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An Unforgettable Trip to Zanzibar

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When my work first took me on a trip to Zanzibar some years ago, I felt incredibly lucky. I was finally going to see the incredible island I had heard so much about! I later visited it several more times, and even managed to bring my Mom there on one occasion. It’s nice to see the beauty alone, but sharing it with somebody dear to you is absolutely priceless.

If you’d like to know more about Zanzibar and possibly even visit it some day, check out some of the tips and browse through pictures which I took during my trips.

Approaching Zanzibar – view from the ferry

A Glimpse of Zanzibar History

The Zanzibar Archipelago is located about thirty miles off the coast of the Tanzania mainland. With its beautiful beaches, turquoise ocean water, rich history, vibrant culture and interesting wildlife, Zanzibar is a perfect place for your vacation.

Zanzibar is a very ancient place. Historians estimate that humans lived in Zanzibar twenty thousand years ago! This was at the beginning of the later Stone Age. Back in 2005, tools from stone age were found at the Kuumbi Caves in Southeastern Zanzibar.

Importantly, Zanzibar was controlled by various nations at different times. Zanzibar has seen all different kinds of settlers and conquerors.

The Arabs arrived at the archipelago around the 1st century AD and settled there. Following the visit of Vasco da Gama in 1498, Zanzibar became part of the Portuguese empire and was administered from Mozambique.

In the 18th century, Zanzibar was under the influence of the Sultanate of Oman. In 1832, the Omani Sultan even moved the capital from Muscat, Oman to Stone Town. Majid bin Said became the first sultan of Zanzibar.

A lot of spice plantations were established during those times. Many are still thriving. No wonder that the archipelago is often referred to as the “Spice Islands”. Some of the spices which Zanzibar is famous for include clove, cardamom, lemongrass, ginger, vanilla, and others. If you take a trip to Zanzibar, be sure to go on a spice tour.

Control of Zanzibar was later in the hands of the British Empire. Eventually, the UK ended the protectorate and the final page in the history of Zanzibar is 1964, when the republic merged with Mainland Tanganyika, to form the United Republic of Tanzania.

Getting to Zanzibar

Many tourists take a trip to Zanzibar from Dar es Salaam (the commercial capital of Tanzania). I tried two ways of getting to there: by airplane and by ferry. Both worked well. No complaints.

Ferry. In case of going by ferry, you get a chance to enjoy the views of the gorgeous Indian Ocean for a couple of hours before disembarking at the ferry station in Zanzibar. This is a totally priceless experience. The ferry which travels to Zanzibar from Dar es Salaam is very large and luxurious. I highly recommend taking the ferry, especially if this will be your first trip to Zanzibar.

Trip to Zanzibar on a magnificent Kilimanjaro IV ferry

You can usually get somebody from your hotel to purchase ferry tickets. Don’t go to the station by yourself, it’s kind of crowded, and there is no particular need. Just ask to purchase the most expensive tickets for you. There is only a marginal difference, totally negligible for a Western traveler, and you will be traveling in style.

Caution: be ready for a potentially rocky ride. Since I usually get sea sick, I took some Dramamine prior to the voyage. That was a wise choice. I felt perfectly fine while the ferry was rocking on the waves, but a lot of passengers were getting really sea sick. You don’t want to be one of those!

Arrival at the Zanzibar ferry station- looking forward to the adventure!

Airplane. You can also fly to Zanzibar on one of the local airlines, such as Precision Air, Coastal Aviation or Air Tanzania. A big advantage is speed, compared to the ferry. It’s a very short flight, less than thirty minutes, on a small propeller plane. However, you don’t get a chance to enjoy the scenery as much as on the ferry.

Airplane going to Zanzibar

The Stone Town

If you take a trip to Zanzibar, please make sure to spend enough time in the Stone Town. This is the historical part of the Zanzibar City and a must see for all the visitors. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Tanzania has 7 such sites).

Walking around the Stone Town is pure delight. You have a chance to see many ancient buildings with unique architecture, mosques, palaces, as well as abandoned mansions. However, be careful: the streets are quite narrow and not built in straight lines, so they form a sort of a labyrinth. Without caution, you can get lost, especially at night.

For avid shoppers, there are plenty of stores where you can buy various arts and crafts, beautiful paintings with the views of Zanzibar, traditional clothing, spices and other things.

Walking around the Stone Town

The elaborate door architecture

The door art of Zanzibar is one of my favorite elements of Zanzibar’s architecture. Each carved wooden door is a true masterpiece. There are supposedly over 550 beautifully carved front doors throughout the Stone Town. As you walk through the city, make sure to pay attention to the doors, as they can tell a lot about the buildings’ owner, including their religion and social status. Indian, Swahili and Arab cultures have influenced the design. You can spot all kinds of emblems, like flowers, vines, beams, fish, and others.

Street food

Street food culture is quite unique. If you’re hungry, make sure to head to the Forodhani Gardens. There you can find plenty of delicious seafood, kebabs, samosas, fruit, and bread. You should definitely try a local dish, Zanzibar pizza. It mixes Indian, European and Arabic flavors. It is usually stuffed with an egg and also has cheese, onion and chilli sauce in it.

