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Zanzibar Feb 5 - Feb 26, 2006   Slideshow 7 slideshows   Blog 1 blog
Overview: The archipelago half of Tanzania (the country was formed and named by uniting mainland Tanganyika and islands of Zanzibar), the 3 largest islands of Zanzibar are Zanzibar (also called Unguja), Pemba and Mafia islands (off the northeast coast of mainland Tanzania); for simplicity, I treated mainland Tanzania separately on its own page.
Zanzibar's population is just under 1 million, or roughly 3% of Tanzania.

We spent 2 weeks on Zanzibar: 3 nights in Stone Town (the oldest part of Zanzibar Town) and 9 nights on the beach in little Kendwa in the northwest corner of the island (after having spent 1 week on safari in northern mainland Tanzania).

Even the name Zanzibar conjures up exotic images! The name comes from the Arabic Zinj el-Barr (Land of the Blacks).
It's a conservative, Muslim society, with heavy Arabic and Indian influences (on architecture and food, amongst other things).

Scroll down for the stories, or skip directly to a section:
Airport Arrival, Stown Town, Spice Tour, Kendwa Beach, Stown Town II, Airport Departure, Tips

Quickly expand or collapse all sections below, which contain additional information.

Map is copyright Lonely Planet
Note that Kendwa is slightly misplaced on the map: it should be on the northwest coast
Satellite Photo: See this satellite map with pushpins and then zoom in at least once.
Zanzibar Town Airport Arrival: Our 1 hour flight from Moshi/Arusha/Mt Kili on mainland Tanzania on the local airline Precision Air was uneventful. We grabbed a taxi from the airport taxi stand for the short ride into town, following the coast and then the water's edge through town. Even though we had told our driver which hotel we wanted to go to, he kept pointing out all the big hotels along the way, and even stopped in front of one, asking if we wanted to take a look (we declined).
Stone Town: This is the oldest part of Zanzibar Town in the northwest corner of the city, surrounded by ocean on 3 sides. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With narrow cobblestone alleys, it reminded me of a dirtier version of the town centres in some very old European cities.
We stayed at the Warere Town House, a small family run hotel in a dodgy looking area near the port (in the Malindi neighbourhood, the northeast corner of Stone Town).
click to expand/collapse the following section(s) Additional details: this hotel and our room.
Balcony It was very hot and humid. Very humid. Much more humid than Moshi (on the mainland) had been. Just before sunset, we set out to walk to a nearby restaurant, but Susan felt very, very uncomfortable walking by the traffic circle at the port entrance (50m from our hotel), as there were lots of "scruffy" guys hanging around doing nothing. The fact that they were local Muslims and we were the only tourists around didn't help either (the guidebook warns about dangers, especially in isolated areas). After a brief retreat to the hotel and regaining her composure, we set out again without incident.
We ate dinner at the touristy waterfront Mercury's resto, which is named in honour of singer Freddie Mercury of the rock band "Queen," who was born nearby. We had a nice sunset, though no camera due to personal safety fears. Kids played soccer and swam on the "beach" next door, and a live band played at 20:30. We took a taxi home even though we were only 250m away from the hotel, as you aren't supposed to walk around at night.
For our dinner the second night, we ventured through the waterfront Forodhani Gardens night market, but settled on a resto in the Shangani neighbourhood, which is the dense northwest corner of Stone Town.
click to expand/collapse the following section(s) Additional details: our second evening out.
The morning before our afternoon taxi to Kendwa Beach: After breakfast we left our backpacks in the hotel office and walked around Stone Town to run errands and shop on Gizenga St; and we enjoyed a nice lunch with a waterside view.
click to expand/collapse the following section(s) Additional details: that errand-filled morning.
Stone Town (inc. views from airplane, hotels, Gizenga St, town beaches, taarab orchestra)
clove We recommend it! Spice Tour: At 9:30 one morning we took the informative Mr. Mitu's Spice Tour (recommended both by our hotel and Lonely Planet); their office (in Stone Town) was just around the corner (our hotel receptionist led us via a shortcut through the alleyways). There were 2 minivans, each stuffed with 12 tourists, plus a guide and a driver. Susan and I ended up sharing the front bench, with only one seatbelt, as we were the last to arrive.
We made a brief stop outside the main market so that the guide could buy fresh food for lunch, and we could buy water if needed. Then we drove 20 minutes northeast into the centre of the island to a few plantations, including government-owned ones, and one with now-unused Persian baths that had been built for a sultan's wife (to say nothing of the 5 squat toilet rooms in a row just outside the baths). At the first plantation, a knowledgeable local botanist, who also spoke English well, joined us for the tour. He gave us lots of information (kept me busy writing notes!) as well as the occasional "scratch and sniff" stop, where he would cut off a fruit, spice, branch or leaf with his pocket knife. On occasion he would put his knife in the split end of a branch so that he could cut something higher up. He also let us taste a few things.
