Quick guide on Zanizbar (if you don’t have much time to explore)
Where is Zanzibar?
Zanzibar is located outside the coast of Tanzania. It is extremely close to the capital of Tanzania, Dar Es Salaam. I kid you not, my flight from the capital to Zanzibar was only 14 minutes.
Zanzibar is famous for its beaches. It is the resort of Africa and locals are proud to distinguish themselves from the people in the capital – they say they are much more relaxed and like to chat. I must attest that some of them were too chatty (i.e. active solicitation).
What to do in Zanzibar?
We only had three days in Zanzibar but we felt that it was already too long. The island isn’t big at all so you could really fit all your activities in three days. Of course, this assumes that you don’t constantly spend your day at the beach, and enjoying the sunshine. Zanzibar was hot, so staying in the beach all the time may not be a good idea. The heat was unbearable. We didn't see that the beaches were crowded.
1) Spice farm
Zanzibar has a rich history of exporting spices to the commonwealth countries. Its seeds were first introduced by India, and Zanzibar began its cultivation in the island. The locals have mastered the art of planting various kinds of spice and fruit. There were many spice farms to visit. We visited a mid-size farm, called the Maganga spice farm, and saw at least 28 different spice and fruit in the farm.
The usual ones include vanilla, pepper, lemon grass, aloe, pineapple, ginger and avocado.
The king of spice was clove and the queen of spice was cinnamon. It was interesting to see both.
The most interesting story from the farm was nutmeg. Apparently, local females in Zanzibar are shy, so they don’t tend to interact with guys in a social setting. Because of that, local females mix a lot of nutmeg with porridge. Once they drink it, they loosen up and they are free to do whatever they want. This was told by my tour guide.
The tour operator that we used was Colors of Zanzibar.
2) Prison Island
Prison Island is a 30-min boat ride from the main town of Zanzibar. It was called the Prison Island because the island was made for prisons (duh!) But you’ll be surprised that they never actually used the island for that purpose. Historically, the island was used as a quarantine facility for people who had yellow fever. Later, the island was also used as a resort for the Royal family of the U.K. Why on earth would the royal family use a quarantine station as their holiday destination?
The real attraction though was the many Aldabra giant tortoises in the island. Originally, there were only four of these tortoises that were gifted by the British governor of the Seychelles. After extreme care and protection, these tortoises bred quickly and now the island has about 300 of them. One of the original four was still alive! He is now 194 years old!
At the conservation centre, visitors are free to feed the tortoises with lettuce. You can touch, pet and give them a massage. The only thing you cannot do is to sit on them.
3) Stone Town
This is also referred to as the old town of Zanzibar. It is a city of prominent history with heavy influence from Arabia, Persia and India. The architecture reflects influences from these countries which forms the basis of the Swahili culture. Although Tanzania in general is a Christian country, Zanzibar itself is a Muslim city. When we stayed in Stone Town, we heard prayers broadcasted in these megaphones on the streets. We heard it once in the morning and once at night.
(My view of Stone Town from the "hotel" room)
I strongly suggest checking out Stone Town. The whole town is a maze of narrow, winding streets. The construction of these narrow streets was meant to allow the cooling breeze from the sea to go through (a natural wind tunnel). Though, I personally didn’t feel that. Feel free to check out all the local markets and find your way in and out of the town. Getting lost in Stone Town may be one of the best ways to soak up the unique atmosphere.
Oh yes, Freddie Mercury’s old residence (now turned into a museum) is also located in Stone Town.
4) The night food market
The night food market starts at 6pm and opens every day in the week (including a regular weekday). The market is located in the Forodhani Gardens. The food market isn’t huge (not the same scale as the ones in Taiwan or Singapore), but it is still something worth checking out. The food is not necessarily cheap though. A tini Tandoori shawarma costs USD 1.75.
There were all sorts of food – chicken, beef, lamb, fish, squid, octopus, fries, pizza, and rice. I would say two things to keep in mind. 1) As a tourist, you’ll be solicited by all chefs and servers from every single stall. Sometimes they would even fight amongst themselves just to get you as a customer. 2) sometimes there were too many flies on the food that would just kill all kinds of appetite. So beware!
Right outside of the food market, you’ll see kids doing some crazy jumps off the pier to water. It was cool!
5) House of Wonders
Normally, this would be an attraction because this is the largest and tallest building of Stone Town. The building is right in front of the Forodhani Gardens (the place for the night food market). It was also the official reception hall and a ceremonial palace. It is called “House of Wonders” because it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity. Unfortunately, this main attraction is now closed due to repair. It has remained closed since 2012.
Where to stay in Zanzibar?
There aren’t that many nice hotels in Zanzibar. You certainly wouldn’t expect to see a 5-star hotel in this island. The two most luxurious hotels would be the Park Hyatt and DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel. They do have nice views of the beach, though I must say they were ridiculously overpriced.
If you don’t mind not having much air-condition and want to submerge yourself into the culture of Zanzibar, you should stay in one of the “hotels” in Stone Town. To me, they were more like hostels with minimum amenities. That’s okay, it’s part of the experience.
(My “hotel” washroom)
One final tip
I cannot stress enough. Bring a fan. Any kind of fan. Paper fan, portable fan, fan powered by battery, or fan powered by USB. Bring it. You will thank me enough because Zanzibar was so hot.
Another thing you may want to consider is to bring USD. Not a lot of places in Zanzibar accept credit cards, certainly not at the food market. You can get USD from a local ATM machine but the line was long.
(Dinner at a beach)