and it is generally more expensive than the rest of the island. The advantages, though, include a variety of beach bars and parties happening most evenings. Kendwa Rocks, a large beach bar on the beach of its namesake, holds a full moon party once a month that always hosts local musicians and some fun dance acts to watch.
The East Coast: Quiet Romantic Retreat orBackpackers Vibe?
The East coast has some interesting tidal behaviour. The tides on this side of the island are far more extreme than on the West of the island. So, when the tide is low (or heading out), swimming is impossible. If you like long, quiet walks on the beach then this is for you! It is a good idea to check what the tides will be doing during your holiday. If you are into swimming, make sure high tide is during mid-day (or during a time you prefer to swim, since mid-day is blazing hot out here!). It is also usually windier on this side of the island so kite-surfing is far more popular here.
However, while the north- and south-east coast may share a coastline, that seems to be about all they share. Here is a breakdown to help you decide which is more the kind of holiday you are looking for.
North East Coast: Matemwe, Kiwengwa and Pwani Michangani
The beach in Matemwe and the areas around it far more rugged than other popular spots on the island. Large outcrops of rock that have been eroded from years of waves or visible on any walk along the beach and they are really beautiful. This part of the island is usually much quieter than other locations and although it is filled with some really beautiful boutique hotels, the atmosphere is very ‘romantic holiday’. Matemwe also looks out onto the famous Mnemba Atoll, a private island surrounded by an ocean conservation park that is popular for diving and snorkelling.
South East Coast: Paje, Jambiani and the small Penninsula to Michamvi
If you are looking for a laid-back, backpacker scene, this is absolutely the coast to go to. Perhaps because of the popularity of the north coast, the more chilled out adventurers have made their way to the south-east. Paje and Jambiani beaches are both filled with welcoming restaurants and bars, with no shortage of kite-surfing shops if that is your thing! You will also interact far more with the local kids on these beaches as they come out to play soccer much all day. When the tide is on its way in or out, the range of blues and greens you witness on these beaches is just amazing – and since you can’t exactly swim at those times, grab a beer, sit back and watch.
West Coast: Stone Town
Stone Town, the city centre of Zanzibar, is the main attraction of the west coast. While the beach is less attractive for swimming, there is no shortage of amazement in this tiny town. The old alleyways are filled with handcrafted wooden doors, each holding their own ancient story. Not to mention the range of exotic produce at the Darajani market. Watching the sunset from the Emerson on Hurumzi hotel is really a treat after a long hot day of the bustling town, and the food is really fantastic! There are also a few short boat rides that you can take from Stone Town if you have some time. Prison Island, just 20 minutes from town, is home to a giant tortoise population with some that are nearly 200 years old! The sandbank, just 15 minutes by boat is an opportunity for a swim and a really unique sunset experience – just make sure it is low tide since the sandbank doesn’t exist during high tide. Take some snacks and drinks and enjoy!
South Coast: Kizimkazi
Kizimkazi is a rather sleepy town that sees tourism mostly for its dolphin population. There are roughly three dolphin families living in this area and on any given day you are fairly likely to have a chance to swim with these beautiful (and daunting!) creatures. It is less popular to actually stay in this area but I think this untouched region is really special. If you really want a quiet retreat, no fellow tourists, no sellers of touristy crafts, just local fishermen and the ocean, this is a great spot.
Some Things to Remember:
Zanzibaris are incredibly friendly and are always happy to help whether you have a flat tyre or just need directions. For the most part, the island is very safe and you need only take the usual precautions to avoid pickpocketing or being ripped off.
The majority of Zanzibaris follow Islam. This means that you will not find alcohol in local restaurants and you should avoid drinking in public. In addition, when you are walking around Stone Town or any small village, you will want to dress appropriately to respect local customs. Ideally, this means covering your chest, shoulders and knees. This should not deter you from walking around these spots, you will be overwhelmed with how welcome you are in the shamba (rural villages) if you follow just this piece of advice.
The pace in Zanzibar is not rushed and your holiday should follow suit – sit back, relax and enjoy!