Street food in Zanzibar- yum!

The House of Wonders and Palace Museum

The House of Wonders and Palace Museum are some of the most important landmarks to see in the Stone Town.

Taking a break near the House of Wonders

At one point, the House of Wonders was the most modern building in the whole of East Africa (it had an elevator and electricity).

The Palace Museum was built back in 1883 by the second sultan of Zanzibar. It is a magnificent palace built in the Omani style. When you visit the museum, you can see many important relics from the times of the sultans on the island.

For example, you can see the portrait of Sayyida Salme, Zanzibar’s rebel princess. This was an incredibly strong and well educated woman who spoke four languages (Swahili, Turkish, German and Arabic). However, her life story was tragic.

Sayyida was a daughter of the Sultan and a Circassean courtesan. She was one of 36 (!) children of the sultan.

Sayyida fell in love with a young German merchant Rudolph and eventually had to flee Zanzibar and go to Yemen to give birth to a child. The first child did not survive. However, soon she got married to Rudolph, moved with him to Germany and the couple had three children together.

Things were seemingly getting back on track, but then Rudolph died in a tram accident. Sayyida remained alone with her children in a new country. She wrote a book about her life, the first autobiographical book to be written by an East African woman.

The portrait of Sayyida Salme

Hotels

A trip to Zanzibar is a real treat because of many wonderful places to stay. Being a premier tourist destination, Zanzibar has numerous beautiful hotels. You’ll have plenty of options to pick from–major hotel chains, boutique hotels, guest houses…

I personally prefer to stay in hotel chains to ensure good service and quality. Both of my favorite hotel chains- Hyatt and Serena- are present on the island. I stayed at both of them during my trips to Zanzibar and greatly enjoyed both choices.

Zanzibar Serena Hotel

Zanzibar Serena Hotel is lovely hotel decorated in a Swahili style. Its interior and exterior spaces reflect the cultural influences of the sultans of Zanzibar. My room was absolutely striking- high ceilings, white walls, wooden decorations, and a lovely balcony with a view of the various tropical trees and blue ocean.

Zanzibar Serena Hotel

The hotel has two restaurants and a bar. Be sure to try the terrace seafood restaurant as it offers a lot of delicious food choices. I greatly enjoyed the food at the restaurant- pink prawns tabbuleh, smoked sailfish and octopus salad. You might also want to try rock lobster encased in highland beef filet and the Baharia platter, which comprises of king prawns, lobster tails, calamari and marinated fish fillet.

The Serena hotel has a lovely pool. At certain times of the day, they were offering snacks and pancakes by the pool, those were really yummy.

Pool at Zanzibar Serena

In terms of beach, you have two options. You can walk to the public beach right next to the hotel, or go to the private beach. The public beach is not crowded, but it does have some locals and random visitors swimming there. The private beach is only for the hotel guests, but you need to take a shuttle there. Just ask at the reception desk.

Zanzibar Serena private beach. Beautiful white sand, warm water… Total paradise.

The private beach is very beautiful and secluded. There are beach chairs and umbrellas, as well as restrooms and showers. All very well equipped and civilized. The bar staff also offer fantastic seafood. Fresh, right out of the ocean. What can be better?

Seafood at Zanzibar Serena private beach

Park Hyatt Zanzibar

Park Hyatt is another luxury hotel on the island. It has beautiful grounds, gorgeous rooms, lovely restaurants, an infinity pool and beach.

The view of Park Hyatt Zanzibar from the boat

Park Hyatt is a very “high-tech” hotel, I would say. All the appliances are top notch. Since I’m not very tech-savvy, it took me a little bit of time to figure out how to use the shower and a few other things in the room, ha-ha!

I loved the infinity pool and the fact that it’s very close to the beach. Essentially, you can stay by the pool and also go for a swim in the ocean from time to time. In addition, you can rent a boat at the beach and go on some adventure, like the Prison Island (see next section).

Swimming pool and beach at the Park Hyatt Zanzibar

The Zanzibar Sunset

Regardless of which hotel you stay at in Stone Town, make sure you don’t miss watching the gorgeous sunset! For me, this was the best part of my trip to Zanzibar.

This is a truly magical experience to watch the sky start changing color from bright blue to the hot orange and the magnificent golden sunset unfold in front of your eyes. In all likelihood, you will see some dhow boats with their sharp sails rocking up and down the waves. A dhow boat is a typical East African boat. In the past, merchants were traveling in such boats all the way to and from India carrying all kinds of heavy items – fruit, water, different merchandise.

Zanzibar Sunset- the memory which will stay with you forever

The Prison (Changuu) Island

One of my favorite activities in Zanzibar is visiting the Prison island.

Don’t worry, it’s not a place where you go to jail! This is a place where you can see a bunch of super cute giant tortoises.

History

The name of the Prison Island comes from its sad history. For many years, this was an uninhabited island. At one point, it got sold to the Arab slave traders. Eventually, the slave trade was abolished and another use was found for this island. In the end of the 19th century, when Zanzibar came under the control of the British, it caught the attention of the British Consul. The Consul had just visited the prison in the Stone Town and found it completely disgusting. He ordered to build a new prison on the Changuu Island.

