Travel to Zanzibar and what you need to know
Zanzibar is a small island off the coast of Tanzania. It’s technically a part of Tanzania, although it is semi autonomous. A tropical climate and plenty of beaches, combined with an Arabic culture, make Zanzibar quite a fascinating place. Travel to Zanzibar is a pretty easy jump from Tanzania, but there are definitely things to know before you go.
Most people end up on Zanzibar after a safari on the mainland. The island can be reached by ferry or puddle jumper prop planes. Obviously, a flight is much faster and there are plenty of airlines to choose from. I recommend Coastal Aviation. If you booked a safari, ask you travel agent/tour company to book your flight as a part of your package. And include transportation to whatever resort you are staying at. The airport is a tiny, disorganized place without much signage – we weren’t even sure how to get outside and kind of wandered around for awhile. When we did get outside, we couldn’t figure out how people go about getting taxis. There seemed to be a lot of people standing around, but no clear taxi line or taxi driver. If our transportation driver hadn’t approached us, who knows how long we would have been standing there!
While Zanzibar is technically a part of Tanzania, visitors do have to go through customs, so don’t leave your passport behind (I can’t imagine why someone would do that but just in case…). A Visa is not required for most nationalities, but it’s always a good idea to check with the embassy first. If it is required for you, a Visa can be bought upon arrival. No worries on Yellow Fever anymore. Like mainland Tanzania, yellow fever vaccination is no longer required. And malaria is pretty close to being eradicated on the island so take that for what it’s worth. We were taking malaria pills anyway because we had been on safari.
Zanzibar consists of a lot of beaches, a lot of jungle and some towns in between. It also includes a few smaller islands right next door – Mnemba, Pemba Island, Mafia Island and Latham Island. Stone town is the capital and definitely worth a visit. But first – the beaches! There are a lot to choose from.
There is a wide variety of beach types on Zanzibar, so do your research to make sure you are on a beach you like. Although Zanzibar is advertised as having perfect, white sand beaches, certain beaches are anything but. The tides in the area can really affect the beach quality, something we really wish we had known about. The tides really only impact the eastern side of the island, so make sure you are aware of the tide schedule during your dates of stay and take it into consideration. If the tide is in, the majority of beaches are beautiful – the softest white sand I have ever felt and incredibly blue water that was insanely warm. However, when the beach is out, it’s a huge bummer. Dirty, stinky seagrass left all over the sand, and no water. People walk out onto the reef and look in tide pools and so forth, but forget about swimming. When we arrived at our resort, the tide was out the whole day and we were soooo disappointed. Some days the tide was in for the whole day, some days it was out the whole day and some days it was half and half. We tried to schedule snorkling and found that it wasn’t going to be possible unless we went at 8am the day before we were leaving. Had we known the tide schedule, we would have scheduled it before we arrived.
The beaches with these tides include Paje, Kiwengwa (in certain areas), Dongwe, Matemwe, Bwenjuu, Kizimkazi, Pongwe. While pretty beaches, they all suffer from low tides, a serious detriment. Beaches not seriously impacted are Nungwi, Kendwa, Kinwengwa (no tide issues in certain areas), and Mnemba. Mnemba is a small island next to Zanzibar and very private – we did not go, but rumor has it that the beaches are rather mediocre and there is only one lodging option, which is extremely overpriced. The tides really depend on time of year and day, so check this table for when you are planning your trip. If you stay in a resort with a tide issue, make sure you have a really nice pool! And simply work around the tides. Generally, the beaches to the north are not as affected as the beaches on the east side of the ocean.
With the most beautiful beach (Nungwi and Kendwa) unfortunately comes crowds. Both beaches have larger crowds than some of the others and much more of a party atmosphere. – Kendwa in particular. Nungwi has a crowded side and a quiet side. The quiet side is much more my speed, and probably more appealing for families with children. I’m not saying there are crowds like Cancun, but it’s definitely a little busier. And beware, Kenwa has a “full moon party” so make sure you know the dates if you plan to visit.
