The Tanzanian island of Zanzibar offers a kaleidoscope of sensory delights. But as Simone Balman has discovered, it’s so much more than a dream tropical destination.
Zanzibar is one of our favourite islands. This year we managed to visit it again with friends, and it delivered in spades. On a previous occasion, we’d flown via Nairobi and then on to Stone Town, but Mango does offer direct flights from Johannesburg. Due to work commitments, I ended up meeting my husband, Ken, in Nairobi again, after a very long flight via a ‘technical stop’ in Livingstone, Zimbabwe.
This time we’d chosen a hotel on the southeast of the island, about 70km from Stone Town, which took about two hours to reach by taxi. Our driver still joked with us about getting a free massage as we drove over the potholes. Our friends had arrived a few days earlier but they were up to greet us when we arrived at 3am in the morning.
After a quick dip in the private pool at our villa, we were lights out. The following morning we were thrilled to see that The Rock restaurant was right on our doorstep and that we were within walking distance from a number of other restaurants along the beach. On our previous island excursion, we had opted for an all-inclusive hotel deal which made sense, given the fact that we didn’t want a shocking bar bill at the end of our holiday. It turned out to be a fantastic option so this time around we chose to do the same.
Many of the hotels on the island offer deals that include all food and soft drinks, selected wines, beers and spirits. Although, when we asked for a ‘white rum and coke’, we invariably ended up getting the Bacardi we wanted in the first place. Having done the Stone Town tour on our last visit, we decided to give that a miss but I would recommend it to first-time visitors.
On that occasion we booked through Tony Madeira of Madeira Tours, who arranged for a personal tour guide to take us through Stone Town, keeping us busy and informed as he led us from palaces and forts to Freddy Mercury’s birthplace and the markets before depositing us at Six Degrees South for an amazing lunch.
We again chose to spend one day at the hotel and one out and about and there was more than enough to keep us busy. We hadn’t been to the Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park to see the famous endangered red colobus monkey, distinctive for its spiky tufted head of hair, so we spent a morning monkey-spotting. We were tipped off by our waiter at the hotel that we should pay the ‘$10 for interesting’, which was well worth it as we were accompanied by a tour guide who could find the monkeys a lot better than we could. This became the catchphrase for the week.
Although our hotel was on the beach, the stretch of coast is known for its rocky outcrops and we had to walk a fair distance to the water over stones and sea urchins when the tide went out but the pool bar more than made up for this.
The Rock restaurant is one of Zanzibar’s iconic eateries – it’s a tiny hut perched on top of a volcanic outcrop surrounded by water that you have to wade through or be ferried across at high tide. They do amazing steaks and lobster but, on the day we went, their internet was out so some of our party had an issue with payment. On that note, we learnt last time that you don’t rely on any electronic payments on the island and made sure that we had enough cash with us wherever we went. (US dollars are widely accepted even though the local currency is Tanzanian shillings.) ATMs are also very few and far between.
The following day was a beach-blob day, but we decided to head off for something different for lunch. On our way back from The Rock the previous evening we had spotted the restaurant at the Baladin Hotel with its dhow seating. We were all blown away by the food and ventured back a few evenings later to try out their swing-chair table.
We also enjoyed a memorable meal at the Boutique Hotel Matlai in Michamwi within walking distance of our hotel, where we had the best seafood platter ever. On one of our ‘venture-out’ days, we headed north to visit Mnarani Marine Turtle Conservation Pond. Here you get a lot of ‘interesting’ for your 10 dollars: you get to swim with turtles. Local fishermen are paid to bring turtles that are caught in their nets to the sanctuary. The turtles are examined, tagged and then released back into the wild.
While they’re at the sanctuary, visitors pay to swim in a natural rock pool with up to 30 turtles at a time. Once we’d dried off, we did a short hop over to the dhow shipyard where artisans still make the dhows used along the east coast of Africa. They still shape the planks and drill holes using traditional hand tools.
We found a great restaurant on the beach before the heavens opened and the beach sellers scattered. We’ll go back again but choose a different hotel this time. We spent a lot more than we budgeted for by eating out as the hotel food was bland and dinner times regimented, not to mention that we like a bit of bacon with our breakfast. But the company was great and we’re looking forward to our next Indian Ocean adventure.