It took so long to construct the prison that it wasn’t really needed by then. In the end, the authorities decided to use the buildings for a new purpose- as a quarantine station. At that time, a lot of diseases (cholera, yellow fever, bubonic plague etc.) were ravaging in the East Africa, so having a quarantine station was a good idea. There was also a medical center to treat those who were sick.

Today, the Prison island is just a nice place where you can relax and enjoy yourself. There is even a resort on the island and a café where you can grab some food. But most importantly, the Prison Island is home to the famous tortoise sanctuary which you definitely don’t want to miss!

The tortoise sanctuary

My Mom with a new friend (one of the smaller ones)

Four Aldabra tortoises were gifted to Zanzibar in the 18th century. The population of tortoises has been growing steadily over the years but at some point, many of the turtles were stolen. People sold them and also took them home as pets. Eventually, the authorities took actions to protect the tortoises and created a sanctuary for them in the Prison Island. They receive good protection and care.

There are about one hundred tortoises of various ages and sizes living on the island today. You can read their age on the shells. The oldest one is 196 years old! Hard to believe. On average, these tortoises weigh about 500 pounds.

The tortoises walk around the sanctuary. You can look at them and feed them. The tortoises are very friendly and fun to interact with!

I decided to feed one some of the bigger tortoises

Getting to the Prison Island

The best way to get to the island is by a boat. Don’t expect a large luxurious boat similar to the one you came on to Zanzibar. This will be a small motorized boat operated by the locals.

Traveling to the Prison Island by boat

The trip is about 30 minutes, as these boats are not very fast. You can also ask the boat owner to take you snorkeling near the island. There are a lot of colorful fish in the water, so snorkeling is a lot of fun.

My Mom with our wonderful boat captain. He safely got us to the island and back, plus showed us around!

Secrets We Keep” – a fiction novel set in Zanzibar

Zanzibar impressed me so much with its rich history, glorious beaches and the air of mystique, that I didn’t think twice when choosing the African setting for my debut fiction novel, Secrets We Keep.

Of course, some of the most important scenes of the book had to take place in Zanzibar! Where else?

Similar to me, my heroine goes on a trip to Zanzibar for work. But it becomes much more than a routine trip…She almost loses her job (ouch!) but finds a soulmate and even, possibly, a long lost family connection.

Secrets We Keep was envisioned as the first book in the trilogy. Which means I’m not saying good-bye to Zanzibar. Far from that.

In fact, I’m planning on my next trip to Zanzibar in just a couple of days. This time, I’m neither taking the plane nor the boat. It’s going to be an imaginary trip- the coolest one of them all.

Would you like to join me? I sure hope so.

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25 thoughts on “An Unforgettable Trip to Zanzibar”

    1. So happy to hear that Zanzibar is now on your list of places to see! You won’t be disappointed. Love the carved doors too. I bought a few kitchen magnets with carved doors at Zanzibar. So unique! Now I can look at these magnets every time I go to the kitchen.

  1. Zanzibar has always sounded like such an exotic place, and I guess it is! Enjoyed reading about your trips there. Congrats on your book and best wishes on its success.

  2. While I am yet to visit Zanzibar it is on my travel list and having read your post I want to go even more so now. I would love to wander around Stone Town and discover its history (and doors) also Prison Island would be a good half day trip to see the tortoises. I wonder did you also do a combined safari with your stay in Zanzibar?

    1. Great to hear that my post was helpful in getting you even more excited about going to Zanzibar. You definitely won’t regret! Yes, Prison Island is a must and half a day there is perfect. You can also do some snorkeling on the way to/from the island. I personally did not combine safari with a trip to Zanzibar, but I think it’s a great idea. There are so many safari options in Tanzania.

  3. I was there last year and I loved it, everything was perfect in Zanzibar and I’m looking forward to visiting again. For now I’m also on my imaginary trip in Zanzi

  4. Oooh that is so cool that you loved Zanzibar so much that you made it the setting for your novel! That is such a great excuse if you ever want to go back – as it all counts as extra research!

    The beaches seem a bit like the beaches near Mombasa. I guess that makes sense when you think how close it is. I love the look of the white sand and that fabulous seafood.

    1. Absolutely- now I always have an excuse to visit again:-) Yes, the beaches and the overall setting is very close to Mombasa. It’s been a while since I visited Mombasa (and I only stayed a couple of days there), but from what I remember, there are a lot of similarities. Basically, everything is totally gorgeous.

  5. Wow! Such beauty outdoors (and in!) I would love to explore the streets and marvel at the architecture while enjoying street food the best!

  6. What a great location for a getaway. I will take your advice and take a plane as I got sick whale watching (didn’t have Dramamine) and still have PTSD. I’ll make sure to have Dramamine if I change my mind and decide to take the ferry.

  7. For some reason I have never thought of going to Zanzibar. But your post and photos are so impressive that I will definitely add it onto my bucket list! Thanks for the inspiration!

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