Gleaming white sands, crystal waters and luxury beach villas are all part of Zanzibar, but there is a lot more to the island than that.
Zanzibar has a rich history—the island is home to the first mosque in the southern hemisphere, built between the 11th and 12th centuries. From the 1st century AD, it was a trading post for Arabian and Indian merchants.
There are two main islands: Unguja, or Zanzibar Island, and smaller Pemba Island; plus 51 islets. The Zanzibari archipelago offers rich pickings in terms of accommodation, ranging from private boutique villas to large, internationally branded and managed hotels and resorts—of which there are many. If seclusion is what you’re after, some of the smaller islands present the perfect spot. Set among a series of coral atolls, Mnemba Island Lodge, on Mnemba Island—4.5km from Zanzibar Island, has 10 individual ‘bandas’, or chalets, in a beach forest. The bandas are constructed using hand-woven structures made from natural material. Each has its own sprawling bedroom, verandah and private walkway that leads onto the beach. While there is a selection of activities to choose from on Mnemba Island, a trip to the island when the green turtle lays its eggs in February is a must.
There are plenty of hotels in Zanzibar but most tourists prefer the north-west and east coast of the island, with the Diamonds range of hotels among the nicest.
Your stay in Zanzibar would be incomplete without a trip to Stone Town, where the island’s early Arabian and Indian influence can be seen in the architecture. Stone Town, or Mji Mkongwe—Swahili for ‘Old Town’—grew into what was a booming city center during the height of its spice and slave trade in the 19th century. UNESCO named Stone Town a World Heritage Site in 2000 and it forms part of the New City, Ng’ambo, meaning ‘the other side’. Most entry and exit points into Zanzibar are in, or close to, Stone Town so planning cleverly will allow for a few hours to be spent browsing through the East African city’s history.
Set 35km off the coast of Tanzania, the Zanzibar islands can be reached either by boat or air. KLM (with Kenya Airways), Gulf Air, Ethiopian Airlines and Air Mauritius fly regularly to Zanzibar International Airport. Be prepared for a lot of traveling if you’ve chosen Zanzibar and any of its surrounding islands as a holiday destination. Car hire is an option for those individuals feeling brave enough to navigate Zanzibar’s poorly maintained roads, but there are also minibuses, operating from Stone Town, that take sightseers to visitor hotspots around the island.
Tourism in Zanzibar peaks in July and August, the dry season, and again between December and February, so a more expensive trip during these months can be expected. Zanzibar offers splendid scuba diving and snorkeling, particularly during the hot, humid months from December to February, and it is well worth paying the higher rates, as the warmer waters attract a wide variety of marine life.