Zanzibar – Africa’s Most Versatile Beach Getaway

Romance & Beaches

Zanzibar Dhow

There are places on Earth whose names fall into myth. They become by-words for exotic travel, yet even experienced travellers often never set foot there.

There are in some cases, good reasons for that. Take Timbuktu for example. Yes, it does exist, but it’s a 16 hour drive from Mali’s largest city, Bamako (Flights? Good luck with that.), and once you’re there, there really isn’t that much to see. It may be on the World Heritage List, but its days as an important trade city have long passed. Add to that current government warnings against all travel to Mali and you’re left with a destination few people will visit, or would want to. Those that do will come away with bragging rights, but probably very few interesting photos.

The island of Zanzibar shares Timbuktu’s mystique, its historical importance to trade, its African location and its UNESCO World Heritage status. But the similarities end there. A semi-autonomous territory of Tanzania, Zanzibar, located just off the country’s coast feels like an entirely different country with its own unique heritage and cultural flavour. First settled in 1000AD, it has at different times been independent, a Portuguese colony, a British protectorate, and part of the Sultanate of Oman. It wasn’t until 1964 that Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika, to create the Tanzania we know today. The island’s streets are paved with that history, and its beaches are among the finest in Africa, making it an ideal place to unwind from any East Africa safari adventure. Most important of all, it’s a very safe destination.

Rock Restaurant, Zanzibar
Rock Restaurant, Zanzibar

Zanzibar is part of a small archipelago of islands seeped in Moorish, Indian, Middle Eastern and of course African tradition, with just a touch of leftover European influence – though English is still widely spoken. Its namesake island, where most of the attractions are located, is also known as the Spice Island, and has seen vast amounts of nutmeg, ginger, cardamom and other spices pass through its port. Spices still play a significant role in the island’s economy, as visitors soon discover in the cuisine. With such a mixed heritage, there are always plenty of options, nearly always locally grown or caught, using ingredients you might not expect. Seafood fans might enjoy an octopus curry or pepper shark, while spices enhance a delicious range of pastries.

Stone Town Church, over top of the former Slave Market with a relatively new Slave Memorial in foreground
Stone Town Church, over top of the former Slave Market with a relatively new Slave Memorial in foreground

The centre of life and economy here is Zanzibar Town, and within it, Stone Town marks the centre of the island’s history. This labyrinth of narrow streets is packed with exotic spots to eat and shop while you discover Zanzibar’s past. The slave trade, sadly, features prominently in that story, but you’ll also discover many fascinating mosques and markets. It’s also an ideal place to base yourself for day trips around the island, including popular ‘spice tours.’

Wildlife lovers may want to visit Prison Island, home to giant tortoises – Zanzibar is one of the few places you’ll find them outside the Galapagos – or trek into the Jozani Forest in search of red colobus monkeys, a species endemic to Zanzibar.

Red Colobus Monkeys, Zanzibar
Red Colobus Monkeys, Zanzibar

If you’d rather relax at the end of your safari, Zanzibar welcomes you to its sandy beaches. The island’s relatively small size means you’re never far from a culture or history-rich excursion, and you can spend your downtime relaxing next to vivid blue waters. The northern village of Nungwi, located just over two hours from Stone Town is the most popular beach destination, but there are attractive spots all around the island. The east coast offers beaches of similar quality, lined by a long barrier reef. Steep inclines can make swimming difficult at low tide, but with a little planning, most travellers don’t find this a problem, and many take advantage of the excellent diving and snorkelling on offer. Head for the south-western beaches if you’re looking for relaxation, though resort options here are still thin on the ground. It does however put you in easy reach of some of Zanzibar’s best wildlife adventures.

For those in search of a tropical getaway steeped in history, with natural beauty and wildlife at the doorstep, Zanzibar offers much more than bragging rights.

Stone Town Rooftops, Zanzibar
Stone Town Rooftops, Zanzibar