A Zanzibar holiday
Not an tiny and isolated island republic as many imagine but an historically powerful trading sultanate (kingdom) and now a state within the republic of Tanzania, in East Africa.
The name Zanzibar somehow evokes an ancient and faded dream vision of wide, sunny beaches and narrow, dark alleyways - which actually just about summarises Unguja island (commonly known as Zanzibar), though the cool alleys are frequently decrepit and the wide beaches liberally strewn with seaweed. That's not to put down Zanzibar as a fine and competitively priced beach destination, it's just better for a traveller to head out there with realistic expectations.
Paradise, it's not. If that's the requirement then the Seychelles, further out into the Indian Ocean, may be more suitable, though only if the wallet is fat and cultural needs thin.
Strictly speaking Zanzibar actually applies to the archipelago - island group - that includes Pemba island and Unguja island, while Zanzibar Town is usually known as Stone Town. Still, we will continue to call the island Zanzibar, which resonates better with us, since Unguja sound more like a traditional Tanzanian laxative.
Why go there?
Zanzibar beach vacations are often tagged onto the end of a wildlife safari through one or more of Tanzania's game parks or a climb up Mt Kilimanjaro even though these attractions are in the north of Tanzania, near the city of Arusha, while Zanzibar is off the centre-east coast, near the large and bustling city of Dar es Salaam.
From Dar a 90 minute ferry ride or a short plane trip is sufficient will get you to Zanzibar Island off the Tanzanian coast.
Tanzania's first stop for many travellers, a sweaty Serengeti wildlife safari, followed by wet Zanzibar beach ball.
time to visit the Zanzibar and its beaches
Best season: June-September.
OK: October-February (some short rains).
Temperatures normally range from low 20'sC (70's F) to mid 30'sC (100 F), which
is fine, though the humidity can get uncomfortable.
Zanzibar is not in fact one island but an archipelago (island group) including another largish island, Pemba, and several smaller ones, though the island of Zanzibar is where most tourists choose to spend their time and money.
The island's urban centre, Zanzibar Town contains an old section called Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the recipient of much of the tourist income.
Zanzibar Island is girdled with dazzling white beaches that are scattered with colourful local villages as well as a selection of superb modern beach resorts that come with a stiff price tag, and a fair number of smaller, low-budget resorts aimed at backpackers and year gappers.
Stone Town is host to a maze of cool, narrow alleys, many stately 19thC houses laden with verandas and bougainvillea, elaborately carved and studded doors and lintels, mosques, bazaars, bars and shabby-chic hotels.
An elaborate and traditional Stone Town door
© Louie Schoeman
Among the sights of Stone Town are:
• the 17thC Arab (aka Old) Fort where cultural events take place in the central courtyard.
• the carved wooden balconies and stained-glass windows of the four storey Old Dispensary.
• the Sultan's old palace (Palace Museum) housing a collection of memorobilia from the life of a Zanzibari royal family.
• Dr Livingstone's last house before he disappeared, a small palace used by missionaries.
• the House of Wonders, another palace that was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity - thus the 'Wonder'. It now houses a museum of Swahili and Zanzibar culture.
A cool and breezy Stone Town balcony
Zanzibar is also known as Spice Isle due to its many spicy plantations while the Jozani Forest 35km (22 mls) SE of Stone Town, is a popular nature walking spot with clear trails and probable sightings of monkeys, bush-pigs, antelope, civet, mongoose, a wide variety of birdlife and butterflies.
A colobus monkey in the Jozani Forest.
The Mangapwani Caves 20 kms out of town have historical connections with the slave trade, one a cool pool the other a holding pen.
In the south, Kizimkazi fishing village is located near a bottle-nosed dolphins playground while across the water Pemba island is less frequented but popular with scuba divers.
For beach information see Zanzibar
Currency: this is not a costly destination. Local currency is the Tanzanian shilling; bring cash or traveller's cheques to buy the currency. US $ are favoured.
Major credit cards are accepted at large establishments.
There are NO ATMs in Zanzibar (only in Dar es Salaam).
Cuisine: Spicy (not surprising considering spices have been one of the island's main crops for centuries) Swahili seafood of all sorts, with rice and often flavoured with coconut and tamarind.
The superb, value-for-money open-air market every evening in Stone Town's waterside Forodhani Gardens is a great value way to experiment with Tanzania's best cuisine, meet people and get some cultural input too. It's a winner!
220-240v, 3 flat pin new British style or 3 round pin old British style plugs.
Swahili and English.
A better class of Zanzibar beach hotel. Zanzibar beaches
Visas: Get it at Zanzibar airport on arrival. USD$50 (no photos required) for Europeans or USD$100 for Americans. Download the application from the Tanzania tourism site, complete it beforehand and present it along with the precise money in US currency. The visa will be stamped into your passport.
this is a malarial area so take precautions; read our our Tanzania Travel Guide and/or our mosquito page.
Where is Zanzibar?
It's just off the coast of Tanzania, southeast Africa. In fact Zanzibar is an archipelago composed of three main islands: Zanzibar that's locally known as Unguja, Pemba, Mafia and a number of smaller islets. Zanzibar island is 90km long and 30km wide.
View Larger Map
there: at the moment only Gulf Air, Ethiopian Airlines and KLM fly directly to Zanzibar, but many other airlines fly to Dar es Salaam. Zanzibar is GMT + 3 hours, so no real jet-lag problem flying from Europe.
From Dar, a sizeable city, a 90 minute ferry or a short plane ride is sufficient to reach Zanzibar, 40kms (25 miles) off the coast.
Beware the sinking feeling
In July 2012 an overloaded ferry from Dar es Salaam to Stonetown, MV Skagit, capsized. Over 100 passengers were rescued, including a number of foreigners, but many people died, the total is not yet known. This is the second recent ferry disaster off Zanzibar as local ferry MV Spice Islander sank on the way to Pemba from Unguja (Zanzibar Island) in September 2011. Over 2,000 people died in that incident and over 600 rescued.
Recently (2012) there has been an increase in the number of muggings, bag snatching and even kidnapping, both on the mainland and on Zanzibar. Take care, especially around unknown urban areas after dark.
in addition there have been political demonstrations. These are not aimed at tourists but
it's best to stay out of the way of over-excited locals.
around: Mini buses (dalla-dalla) criss-cross the island while taxis are not expensive. Car, motorcycle hire is a possible but don't forget to bring an International Driver's Permit. Bicycles too can be rented. Pemba Island also runs buses and rentals.
Religion: Mostly Islam.
Ramadan, Muslim fasting month with varied dates:
(dates depend on full moon so may differ by one day depending on location. 9 July-7 August 2013.
During this time most, if not all, Muslims will neither eat nor drink during the daytime and consequently many cafes, restaurants and even shops may open only after sunset; public eating, drinking and smoking by tourists will be frowned upon.
The last day of Ramadan, known as Idd al Fitr, can be a wild time with much celebrating, depending on location; Zanzibar is known for its penchant for excitability at this time.
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