beach Sitting on mats under a shade roof at a plantation, we ate a tasty lunch of fish in sauce, rice, "spinach" (actually cooked tapioca leaves), chiapati and banana. After lunch we were able to buy some water and sodas at a roadside shop.
Then we drove to Mangapwani on the coast to visit the slave caves, which are actually stone huts that are 90% underground so that they are very hard to see from a distance. There was a long informative sign about the slave trade, which the British helped to end.
Then we had our first warm ocean water swim at a nearby beach, complete with a local selling nice cold sodas and beers from a cooler!
We did not return to Stone Town until almost 16:30, which was a long day without toilets!
Spice Tour (inc. spices, fruits, slave cave and beach)
click to expand/collapse the following section(s) Additional details: the spices, fruits and plants.
palapas and firepit Kendwa Beach: We had arranged the taxi through our hotel (actually we thought the clerk was going to drive us for a better rate). Kendwa Beach is near the northwest-most tip of the island. The road was paved for the first half of the hour journey, and then became a dirt road; the final 2km from the road to the beach, past a small village, was very rutted and almost required 4WD. Shortly before arrival, our taxi driver said he was paid TZS 15,000 and asked how much we paid the hotel; we didn't tell him, but gave him a good tip. We had bargained the hotel's taxi price down US$50 to TZS 30,000 (US$25).
There are in fact share taxis between Stone Town and beach towns (TZS 5,000 pp), but as it was low season, there wasn't guaranteed to be one in the afternoon and we didn't want to rush out very early in the morning.
There are 6 low key hotels on the beach, plus, unfortunately, one brand new Italian 5-star all-inclusive resort, complete with guards on the beach, and expensive prices set in euros.
Tip Tip: The northwest coast beaches are better than the east coast for swimming.
We had planned on splitting our beach time between Kendwa Beach and an east coast beach (e.g. Jambiani) but we scrapped that plan and stayed at Kendwa Beach the whole time. Why? Because the east coast beaches are flat and have a problem at low tide: the water is very far from shore and unswimmable. It was so hot that we only laid around in the shade, we really couldn't bear the thought of not being able to swim at mid-day when low tide occurred!
Kendwa Beach, and neighbouring Nungwi, are the only beaches with good swimming 24 hours per day (since the water gets deep quickly). And they don't have seaweed like the east coast beaches. Plus, on the west coast, you get great sunsets instead of early morning sunrises!
bar/resto palapa We stayed at the aptly named White Sands Hotel, a cluster of semi-bungalows set on a 5m cliff overlooking the beach. Our "warm welcome" (per the website) consisted of an odd "what are you doing here?" question from the owner, Jan (a man from Belgium); we must have caught him in a bad moment, for he was actually very pleasant and helpful.
Update: Since we were there, Jan was unable to renew his lease and the new management may not be as friendly, judging from the emails they sent to us (and other recent guests). Otherwise I would have heartily recommended this laid-back hotel.
Hotel (inc. hotel grounds, beach, sick Susan, lobster dinner)
click to expand/collapse the following section(s) Additional details: this hotel and our room.
Other things of note regarding the beach and nearby:
  • The water was bathtub warm, and especially refreshing at sunset.
  • Amazing sunsets! Often the sun would sink into a cloud just above the horizon, and each sunset was a little different and always romantic.
  • Lots of local massage women, who say "massagee", with mats and saris (they're Muslim, which surprised me since they were "touching" strange foreign men); US$5 for 30 min, US$10 for 60 min, though we bargained down to TZS 4000 and TZS 7000, respectively. Our favourite masseuse was named Anna.
  • Amazing stars visible at night! (despite the light pollution from the new resort) I didn't realize how many faint stars there were in the middle of the ever-present Orion constellation.
  • Several outfits on the beach sold snorkeling trips (disappointing) and sunset dhow sails; they even sent beach boys out to entice you so that you didn't have to leave your lounge chair to make a booking :-)
  • Occasionally people would come by on the beach with fruit or shells or other trinkets for sale.
  • There are little shops (1.5L water: TZS 700) and arts & crafts booths on the beach, including colourful oil paintings (US$7-20, no frame).
  • Surprisingly there were some Maasai selling beadwork! Occasionally a vendor or masseuse would simply yell out "Maasai" to get their attention for a question or an errand.
  • Other hotels had less expensive bandas, which are more primitive huts on the beach, often with shared bathroom facilities.
  • Unfortunately, there are sand flies that cause very itchy bites. We think our legs were bitten mostly at dinner, so wear bug spray on your legs in the evening!.

