Spice Islands of Zanzibar Beach Holiday
The first thing that hits you when emerging from the aircraft door after landing at Abeid Amani Karume International Airport on the outskirts of Zanzibar City is the humidity. Humidity and, after the short walk across the tarmac to the terminal building, chaos. I was going to say “organised chaos”, but it’s not that organised, mostly just chaos.
The Airport Experience
There are two entrance doors; ground staff direct those with SADC passports – the Southern African Development Community, kind of like an EU type setup where cross-border rules between neighbouring countries are relaxed. Holders of passports from other countries are directed through the other door; then all passengers end up in the same arrivals hall, where 3 or 4 immigration officers do their best to cope with the influx. There is no clear indication which forms to complete, so we watched what others were doing and did the same, which turned out to be right.
Without air-conditioning, tempers can flare pretty quickly in the humid environment. My advice though is don’t, stay in good cheer, smile and be polite, it gets you much further than grumbling about 3rd world airports. Our flight from Johannesburg arrived at the same time as an Ethiopian Airlines flight originating from Heathrow, and the facilities were under pressure, but I do believe that a single plane would be accommodated a little easier.
There’s still the bag collection process and then the bag scanner, (only one of them in operation), to go through. So you were expecting a baggage carousel, were you? There isn’t one, bags are brought in on carts and dumped on the floor, with no discernible differentiation initially between bags from the different flights, only after considerable confusion was there an effort to separate them. So the moral of the story is that unless you have to check bags in rather stick with carry-on if possible.
Currency and Sim Cards
If you need to change currency into the local denomination, Tanzanian Shillings, there are several forex booths before you leave the terminal where you can get a surprisingly decent rate of exchange. That’s what we did, I had received advice that the ATM’s weren’t always reliable, however during our visit we had no problem at all, they were always working and had cash to dispense, it’s still a good idea to have a bit of local currency in your wallet for those occasions when stuff does break down.
I would also recommend getting a local data sim card for your mobile router; you do have one don’t you? It’s very inexpensive, I bought 10gb which lasted for our entire trip, the signal was always good, and speeds were mostly faster than the hotel Wi-Fi. The benefit is that if you keep the router charged up and either carry it around in your pocket or camera bag, you always have internet for Google Maps or your city guide app.
A Brief History Of Zanzibar
There are several islands in the Zanzibar Archipelago, the main island, commonly known as Zanzibar Island, is officially called Unguja, and it’s been inhabited for at least 20 000 years. Written history though began with the arrival of Arab traders, mostly from Oman and Yemen, who started arriving in the 11th and 12th centuries, and whose capital city was located at what is now known as Stone Town (a Unesco World Heritage Site). Control of the island shifted over the years with Yemen, Oman, Portugal and the British holding control at different times.
In 1963 the island gained independence from Britain under a Sultan, but in 1964 there was a somewhat bloody revolution, after which Zanzibar became a semi-autonomous province of Tanzania, a situation which exists until today. The name Tanzania, which came into existence around that same time, is a combination of the original colonial name Tanganyika, Zanzibar and Azania (the ancient Greek and Roman name for the East coast of Africa). Now that’s something that I bet you didn’t know; I didn’t until I visited the island. Check Wikipedia for more info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Zanzibar.
The Seyyida Hotel
Our first stop after meeting up with our driver from Spice Travel & Tours, who handled all the transfers for the duration of our stay, was the Seyyida Hotel in Stone Town, around a 30 to 40-minute drive from the airport.
The hotel is very close to the markets, restaurants & seafront and has lovely views over the harbour from the upper-level terrace, which is also where breakfast is served. It’s not a “fancy” hotel, but very authentic, I’d say it’s good rather than excellent. But it’s quite reasonably priced and offers value for money. Being an old building in the old town, views over the ocean aren’t readily available, our room, which was really comfortable, overlooked an alley, with the neighbouring building almost within touching distance. So if a great view from the room is important to you, it’s maybe not the right place, but if a great location and an authentic historical building work for you, then it could be your kind of place.
