Zanzibar is a beautiful island off of the coast of Tanzania, with more of an obvious Arab influence than mainland Tanzania in terms of architecture and culture. The Muslim population is higher in Zanzibar however, the island is also ethnically diverse. Zanzibar is famous for its wonderful architecture which includes the castle, tiny alley ways, 19th century balconies and multi-storey flats courtesy of the Germans in the 1970s. We went to Zanzibar twice whilst in Tanzania, before and after our project in Mtwara and it was an amazing experience, so here goes…
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Kendwa (Northern Zanzibar)
This area of Zanzibar is approximately a 2 hour drive from the ferry port/Stone Town and it known as the holiday destination. This mainly because it consists of a beautiful stretch of beach with maybe 10 hotels/resorts. This is not really a traveller’s destination however, if you have time, this beautiful area is definitely worth a visit. After we completed our charity project in Mtwara, we were itching to get to Kendwa for a couple of days relaxing before heading to Stone Town for some activities. We booked a taxi to take us from the ferry port to Kendwa, we did this at the ferry port in Dar es Salaam however, chances are that your hostel reception will be able to book one for you. There were 9 of us in a mini bus and we paid 10,000 each for the journey- we paid less to get back to Stone Town as we used the same driver again. When you get a taxi, it is often a good idea to take the drivers number because you never know when you will need one, and it is not worth the risk of getting into an unmarked car out of desperation.
We tried to book accommodation for us at one of the (cheaper) resorts in Kendwa before arriving however, only a couple of the phone numbers in the guide books worked, and many did not have room for all of us so we decided to do it the Tanzanian way- turn up and hope it works out. When we arrived at Kendwa, we looked at the rooms of a few of the resorts and tried to bargain with the prices for the 3 nights we would be there. After much trudging up and down the beach, we were able to get 3 rooms with 3 beds in each for 20,000 per night at the White Sands Beach Resort -more expensive than Dar es Salaam but Kendwa does not even compare. There are many hotels/hostels on the same stretch of beach so you will be able to just turn up and look for the best deal. Other resorts in Kendwa with similar prices are Sunset and Kendwa Rocks. We came at a busy time of year (early September) so the resorts were charging more than normal. All of the resorts are lined up along the beach so you can check out the others if you are not happy with the resort you booked. We were delighted with our rooms at the White Sands, we had mosquito nets, water, electricity, breakfast included (fruit, tea and eggs) and the laundry service, which were in dire need of, was reasonably priced. From White Sands, there were only a few steps down to the beach and the White Sands restaurant where you go for breakfast and which also does great food in the evenings, including pizza – a rare find in Africa! You can also wonder over to the other resorts and use the bars, restaurants and internet cafes. All we really did in Kendwa was relax, although there are a few excursions on offer such as snorkelling and boat trips to small islands. Here are some photos of our room at White Sands and the rest of Kendwa:
We had not researched Zanzibar before first arriving and were therefore not sure what to expect. However, we found a hostel on the internet in Stone Town called Manch Lodge, so we at least had somewhere to stay when we arrived. Having survived the unexpected sea sickness of the Kilimanjaro ferry, we were delighted to reach beautiful Stone Town. As we had our rucksacks and were not sure of the exact location of Manch Lodge, we jumped in a taxi at the ferry port however, without rucksacks this is an easy 15 minute walk along the seafront and then a couple of minutes in land. Manch Lodge is situated towards the outskirts of the tiny alley ways in Stone Town, the taxi therefore parked on the main road and we walked round to the hostel, where there is no vehicle access. The taxi driver came into the hostel with us, and we were at first delighted by his chivalry in carrying out rucksacks. However, we soon discovered that taxi drivers can receive commission from hostels if they show they have brought tourists in, we believe this was the reason we were charged 20,000 TSH per night each -a regular price would be 15,000-18,000TSH.