In short, it reminded me a lot of beach life on Thailand islands (though more expensive).
Nearby (inc. art, Maasai, Vervet monkey on Susan)
Beach and water Here is a rough breakdown of our exhausting beach schedule:
  • Thu: Arrived late afternoon
  • Fri: Lazy beach day
  • Sat: Lazy beach day; I finally shaved (long overdue);
    romantic lobster dinner as a delayed Valentine's Day (with extra flowers on the table)
  • Sun: Lazy beach day; short snorkel boat trip just offshore
  • Mon: Lazy beach morning; walked to Nungwi village (20-30 min each way) for the afternoon
  • Tue: Full-day snorkel trip to Mnemba Island
  • Wed: Susan falls ill with a nasty stomach bug early in the morning and stays in bed all day; when not taking care of her, Jan has lazy beach time
  • Thu: Susan still sick, but finally makes it to the beach at 16:00; Jan has lazy beach day
  • Fri: Susan much better; lazy beach day
  • Sat: one final swim after breakfast before returning to Stone Town
The Beach (inc. us in blue water, fishing boats, water's edge)
click to expand/collapse the following section(s) Additional details: our afternoon walk to Nungwi village, inc. Susan's playing with a pet Vervet monkey.
Jan snorkeling in his Nairobi T-shirt Did I mention the water was very blue and bathtub warm? So delightful... always refreshing as the air was hot and humid.
The local fishermen used simple canoe-like boats which they often pushed along using poles (like the gondoliers in Venice).
Sea (inc. fishermen, underwater, boating past Nungwi)
There were 3 snorkeling trips offered on the beach:
  • US$10 (bargained to TZS 8,000) for a short trip just offshore (the beach boy warned us we might be disappointed, and he was right! Very lame and not worth it.)
  • US$15 for a medium trip near the lighthouse on the little island offshore (which some fellow hotel guests, from South Africa, said was good snorkeling)
  • US$20 inc. lunch (bargained to TZS 35,000 for 2) for a long all-day trip to Mnemba Island on the east coast
click to expand/collapse the following section(s) Additional details: the all-day snorkeling trip.
click to expand/collapse the following section(s) Additional details: Susan's illness.
click to expand/collapse the following section(s) Additional details: more prices for food, drinks and Internet access.
Dhow in front of setting sun What more can I say than fabulous sunsets, which is also a nice time for a final swim of the day.
Sunsets (inc. dhows, fishermen, fabulous sunsets)
Dhow in front of setting sun Stone Town II: Not wanting to take an early morning share taxi, we had called our previous taxi driver, Habib, the day before to arrange for an 11:30 pickup (called using the hotel owner's mobile phone, for which he did charge us on checkout). Habib didn't show up, so we negotiated a rate with a taxi minivan that just dropped off a couple at our hotel and were returning to Stone Town. The TZS 5,000 pp rate, which morphed into TZS 10,000 pp on arrival, but it was still a good deal by any measure (it also meant no tip was necessary). Susan had a lengthy interesting talk with the co-driver about rural vs town life, wages and costs etc.
We were dropped off at the Tembo Hotel where they luckily had a room due to a recent cancellation; in fact we received the last room, on the ground floor with no view nor balcony/patio, but it did have A/C. The waterfront hotel had a nice deck right on the in-town beach, plus a refreshing courtyard swimming pool.