Exploring Stone Town
We didn’t eat at the hotel, preferring to explore a little, Mercury’s Bar is a short distance away and was our choice for lunch and a cold beer or 3. It’s right on the seafront near the ferry terminal so always something going on, all to the tunes of Queen and Freddy Mercury, the bar’s namesake. Freddy was born in Stone Town; this is an excellent tribute to him I think. Downing a Kilimanjaro beer and some incredibly tasty dish, whose name I can’t remember, was a wonderful memory for me. We had dinner at The Silk Route restaurant, also a great spot with views over the town and very decent food.
Stone Town And It’s Doors
An article about Stone Town isn’t complete until we talk about those doors. The city is famous for it’s massive, ornately carved doors. Those with rounded tops indicate homes of people of Indian descent, while the square doors would be on the homes of Muslim owners. The more intricate and detailed the carvings, the more wealthy and influential the owner. The brass studs were to discourage elephants, now that’s a fact that I didn’t know. So if doors are your thing, then Stone Town will suit you down to the ground, and if not, there’s still plenty more to get your attention, like those markets.
The Spice Market
The spice markets are one of the things for which Zanzibar is justifiably famous; they aren’t called the “Spice Islands” for nothing. The aroma of herbs and spices is pervasive throughout the alleys and streets of Stone Town, for the spice lover this place is paradise on earth. Be warned though, that picking something up in the market, or paying it more than a passing glance will bring on a sales pitch that is difficult to resist. Bargaining is key, as soon as a stallholder has a tourist in his sights the price goes up by 2 or 3 times, so bring your best-negotiating skills, you’ll need them. They are persistent, but a firm “no thanks, I don’t want it” will eventually work. We just used the fact that we are South African, which usually brought some pity, our poor old country’s wayward currency is apparently legendary. Sorry for those of you with US$, Sterling, Euros or Yen though, you folks I can’t help 😉
I’m not going to pretend that it’s all herbs and spices, there’s also an abundance of less pleasant aromas, but it’s not overwhelming. Other things that made their mark: the Muslim women in their colourful clothing and scarves; cool and witty slogans on the boats in the harbour and so many cats but not a single dog.
Forodhani Gardens Night Market
For me, this is a must-see, as the sun goes down the stalls go up all along the seafront, and the people of Zanzibar come out in the cooler evening. We were there on a Saturday, and the local lads were showing their stuff with some incredibly agile dives and summersaults off the seawall into the water below. The aromas of local street food compete with one another, each one more enticing than the one before. Locals and tourists mingle, enjoying the cool of the day and the fantastic tastes of Zanzibar.
In all our wanderings, and we walked a LOT, we never once felt threatened or unsafe in Stone Town. There is a lot of poverty, but everybody respects each other, Mainlanders, Muslims, Indian and tourists of every description, and while I’m sure there are bad guys, I suspect that the local business owners who depend on tourism to a large degree, would deal with transgressors quite harshly.
Kichanga Beach Lodge
We stayed only one night in Stone Town, which should have been longer, you need two nights and at least a full day to explore the entire place, there is much I would have liked to see but time just ran out. Our next destination was Kichanga Beach Lodge, which is on the East coast of the island, around an hour and a half drive through rural Zanzibar.
Our trip took us past a pretty well-known restaurant known as The Rock. It’s apparently quite a decent place to eat, perched on top of a rock, which is surrounded by water at high tide. Our transport was on a schedule though so we couldn’t sample the food. Perhaps if I visit again, I’ll chance the local roads and apparent lack of traffic rules, hire a car and explore at our own pace. So next time then.
Kichanga Lodge is what you’d call rustic; it’s in a lovely part of the island with what is for all intents a private beach lined with palm trees and with soft white sand. It’s just that the lodge itself might have been good at one time, as the Trip Advisor Certificates of Excellence from 2015 hanging on the wall behind reception attest. Today though, whatever the reason, maybe it’s management, perhaps something else, I don’t know, it’s not what I’d call up-market.
The lodge has some outstanding qualities, especially the friendly staff and the fact that it’s not crowded like some of the big resorts can get, but, it’s not of a standard that I look for. Although the beach is beautiful, the high water mark is littered with plastic and debris. That’s not their fault, most of it comes from the developed world to end up on their beach. But come on, Zanzibar is a developing country with high unemployment; surely they can afford to pay somebody minimum wage if necessary to pick up the plastic after high tide every day and dispose of it! Most island resorts have the same problem, but every one I’ve been to has dedicated staff keeping their most valuable asset in good shape.