Despite the price, we were pleased with our room, it had mosquito nets and clean sheets and there are several communal bathrooms with good showers (cold water) and western toilets. The hostel has a brilliant atmosphere and a couple of communal areas to hang out in- great for meeting other travellers. Breakfast was included in the price which was tea, coffee, bread, jam and pancakes. There seemed to be many young travellers staying here and the hostel staff were extremely friendly and helpful. You can see a picture of our room in Manch Lodge below. Here, as well as in most hostels in Stone Town, you can organise day trips as it usually so happens that the proprietor knows some who know someone with a boat or a mini van. Popular trips which are generally very easy to organise and great value are Prison Island and the spice tour (more on these later).
The next three photos are from the walk from Manch Lodge down to the sea front in Stone Town. Wondering around is the best way to see some of the fantastic buildings in Stone Town.
On our first night in Stone Town, we watched the sun set then went to the popular fish market. The fist market is in the Forodhani Gardens every night from around 6pm, locals chefs and fisherman set up stalls here with a huge range of fresh fish along with freshly squeezed (in front of you) sugarcane juice, fruit and ‘Zanzibar pizza’ which are savoury or sweet pancakes. Getting dinner at the fish market is pretty cheap, depending on what type of fish you want to try. Most of the fish comes on skewers which are 2,000-5,000 TSH each, you can then also buy naan breads and chipatis. Below are some pictures of the sunset at Stone Town and the fish market.
Unfortunately, there is little in the way of accessible beach in Stone Town; tourist activities are more focused on sight tours and shops however, we did manage to find a relaxing spot. Tembo Hotel is on the beach in Stone Town, almost next to the Livingstone Hotel. The beach is apparently private and for guests of the hotel only however, there were no signs or barriers to show this. This section of beach is only as wide at the hotel but the sand and water are clean and we were undisturbed by street sellers. Below are some pictures of Tembo Hotel and the beach.
You will undoubtedly be asked to sign up for a spice tour whilst in Stone Town and considering this is usually 10,000 TSH including lunch and transport, it is a day out not to be missed! Zabzibar is famous for producing spices, and it is fascinating to discover where our spices which are purchased in plastic bottles actually come from. Most hostels will be able to book you on a spice tour or will know someone who can arrange this. A mini bus will take you to the plantation where you are let by a guide through the crops. It is a great opportunity to taste and touch all of the plants-and lunch is cooked with these very spices. At the end of the tour we were able to purchase some of the spices which came with cooking suggestions or in the form of flavoured tea.
After we had finished the spice tour, we were taken to a secluded beach for our ‘afternoon rest’ this is included in the trip and for an extran 1,000 TSH (50p) you can go inside the old slavery cave which is by the beach. The cave was used to hide slaves after it’s abolishment by the British. After a couple of hours on the beach we were taken back to stone town, by which time it was around 3pm. The spice tour can feel fairly arduous in the heat so you will need to take water with you as this cannot be purchased there -especially during the Tanzanian hot season (October-March).
Here are some pictures from the spice tour:
Whilst you are in Stone Town, I would definitely recommend visiting Prison Island. Prison Island’s official name is Changuu Island -it may therefore appear as this on some maps. The British built a prison on Changuu Island however, it was only used as a quarantine for Yellow Fever victims in order to prevent them passing the disease to others on the island, nonetheless, the prison name has stuck. The island is about a half hour (slow) boat ride from the shore of Stone Town -most bots leave from next to the Tembo Hotel. The main attractions on the island are the old prison and the giant tortoise sanctuary -the surrounding sea beds are also good for snorkelling.
It is very easy to arrange a trip to Prison Island, which would normally be for half a day, although technically it can be for as long as you like. If you ask your hotel/hostel receptionist, they will be able to arrange this for you -everyone in Zanzibar seems to know someone with a boat, and you can expect to pay around 10,000 TSH per person (£5). The owner of the Haven hostel we stayed at in Stone Town organised our Prison Island trip, we met the boat man downstairs in the morning and chose to borrow some snorkelling equipment for the trip -which was a brilliant idea! We had been snorkelling whilst in Mtwara, in Mikindani bay, but Zanzibar snorkelling was definitely more interesting. I don’t know much about fish, but they were very pretty!