We tried to reconfirm our flight, but the nearby Air Tanzania office was closed, as were all the phone numbers that our hotel's concierge tried for us.
We went for a long walk through the old town, meandering down side alleys to see the cathedral and to just get off the main touristy Gizenga St (alley). In front of the cathedra, Susan played with a pet monkey, which ripped the cover of her unread book the she was about to resell (thus decreasing the value). In other side alleys we saw locals, including kids, at work, rest and play; we never felt unsafe (in the daytime). Susan bought a Tingatinga painting as a gift; it's a style of colourful squares with whimsical animals, named after a famous Tanzanian artist. Walking around, we noticed how many of the doors at ground level were remarkable heavy old timber.
We circled back to the Darajani Market, where this late in the afternoon, the smell & flies on the meat and seafood were too much for us. We passed through some quieter area on the way back to our hotel, where we took a refreshing dip in the pool (there were even pool towels, such luxury!) before enjoying a drink on the hotel's deck overlooking the beach.
Taarab orchestra We went to Monsoon Restaurant for dinner; this time we had reservations and breezed by some unfortunate tourists who did not. We removed our shoes before entering the traditional style dining room where one sits on floor cushions. The Swahili cuisine was excellent, and the atmosphere was enhanced by the live 4-man taarab orchestra. The word taarab comes from the Arabic tariba, meaning "to be moved," and fuses African, Arabic and Indian musical influences.
For convenience, here is a link to the Stone Town slideshow that appeared near the start of this page:
Stone Town (inc. views from airplane, hotels, Gizenga St, town beaches, taarab orchestra)
Airport Departure: With an early 8:20 flight, we packed the night before and woke up at 6:00. We ate a light breakfast (unfortunately missing the well-rated buffet that didn't start so early) and settled the bill, with some difficulty, with a combination of one US$ travelers cheque, US$ cash and TSZ cash (I was trying to get rid of local currency and avoid using a credit card).
A brief taxi ride brought us back to the airport, where a good three dozen porters tried to grab our (rolling) backpacks for the 7m walk to the end of the long check-in line. It turned out that line was for the Italian charter flight and we found a much shorter check-in line at another desk. However, we all had to go through the same long line to pay departure tax and through immigration. It wasn't obvious that there were two lines, so I jumped out of line to go pay the departure tax (a quicker process) and returned just in time for Susan to reach the front of the immigration line.
The only washrooms were outside of the departure lounge, but you could exit and re-enter the security checkpoint.
Our Air Tanzania flight to Jo'burg (as Johannesburg is known), South Africa, was comfortable enough, with a stop in Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania) which was a surprisingly small airport for such a large city. At the modern Jo'burg airport, we had to pick up our luggage and check-in again for our South African Airways flight to Cape Town.
Tip Tips:

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