A Week in Zanzibar

Zanzibar is just a short boat ride from the busy chaos that is Dar es Salaam, and absolutely not to be missed while in Tanzania. The island is cheap and easy to get to from Dar es Salaam. You’ll take a boat from the main port at the center of Dar. This can be slightly chaotic, as all things are in Dar es Salaam, but generally I find it works well enough to just follow the crowds.

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I thought I knew how much I loved Tanzania, until I got to Zanzibar. Zanzibar is paradise. The hustle and the bustle of Dar es Salaam, and the quieter life in Arusha are worlds away from the casual atmosphere in Zanzibar. When I say casual, I mean everything there brings to mind that Bob Marley song “Don’t worry, be happy.” Everyone there seems to be so laid back; they work, they relax and they party, but not in any particular order. Even the work there doesn’t really seem like working half the time. I stayed with locals, and met expats as well, and everyone there seems blissfully unaware of the way the rest of us live. A friend of mine owns a lodge on the island and while I’m sure he works a great deal to keep things running the way they do, but I never really witnessed any exceptionally hard work on anyone’s part. Things just seem easier there. He always had time to spend with us, time to sit and have a beer, and time to take us out to the beach. The bartender seemed like he spent more time having beers with the backpackers that came through than actually serving them, and the rest of the staff seemed to be doing the same. Somehow, everything runs smoothly, and nobody is rushing around or stressed out about anything. I’ve come to notice that this is something unique to islands in general, not just Zanzibar, but it seems especially noticeable in contrast to the chaos that is Dar es Salaam.

Even in Stone Town, the heart of Zanzibar, things seem to move at a different pace than on the mainland. The markets are more jovial, and the people selling things won’t hassle you so much to buy their wares. In the market in Stone Town there is every manner of seafood. There are fresh fish, octopus, mussels, crab, oysters, calamari, and I could go on and on. There is a distinct middle eastern flavor to the whole island, a holdover from the seventeenth century, when it was the capital of the Sultanate of Oman. Arabic is still a main language, and as opposed to the mainland, the main religion on the island is Islam. You’re more likely to find Arabic foods in the streets and the popular foods are spicier than the rather bland mainland food. I personally loved the food in Zanzibar, everything was so fresh, and the spices they use in various dishes make the food distinctly Zanzibari, as opposed to Tanzanian. In Stone Town one of my favorite things was the juice; they make fresh juices out of the many indigenous fruits, sugar cane, and tamarind. There’s really nothing like fresh sugar cane juice.

On the island, which is much larger than I initially had thought, there are countless things to see and do, aside from just sitting on the beach. There are the spice tours you might take where you will see clove, cinnamon and pepper growing, as well as coffee and local fruits. You can also see some wildlife at the national park, the turtle conservation park, or the butterfly center. You can visit the countless beaches around the island, from Paje in the south, to Nungwe at the north end; where you can swim, boat, paddle board, kitesurf, snorkel.  Aside from the swimming at the beaches on the island, you can rent boats to take you to Mnemba Island where you can dive and snorkel around the reef. There are parties all the time, all over the place, and if you get the chance, make sure you make it to one of Zanzibar’s Full Moon parties, which they throw every time there’s a full moon during the month (much like the ones they have in Southeast Asia). The full moon parties on the beach go all night and everyone, local or not, is there. During the day, you might want to check out some local historical sites, such as the old Ngome Kongwe Fort, the Stone Town museum, Mtoni Palace Ruins, the Christ Church Cathedral, make a visit a Persian bath or take a short boat ride to Prison Island, which was home to rebellious slaves in the 1800’s. There is plenty of interesting history and a rich culture in Zanzibar, and it is such a shame to hear that people missed out on some of these great sites, because they didn’t know there was more to the island than the beach and the parties. Some nice places to explore are the mangrove forests by the beach, where the crabs make their homes under the roots. I can recall an afternoon we spent walking through the mangroves, which eventually led us to a wonderful sunset on a beach we’d never heard of. That sunset on the beach was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen; I’ve never seen so many colors in one sunset before.

Zanzibar is a magical place, with so much to offer to so many different people; it is an island rich with a unique culture, interesting history, lush surroundings, diverse wildlife, countless beautiful sites, warm people, and good food. There really is nothing not to like in Zanzibar.