Fumba Beach Lodge
You’ve heard about chalk and cheese, right? Well, that’s the difference between Fumba Beach Lodge and the previous one. Fumba is on the West coast of the island, so it doesn’t have the typical white sand beaches on the East, and while it’s also got a rustic vibe, there’s absolutely nothing run down about it. This is rustic done well.
We were welcomed by the manager Michael with a refreshing coconut milk drink and shown the basics before being massively surprised and spoiled by being upgraded to the honeymoon suite, which was perfect being our 22nd anniversary. Now there’s a beachfront room, and there’s a room on the beach, and I think ours fell into the second category, with maybe 7 or eight steps from the balcony to sand. The outdoor (but private) shower, toilet and bath under an ancient baobab tree were a thoroughly fantastic touch.
Food was excellent with a wide choice, on our first night, there was a Swahili theme, with local delicacies & dishes and live entertainment by some local musicians. It’s such a treat to watch these talented guys get the audience up on their feet and participating. Breakfast is enough to keep you going well into the afternoon, or at least until lunchtime. Be aware that the local blue monkeys will take a chance and steal anything left unattended; they are very entertaining though, so most guests forgive them for their wayward ways. If you are hungry again by lunchtime I can highly recommend the burger; it’s delicious. But there are also plenty of fish and other options, and it’s all done well from what I saw going out.
Chill Time At Fumba
Being a resort, alcohol is on the expensive side, although we did bring some of our own beers, which they had no problem with us consuming at our chalet, around the restaurant and pool it’s not permitted. But to take away the pain, happy hour is between 5 and 6 pm, with great cocktails and beer offers at the Dhow Bar, which is an authentic fishing dhow set under an 800-year-old baobab tree on the beach.
Sunsets are simply unbeatable here; there is a wooden deck built into the branches of the baobab tree, which is an excellent spot to sip on your cocktail and watch the sun dipping into the Indian Ocean.
And the pool deck is stunning, chilling in the warm water, looking out over the ocean as the sun disappears, or just cooling off in the heat of the day with a cold Kilimanjaro beer close to hand. I’m not sure that it gets any better than that.
That Airport Again
All too soon it’s time to go home and brave the airport again. We had read some horror stories of the departure area, but honestly, it was actually a more comfortable and slightly more organised procedure than arrival, or maybe we had just adapted to “island time”, who knows. So, after the baggage scan, again only one in operation, and going through immigration and customs, we were in the departure area.
There are a couple of shops selling curios and stuff to eat and drink, which didn’t look bad at all. But, there is no air-conditioning and no ceiling fans, and with three flights departing, not enough seating for everyone. In the humid conditions, it isn’t that pleasant. The good news is that construction of a new airport is currently underway, although nobody knows when it will be completed, it will surely make a massive difference to the whole Zanzibar experience when it does come into use.
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If You Go
- Our trip was organised by Mandy at African Fusion Travel, through their Island holiday website www.islandfusiontravel.com, she knows Zanzibar and will make your trip one to remember.
- Although Zanzibar is in a malaria area, it is seasonal, when we travelled it wasn’t the malaria season, so we didn’t take precautions, other than bug spray at night, but heed the advice of your travel agent as to whether it’s necessary when you travel.
- Zanzibar is a cash-based society, although restaurants and hotels accept major credit cards, markets and smaller shops only take cash, so it’s advisable to obtain some local currency at the airport.
- It’s a Muslim country, so visitors need to respect the local, conservative dress and social customs.
- We never felt threatened or unsafe at any time, even when walking around Stone Town at night, although we did stay on the main thoroughfares. But my advice is still to avoid flashing around cash or expensive cameras and avoid straying into deserted streets or alleys.
- At the market keep three things in mind: haggle, barter, negotiate; visitors can be spotted from a mile away, and prices set accordingly, there’s some great stuff to be purchased, and the negotiation is all part of the game.
- Our brief to Mandy was for off the beaten track, rustic resorts and that’s what we got, there are international brands offering all inclusive, 5 star packages where you will be cocooned away from local life if you want it, but for me it’s so much better to get closer to real life and experience something more “authentic”.
This trip was partly sponsored by African Fusion Travel, opinions expressed are my own.