Oh, Zanzibar. Doesn’t the name simply sound ridiculously cool? Cool name aside, I’ve found a tropical archipelago in East Africa where high-spirited locals, colourful diversity and year-round warm weather brings all the right energy you need for your next holiday destination.
“She’s here now! Action!” is what I thought my hotel rep said once we hopped off the cab and journeyed through the winding, narrow streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar. The stage curtains of intersecting stone washed walls unveiled an alive town of passing people and the odd donkey cart bustling about their heritage homes and arts and craft workshops. These friendly faces shout mambo!, answer with ya-mun (as in yes, man), and throw around hakuna matata! as often as Aussies say “no worries, mate.” (Who would’ve thought Disney didn’t just make it up for the Lion King? Clearly not I.)
Persians, Arabs, Indians and Europeans have all left their mark here, bringing together an exotic, vibrant destination seen through clothing, cuisine and architecture. Think white-cloaked Muslim men wearing kufis riding bicycles, voluptuous caramel-skinned women in a brightly-patterned ensemble (with a matching personality) and fresh seafood markets surrounding palaces, mosques and pristine beaches.
While Zanzibar has two main islands, Unguja and Pemba, I explore the former and can’t help but notice one thing: its genuine good vibes. Looking for a cheery, laid-back atmosphere with a healthy splash of art and culture? Here’s 17 ways Zanzibar is the place for you.
1. A fisherman will escort you through turquoise waters reaching tiny islands of secluded white sandy havens on his boat for just US$20-30/day.
Brochures and guides will point you to Prisoners Island. Having experienced that, I say give it a skip. Instead, find a friendly fisherman and ask for a private boat “tour” to hop around 2-3 of Unguja’s smaller islands. He’ll happily prepare a sizzling grill on the beach for you if you load up on fresh seafood at any morning market or a plate of chopped up tropical fruit. Chatting to him, you’ll learn why Zanzibarians are unlike their mainland Tanzanians or why they never need to leave Paradise.
2. Full moon? Make friends with locals and head to the beach for a bonfire and bongo session.
Zanzibar is a playground of beaches for long, lazy sessions of talking about nothing and everything over drumming under the moonlight. Let the rhythms take you to a meditation-like state with a positive energy that’ll last for days. You can pick up a small bongo at the market too!
3. “Hakuna matata” catches onto you.
Hearing this repeatedly will surely create new happy waves in your brain!
4. Both locals and foreigners can feast together in-between the delicious smokiness of sizzling grills at the Forodhani Gardens’ night market.
Wander through rows of freshly prepared street seafood fronting the Palace of Wonders with the moon rising behind it. I love lining up where the locals are crowding around – you’ll know it’s good! Make sure you order a fresh sugarcane juice with ginger and lime, or anything with a spicy mango and tamarind sauce.
5. And right by the market on a typical warm Zanzibar day, you see the pure joy on the look of locals’ faces lining up for a cliff jump into the Indian Ocean.
Who wouldn’t want to jump into the below?
6. The police and the people are on the same side.
Arriving from another African country where it was police vs. people, I was startled to see the two in clear comradery here. After spontaneously accepting an invitation for a night of “real jam sessions”, I experienced a reggae-meets-jazz concert performed by… the police! A way to bring the community together, I shook my booty all night long with two local girls over saucy, uplifting tunes and a couple of Kilimanjaros, my cheeks sore from non-stop laughing. “Myzungu (white preson), you dance like Zanzibar woman!” Put that on my resume.
7. Zanzibarians are proud artists who love to talk about their craftsmanship.
These skilled folk specialise in unique jewellery, paintings, wood-carved and leather goods, and even handcrafted ethically designed clothes. Look out for shops and studios where you can see these guys in action, not only will you find authentic goods made in Zanzibar but their creative energy will rub off on you too.
8. Talk to Maasai village people, and you’ll be fascinated by how connected they are with their animalistic instincts and the earth.
I met a friendly Maasai warrior whom just happened to be casually strolling down the beach where I was, and he showed me how to use a rungu as a protective weapon and to hunt for animals. Just watch out for fakers – people who dress up in scarlet robes but carry a camera hoping you’d want to take a photo for money in return.