For our 10,000 TSH, we were given the boat for the day, so once we were dropped on the Island, we could take our time. There are many signs on Prison Island, so finding your way around will not be a problem. We went to visit the old prison first, and I must admit I was slightly disappointed, as someone who rather enjoys spooky old buildings however, I do believe everything is worth a look. Here is the prison:
Luckily, there is a far more exciting site than the prison -the Giant Tortoises! The sanctuary is clearly sign posted, and you can enter for 1,000 TSH (50p) and feed the tortoises. The giant tortoises are not native to Zanzibar; they were a gift from the Seychelles to the British and have lived on the island ever since, with the oldest being over 130 years old -their ages are written on their shells. Here they are:
The third excursion we arranged in Stone Town was swimming with dolphins. We knew that this was on offer around Stone Town but did not know any further details. We therefore went to the Old Fort, which is right near the gardens or fish market -you can’t really miss it. In the Old Fort reception you can book excursions of all types, here we booked the swimming with dolphins for a bargainous 40,000 TSH which is around $22! We left a deposit of 10,000 TSH and arranged to be picked up from our accommodation the next morning. The mini bus for the trip has around 9 seats so depending on how big your party is, you may be on your own or there may be some other people. There were 4 of us going and we were on our excursion with 2 other people, a couple from Hong Kong who were experienced divers- luckily. The 40,000 TSH we paid each included the transport to and back from the south coast of Zanzibar (around an hour in the mini bus), the boat trip with snorkelling equipment and lunch with fresh fish on the beach. There is also an option to stop in the jungle on the way back to see monkeys however, we were short of time as we had to catch the ferry back to Dar es Salaam in the afternoon so we opted out.
Once we arrived at the beach, which was beautiful, we were given our snorkelling gear and set off in the boat. The boat man did not speak much English but we managed to figure that it would take 30 minutes to get far out enough to see dolphins, where the sea depth would be 15 metres, and we had a 90% chance of seeing dolphins -because they of course cannot guarantee sightings. Unfortunately for us, we did not have the best of weather, and due to the high winds, the sea was extremely choppy- I would have taken more photos on the trip if I hadn’t been so scared of my camera flying overboard.
However, true to our drivers word, it was only around 30 minutes until we saw some dolphins! The first sighting was obviously amazing- I had never seen dolphins before, let alone out on the Indian Ocean. So here we were, dolphins swimming around our boat, which was fantastic however, the 5 metre waves and stormy skies meant we weren’t exacting itching to jump into the deep dark sea. That is until the crazy diving couple who were also on our trip slipped on their flippers and jumped off the back of the boat- the waves were so high we could only see them every few seconds, we therefore could not face to be upstaged and plucked up the courage to put on the goggles and jump off the boat into the dark blue abyss. I won’t lie, I was absolutely terrified, salt water was shooting up my nose, my hair was stuck in my goggles and I couldn’t see anyone else for the huge waves, let along the boat. However, I calmed my breathing, went under the water and three dolphins swam past right underneath me -totally worth the trauma. We stayed in for as long as we could, just bobbing about and watching the dolphins, then when they had moved on we jumped back in the boat to find some more. The next time, we were slightly less terrified of getting into the water and were once again graced with the presence of wonderful dolphins. This, however, was as far as the wonderful experience was to go for me. We got back in the boat to find some more dolphins and in kicked the sea sickness- I had already learnt on the Tanzania trip that I didn’t have the best sea legs after a choppy ride on the ferry to and from Zanzibar the first time however, I thought I would have manned up by now, but no. When we saw the last bunch of dolphins, the others went leaping into the sea whilst I was vomiting over the side of the boat, beautiful. That journey back to shore was once of the longest of my life.
Sea sickness aside however, the trip was truly amazing. Now, let me make it clear that whilst some people say the boat men in Zanzibar taunt the dolphins by chasing them with the boat, this is simply not true. Once we saw dolphins, our boat stopped so that we could get into the water, we did not harass the dolphins and clearly if they were scared they would have left. I must also say that this experience must be far more exhilarating than queuing up at Disney World and poking the nose of a poor dolphin held in captivity- we saw dolphins in their beautiful, natural environment- and at a fraction of the price. I therefore have to say that anyone visiting Zanzibar would be silly not to do the dolphin trip.
Here are a few photos I managed to take whilst clinging onto my camera for dear life: