Dolphins, Dhows & Dreamy Beaches: Exploring the Island of Zanzibar
We team up with Travista Egypt and travel storyteller Farah Hosny (@wandertowherever) to find out why Egyptians have been flocking to the East African islands of Zanzibar…
Zanzibar is one of those magical little places where it looks exactly like all the things you envision in your head when you think of it; it’s all pellucid blue waters and spindly tall palm trees and people sipping on coconuts right and left. I visited the island last year and loved it, so when I’m asked to join Travista’s one week trip there, though I am slightly concerned that my husband may or may not remember to feed our cat in my absence, I agree right away.
Before flying off to the charming little island, you need an absurd amount of vaccines; it’s pretty straightforward though, you just head to one of the health bureaus around Cairo and tell them you’re going to Zanzibar. They have what I can only refer to as a little vaccine package prepped, where one lady yells to another lady and tells her which country you’re going to and they whip out a little lunch box with a bunch of injections in it. I am given vaccines for diseases I didn’t even know still existed. Polio? Polio? First of all, I’m about 700% sure my parents had me vaccinated for that as a child, and second of all, I’m not under the age of five so isn’t it virtually impossible for me to contract it as a grown adult human? Still, I happily endure the jabs. They have no side effects, except for that one little vial of Cholera medication that you drink, you don’t get injected with, and still makes me gag and hear Satan laughing every time I recall its taste.
Zanzibar’s beaches at low tide.
We land in Zanzibar. I’ve forgotten how insanely humid it is here. I can already feel my hair slowly and steadily growing in size. In a few hours time I will resemble a less distinguished Mufasa and it will be increasingly difficult for people to take me seriously.
It’s worth noting that in Zanzibar, cash is king. It is not a credit card friendly country so you exchange money at the airport if necessary - though many places and people will accept dollars in place of shillings (the local currency).
Zanzibar’s beaches at high tide
We’re staying at the DoubleTree Hilton in Nungwi, which is located at the northernmost tip of the island. When I came last year, I spent the majority of my time in the centre or the south (I was briefly in Nungwi for a few days, during which I had raging food poisoning and got bitten by a turtle - but that’s a story for another day). The hotel is sprawled along a perfect strip of beach where little wooden boats float lazily in the distance and local kids perform Cirque du Soleil-worthy acrobatics at random on the sands. One thing I notice is that the tides in the north are far less drastic than in the south, where they vary wildly by the hour. In the south, each day would see hours on end with almost no water - you could walk out for miles - and then within fifteen minutes the tide would rush in manically and cover the entire beach with water. Nungwi’s tides are far less extreme which means you have perfect swimming conditions for the majority of the time with a dreamy Gatorade-blue ocean.
The DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Hotel Zanzibar from above
After passing out in a beautiful canopy bed (most beds in Zanzibar are of the canopy variety and while their actual purpose is to keep out mosquitos, it’s just a great plus that they also make you feel like a goddamn princess), we wake up and start our first day with a visit to Kuza Cave, an incredible freshwater limestone cave. In photos, it looks like one of those places where you imagine once you’re actually there, it will be far less impressive, but it’s just as magical in reality. It’s an underground wonderland where the water is a strikingly clear cerulean blue and believed to have healing properties. Bonus: you can actually sign up for Swahili cooking lessons and lunch.
Floating in the healing waters of Kuza Cave
We don’t opt for the food because we make our way to The Rock restaurant, which is quite literally a restaurant perched on a rock in the middle of the ocean, an iconic spot you’ve most likely seen on Instagram. The tides determine how accessible the restaurant is at any point; at low tide you can walk all the way up to its steps but at high tide you can only reach it by a small wooden boat, which waits at the foot of the steps and ferries passengers back and forth. The restaurant’s forte is seafood; if you’re in a group then their The Rock Special, a large dish heaped with grilled lobster, king prawn, octopus, and calamari, is a great option. The homemade ravioli stuffed with blue spirulina and the coconut tiramisu are also standouts. *Note: Make sure to make a reservation.
The Rock restaurant, one of the most iconic spots in Zanzibar
The next day starts out with a spice farm which is named as such but encompasses a variety of fruits and vegetables as well. They crack open seeds the size of ping pong balls with strange red alien baby looking things inside which turns out to be nutmeg. We taste jackfruit and pomelo and rambutan and watch a man scurry up a palm tree in under 60 seconds to collect coconuts, which he then hacks open with a knife like it’s the most casual thing in the world and hands us to drink.
Nutmeg at the Hakuna Matata Spice Farm
If there’s one thing to make you sure you eat in Zanzibar, even more so than the endless array of seafood, it’s the endless array of exotic fresh fruits. I am not the biggest fan of fruits because they just don’t satisfy my sugar cravings the same way two large Cinnabons with extra frosting eaten in one sitting do, BUT I will say the fruits in Zanzibar are incredible. Aside from the sheer variety - including things you’re highly unlikely to find back home, like jackfruit, a bumpy green egg-shaped fruit the size of a small child filled with stringy yellow flesh that’s actually strangely delicious - they’re all also incredibly fresh and juicy. Like, you won’t come across a bad mango. It just doesn’t happen.
After the spice farm, we make our way down to Stone Town, Zanzibar’s historic heart, to catch a boat to Prison Island. Zanzibar isn’t actually a singular island, it’s an archipelago. The island we all commonly refer to as Zanzibar is in fact called Unguja and there are tons of other little islands that dot the Indian Ocean around it.