9. In Stone Town, dig deeper past the touristy stores and you’ll witness a treasure trove of local daily life.
As an avid traveller, I’ve learned to recognise destinations that solely exist for bringing in tourist dollars. Parts of UNESCO’s World Heritage Site, Stone Town is still a livable city. An ancient, crumbling-down town with elaborate carved doors, you’ll see mothers walking their children to school, grannies hanging out on their verandas, men playing bao, and artists at work, all while prayers ring through the streets each day (please excuse the 5am wake up call). Take a guided walking tour to appreciate it for what it is. It’s just nice to feel a part of it all.
10. Everybody gets along.
Really, the last time I witnessed true integration of cultures was in San Francisco, California. While predominantly Muslim, there are over 50 mosques, two cathedrals and some Hindu temples in Zanzibar. The sense of harmony is beautiful to watch.
11. The chaotic markets are a snapshot of what the older folk love to do.
At Darajani Market, watch locals shouting and screaming, rummaging, auctioning, flapping their arms, fighting, bartering, fanning off flies, and laughing about it at the end of the transaction. You can’t help but feel their fire. Warning: the meat market smells awful so perhaps head towards the fruit, spices and textiles markets.
12. Walking through the streets at night felt the same as walking through the streets of Sydney – incredibly safe!
As a solo female traveller, this is an absolute luxury.
13. Zanzibar isn’t just Stone Town and the beaches – the roads less travelled reveal the life of village people.
When travelling to another side of the island, make a short stop or detour to say hello to village people living in palm-thatched huts. Their raw, simple yet happy life is admirable.
14. The locals are ridiculously friendly.
“My name is Mr. Smiley.” a passerby introduced himself. “Did you just say Smiley?” I responded. “Yes,” he said with seriousness, “Now where’s yours?”.
15. You get the best of both worlds.
My partner loves beach holidays and I prefer exploring art and culture. While always having to compromise when most destinations have one or the other, here we can be happy and have both!
16. Local food is cheap and delicious, and you can actually find a great coffee.
Of course good energy for the soul comes from great food too. Head to cafeteria Lukmaan (Mkunazini Baobab Tree, New Mkunazini Road) in Stone Town where you’ll be lining up with locals for tasty, traditional dishes accompanied with pilau, flat bread or rice. To find a real coffee in a foreign land has also become a personal treat. Head to Zanzibar Coffee House, a quaint quiet haven decorated with antiques serving up espresso-styled coffee. Their affogatos are a dream.
17. Alas, any leftover negative energy will be gone with a sundowner at Michamvi.
Oh Mother Nature, you wonderful thing. Head over to the boutique Michamvi Sunset Bay Resort for a gorgeous lavender sunset on a palm-tree-fringed bay. If you’re not staying at the resort, visitors can still make use of their lounge area by simply purchasing a drink from the bar – I’m sure you’d want one anyway.
Where else in the world gives you good energy? Write me a comment below.
Official Zanzibar Tourism website.
HOW TO GET HERE
Alternative Airlines offers daily flights from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania or Nairobi, Kenya from US$200-$300 return. Private ferries also depart from Dar es Salaam for US$20-$50.
The best way to get around Stone Town and Zanzibar’s main attractions is by foot. If you’re travelling to another side of the island, hire a taxi or travel by dulla dulla, their cheap-as-chips public bus.
WHERE TO STAY
- Zanzibar Coffee House, an 1885 building turned boutique hotel with 8 charmingly decorated rooms, from $US65/pn.
- Emerson Spice, a stylish luxury boutique hotel – absolutely magical, from US$220/pn.
- Airbnb offers plenty of locals’ homes that’s smack bang centre of Stone Town for under US$100.
TOP 3 TRAVEL TIPS
- Ask permission to take photos. Some locals here are sensitive to you snapping away.
- Be assertive when rejecting (and don’t be alarmed by the number of) people trying to sell you stuff on the street. While most of them have good intentions, it can become tricky to point out those who are genuine in offering you a good deal and those who are being downright cheeky.
- Haggle at least 1/4 of the asking price and try to pay with local currency as often as possible.