Why choose Zanzibar?
A lot of people talk about the magic of Africa and how it really is unlike any other place. It’s true. There is something addictive about it and the nature is obviously unbelievable. I was lucky, growing up, my parents loved to travel and took my younger brother and I around the world when budgets would allow. When I was 14 they took us on an amazing trip to Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, spending days driving along dirt tracks in a beaten up Land Rover Defender, seeing the most incredible things. Ever since then I’ve wanted to go back, especially with my boyfriend, to show him how incredible Africa is.
Zanzibar is just off the coast of Tanzania, not far from Kenya. People often describe Sri Lanka as ‘India Lite’, well Zanzibar is a bit like ‘Africa lite’; it has some of the best parts of Africa minus the big game and huge bugs (it is still pretty buggy though, be warned!). The heat, which in January was around 35 degrees, is more bearable too – on Zanzibar you are never far from the coast so there is a constant breeze.
Where to stay
Zanzibar is typically a fly-and-flop sort of place, post-safari over in Kenya. It does have quite a few hotels in the middle of nowhere, with no towns nearby to walk to or things to do. This is something you’ll either like or loathe.
Choosing to stay on the main island, Unguja, we didn’t want to feel trapped on a resort so mixed it up with hotels that were close to Stone Town, the capital, or places we could do day trips, such as Jozani (monkey) Forest or spice tours, or with a beach so you could walk down to the local villages. I found most of our hotels on i-escape, my favourite website for boutique hotels.
We arrived at the tiny and very basic airport to find out our luggage had been left in Muscat (thankfully, it turned up the next day) and after standing in the long and hot visa queue we piled into an air conditioned taxi for the journey north to Matemwe Lodge, our first hotel and a bit of a blow-the-budget stay for the first four nights.
The 90-minute journey took us inland through lush jungle, past villages and locals cycling home after a day at work (the island is so flat many people cycle everywhere). Along the road side were lots of half-completed buildings, as the taxi driver explained that the Zanzibari people like to build their houses themselves, bit by bit.
On the road entering Matemwe village, the horizon of tall palm trees turned into a huge expanse of white sand and azure blue sea.
We were staying in one of the bungalows right on the beach, overlooking the natural reef.
Photos: Matemwe Lodge
The private beach was a real highlight. It’s absolutely stunning, possibly one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen, and so quiet. We took a guided walk out to the reef to explore the area. The sea was crystal clear and warm but there were a lot of sea urchins so you had to watch where you step.
It was unseasonably windy so our planned snorkelling trip on one of the traditional boats was cancelled. Instead we just spent four days lazing about and recharging after Christmas and a bit of a tough end to 2016.
The gardens (flame tree):
Despite only a few rooms/bungalows, the set up is all-inclusive so you have the convenience of not having to worry about meals/drinks (apart from some premium spirits). The food was superb and what I loved – being a chilli addict – is that there was always a lovely side dish of freshly crushed, salty spices (see below).
Every day we ate something different – the chef and his team took inspiration from the island’s mixed heritage, from Arab to Portuguese style dishes. One of my highlights were these incredible samosas, served with a pickled vegetable salad and washed down with a glass of their excellent South African (house) rose.
Another night we had a barbecue with the most tender lobster I’ve ever tasted.
Because the set up is all inclusive you do end up sitting next to the same people quite a bit, which is fine, unless you’re very private or feeling anti-social! Four nights was a perfect amount of time for us.
For the price, I think the rooms, although beautiful, needed a little spruce; some of the dressing gowns were a little torn and cushions needed replacing, and that sort of thing. I would have also loved to be able to make tea and coffee in the room and put water in a fridge to keep it cool. Despite the design of the bungalow letting the sea breeze in, it could have done with a better fan to tackle the heat at night.
Upendo Zanzibar, Michamvi
Opposite ‘The Rock’, a restaurant perched on a little island in the sea, was Upendo, our second hotel. Located in the south-east of the island, it took about two hours of driving from Matemwe to reach Michamvi.
The beach here is really stunning, particularly when the tide goes out and you can walk on the reef. Our top floor balcony room had a picture perfect view, like something out of a Hawaiian film from the 1950s.
I loved the decor at Upendo and the owner had a real eye for colour and local materials. The food was generally good but the only issue we had was lack of space as there were a lot of visitors coming drinks/lunch.
One night we had dinner at ‘The Rock’. We had to get the boat there as the tide was in. It was a fun place for a cocktail whilst looking at the stars from the terrace.
Jozani Forest, the only national park in Zanzibar, was well worth the trip. It’s home to over 1,000 red colobus monkeys that aren’t found anywhere else in the world. You can go on a guided walk to see them (the great thing is that the park guides do not interact with or feed them, so the monkeys are curious about you but keep a safe distance) and the mangrove swamp. I couldn’t get over how beautiful the mahogany trees were (only planted in the sixties):
Fumba Beach Lodge
Another i-escape find, this hotel was my favourite. Located in the Menai Bay Conservation Area on the south-west tip of the island, Fumba has just 26 rooms and really is something special with beautiful grounds, resident monkeys running around, welcoming staff, great food and thoughtful treats like complimentary 4pm tea and cake. Every night, bang on 6pm, the whole hotel gathered for happy hour drinks and watched the sun go down.
Stone Town day trip
From Fumba you can get a taxi to Stone Town in 30 minutes. We took a guided walk around the historical sights including the slave museum (Zanzibar was once one of the main slave trade posts), the Christian church (Zanzibar is predominantly Muslim but has a small Christian population) and the old fort. We also tried a rooftop restaurant for dinner but it felt a bit pretentious and the food at Fumba was far superior.
Back at Fumba, one of my highlights of the whole trip was going out on the traditional sailing boat to go snorkelling followed by a barbeque on a private island. After some amazingly clear snorkelling, we sailed over to a private island where we set up an area in the shade to have freshly barbequed satay chicken, fish and a selection of salads, plus wine. Here was the beach (which had hand-sized shells everywhere – of course, we left them there):
Would I visit again?
Definitely. The people were so welcoming and have a classic laidback island mentality. I just hope Zanzibar stays the same and doesn’t change because of tourism. We noticed quite a lot of plastic rubbish being washed up on the beaches (apart from Fumba), tourists taking the beautiful shells away (thankfully, they get confiscated at the airport), and many new hotels going up. Go soon before it changes too much.
Don’t forget: to dress conservatively as Zanzibar is a Muslim country, bring insect repellent, to check whether you need Malaria tablets (we didn’t, thankfully)
All photos (c) Ginny Weeks unless otherwise stated