Prison island was named for its intended use as a prison for rebellious slaves in the 1800s; it never actually ended up serving that purpose but the name stuck. To be clear, while the name makes the island sound morbid, it’s the literal opposite, all white sand beaches and screensaver blue water. It would have made for a fairly magical prison tbh. For a brief period of time it functioned as a quarantine station for yellow fever cases (one of the myriad diseases you have to get vaxxed for before you come to Zanzibar) and nowadays it’s a major tourist attraction, not only for its fascinating history and pristine beaches, but also for the hundreds of giant tortoises that waddle around. The island is essentially now a dedicated sanctuary for them and you can grab some lettuce from their caretakers when you pay for your ticket and feed them.
Prison Island is now a sanctuary for giant tortoises
We grab a quick dinner in Stone Town before heading back to the hotel. Stone Town is one of my favourite places on the island and even though some people might tell you not to bother with it if you’re in Zanzibar, those people would be wrong and they’re probably the type of people who go to an all-inclusive resort and never leave the premises. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s a charming and cluttered maze of narrow streets and alleyways, lined with bazaars, food stalls, restaurants, and homes. Dirty walls are punctuated by gorgeously ornate doors, laundry billows on clothes lines criss-crossing the alleys, and kids whiz by on bicycles. The architecture across the whole town is also fascinating to behold; a strange amalgamation of Swahili, Arab, Indian, and European elements all tossed together, each culture which impacted Zanzibar leaving its mark.
Because it’s such a twisting labyrinth, the best way to explore Stone Town is on foot, and while you can get a walking tour, you can also just wander around the streets on your own; the entire town isn’t all that big so you can cover the whole thing in a day. Tanzania is also a Muslim country and while you can wear pretty much whatever you like at any of the beach resorts, in Stone Town itself I’d recommend nothing too short or revealing.
Stone Town also happens to be the one place where the reception is halfway decent. Let’s all keep in mind this is a tiny little island off an East African nation before we balk in horror about their lack of cellphone service or how the toilets at random tourist sites just “aren't clean” and “don’t come with champagne service.” There are some things you simply have to accept about Zanzibar, and if you go into the situation aware of them, they won’t surprise you and as such they’ll likely bother you less. One of those things is that the network in Zanzibar is abysmal. It doesn’t matter if you’re staying at a five star hotel with Wifi or if you bought a 4G SIM card upon arrival, if you’re someone who is used to 24/7 connectivity, Zanzibar will quickly teach you to let go of that ideal. If you’re at your hotel your network will probably be decent, but if you’re on the road you may experience stretches of time without any network whatsoever. Not to say you’re entirely cut off; everything works, it just works at a glacial pace. Which brings us to another thing.
Zanzibarians live on island time. You’ll hear the phrase ‘pole pole’ (pronounced po-lay) a lot and it translates to ‘slowly slowly’ which is literally how they approach everything here. I come from a country where the people are perennially late so tardiness is not shocking to me, but to be honest, I like that in Zanzibar they not only cop to it, it’s their de facto motto. No one’s pretending your shit’s gonna get done quickly. They’re letting you know they intend on taking their sweet time and you should too. Tbh I’m quite grateful for the heads up. It’s part of the vibe, just fucking embrace it.
The final thing you should be aware of, and again, let’s remember this is a small island, is that roads are not Zanzibar’s forte. If you’re planning on moving around the island - and you should because beauty abounds across its entirety - just be aware that the roads are less highway and more dirt road, and you can easily lose signal at some point. Even if you’re a confident driver, I’d recommend just hiring a car with a driver (it’s not that costly) instead of driving yourself.
Our final day is a roll of the dice. We’re heading to Kwale Island, a tiny 7 km squared island with a mangrove forest, and there’s a chance we spot dolphins en route and get to swim with them, which to me is honestly the absolute most exciting part of this trip. We grab fins and snorkels and hop aboard a traditional dhow boat, where we snack on pineapple slices and watermelon as we sail towards Kwale. About twenty minutes into the ride, the boat captain signals to us to look and sure enough we spot fins threading through the surface of the water. He pulls the boat up closer to the pod and I swear I've literally never gotten in the water so fast.
Dolphins are graceful and speedy in the water and they don’t stay in one spot so trying to keep up with them as a graceless and awkward human is no easy feat. Plus, I can barely breathe since I’ve ripped the mouthpiece off my snorkel because quite frankly, I don’t know whose saliva has graced it and how well it was cleaned afterwards, so I’m trying to hold my breath for as long as humanly possible underwater, which let’s be honest, is not very long. But it’s one of the most incredible things I’ve ever witnessed, seeing so many dolphins at once, gliding and twirling casually through the clear blue water with an unparalleled agility, not at all bothered by our presence. It’s an amazing experience.
We have our final lunch on the island (where there’s also a bar) before heading back to the Hilton, packing up and preparing to fly home. Zanzibar is a special place; it’s the second time I’ve been there and I would go a third. You have to take it with a grain of salt; you won’t have perfect asphalt roads and you may encounter a lizard in your room but you’ll also sip on fresh coconut water and feed giant tortoises and dive into the waters of freshwater caves. The reason it conjures up images of an island paradise is because that’s what it is; the water is always electric blue and warm, the palm trees sprinkled everywhere make it look like a postcard, and the entire vibe is constantly laid back and mellow. And it’s absolutely worth the visit.