Along with more of a crowded beach, the beaches such as Kenwa and Nungwi have tons of people trying to sell you everything under the sun. We’ve experienced this is many places, but I have to say they were very persistent in Zanzibar. I had a guy trying to tell me on a snorkeling trip for 20 minutes and he simply wouldn’t leave me alone. Luckily, my resort’s security eventually intervened. It’s worth checking to see if your resort has a security person. If a beach is really important to you, definitely check what beach your resort is near.
One bit of advice about the culture – Zanzibar is predominantly Muslim. When out and about, covering your shoulders and knees is advisable and don’t go during Ramadan. While the whole island doesn’t shut down completely, there are cultural aspects you have to abide by, such as not eating and drinking in public. Which doesn’t make for a very fun vacation.
Zanzibar has everything from luxury resorts to Airbnbs and guest houses. We stayed in Baraza Resort, located on the east side of the island. Ridiculously beautiful is all I can say when it comes to this resort. Clearly resepresenting Zanzibar’s Omani/Arabic influence, this resort is all arches and flowing fabrics and arabic chandeliers. An all-inclusive like most of the luxury resorts on the island, the food was excellent. The beach was gorgeous, although definitely impacted by the tide situation, which I wish I had investigated before we arrived. Baraza is a part of the Zanzibar Collection, which also includes several other hotels, all located in the east side of the island. The beaches and properties are beautiful but the beaches do that the tide issue so it’s worth investigating first. Some other good options:
- Resirts in the Zanzibar Collection – http://www.thezanzibarcollection.com/ (east side of the island)
- Diamonds Star of the East – http://staroftheeast.diamondsresorts.com/ (north side of the island)
- Park Hyatt Zanzibar – https://zanzibar.park.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html (Stone Town)
- Zanzibar Serena Inn – http://www.serenahotels.com/serenazanzibar/en/default.html (Stone Town)
- Essque Zulu – http://www.essquehotels.com/ (North side)
- Tulia Zanzibar – http://www.tuliazanzibar.com/ (East side)
- The Residence Zanazibar – http://cenizaro.com/theresidence/zanzibar (South side)
- Royal Zanzibar Beach Resirt – http://www.royalzanzibar.net/ (North side)
- Neptune Pwani Beach – http://www.neptunehotels.com/en/hotels/neptune-pwani-beach-resort-spa (East side)
Things to do
There is no shortage of things to do on Zanzibar. Commonly called the “spice island”, Zanzibar is rich in Arabic culture and has endless activities. Kiteboarding, snorkeling, Scuba, spice/town tours and jungle tours are all a part of the island. We did a 1/2 day tour of Stone Town and found the area quite fascinating. Very run down, but you can see remnants of the glory it once was. The sea air has taken it’s toll on the buildings and many are reduced to mere rubble, but the fish market and spice market are really interesting. Frankly, a 1/2 day tour just wasn’t enough time. Much of the time was spent driving from the resort and back for our three hour tour, and I wish I had had a chance to delve deeper into the culture. 1/2 day was really rushed and I don’t feel like we learned too much about the people and the area. I definitely recommend a full day in Stone Town, touring and having lunch and simply meandering the tiny streets.
Things to see in Stone Town:
- The Former Slave market
- A Dhow Cruise
- The Old Dispensery
- The House of Wonders (if it’s open – it’s currently being restored)
- The Palace Museum
- The Old Fort
- Darajani Market
- A Spice Tour
- Wander the streets and take it all in!
Outside of Stone Town:
- The Turtle Conservation Pond
- Jozani Chwaka Bay park
- Nungwi Natural Aquarium
- Tzari Caves
- Kuza Cave
- Scuba or snokel
One really unique experience that we took part of was a visit the The Rock. The Rock Restaurant has Instagram fame! A restaurant built literally in the middle of the water – accessible by feet during low tide or boat during high tide. A fantastic place for cocktails. Food was mediocre, however.
We were quite lazy in Zanzibar and spent the majority of time by the pool in our resort. Zanzibar truly requires a week to see it all and I wish we had spent more time there. Which gives us a reason to go back! 🙂