Last part of my Kenya and Tanzania trip is the tropical island of Zanzibar. I specifically made it so the safaris were first, followed by relaxation at the beach in Zanzibar. Zanzibar is an incredibly beautiful island off the coast of Tanzania famous for its beaches, scuba diving, and resorts. It was once the slavery capital of the world with hundreds of millions of slaves going through its ports over centuries of saddening trade. It is also home to spices from all around the world which makes for a fantastic day tour.
I also helped plan a friends honeymoon to visit South Africa and Zanzibar. If you’re interested in pairing Zanzibar with South Africa, please read about their trip!
UPDATE 2020: This trip was done in 2013 but I’ve since come back to Zanzibar for a second time and stayed on the island for almost two months. I was able to travel all around the island so make sure to read my complete Zanzibar guide which is much more detailed than this post. I also stayed at much nicer accommodations than the Dreams of Zanzibar!
Getting to Zanzibar
There are essentially two ways of getting to Zanzibar: land, and sea. Since I was on an overland tour, we had stayed in Dar Es Salaam the night before and therefore took the ferry to Zanzibar.
By Ferry to Zanzibar
We woke up from our camp in Dar Es Salaam early in the morning to a beautiful sunrise on the beach. We packed up our tent and had breakfast with the group for the last time. As we load up the truck, we’re all praying that the same traffic from yesterday does not find us today. We are catching the ferry to Zanzibar today but we had to drive to a port that would shuttle us across the river to downtown Dar Es Salaam where the ferries are.
There are regular flights from Dar to Zanzibar that take only 20 minutes and for cheap but with a group of 20 of us (we picked up some new people that would start in Dar Es Salaam, and would head towards Cape Town), it is easier to all catch the ferry. I’d highly recommend flying vs the ferry just because of how much easier and quicker it is.
We took all our stuff with us and people continuing on to cape town took either a small day pack, or their entire bag so to get laundry done while in Zanzibar. We head towards the ferry (this is NOT taking you to Zanzibar) and it is incredibly packed. We are the only foreigners here so we stand out but nothing happened. We’re packed like sardines in the ferry but the ride is only 10-15 minutes as we are just crossing a river.
When we arrive at the port, we are now in Dar Es Salaam downtown and wow what a difference it makes. The drive to our campsite the previous night gave us a bad impression of the city as it looked so poor and like a huge slum. The city center of Dar is the complete opposite. It is clean, modern, and skyscrapers are beginning to dot the skyline. We get to the ferry terminal around 8am and chill until the ferry departs at 9:30.A passport with a yellow fever certificate is absolutely required to take this ferry. The ferry is nice! A very modern boat with three stories of seating.
There are two companies that run the ferry between Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar: Azam Marine Coastal Ferries, and Fast Ferries. The price is $35 USD one way and the ferries depart 4x a day at (0700HRS / 0930HRS / 1230HRS / 1545HRS). Credit cards are not allowed!
There’s open air seating at the top where we promptly head to and soak in the sun. The ride is pleasant as our boat is too big to be affected by the calm waves and we get to Stone Town port in Zanzibar around noon.
Flying to Zanzibar
Zanzibar’s popularity has grown a lot in recent years and therefore flights have as well. Many cities fly to Zanzibar including Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Arusha, and Johannesburg. Many people fly from Arusha to Zanzibar after a nice Serengeti safari via Coastal Aviation, Precision Air, and ZanAir. From Johannesburg, Mango Airlines flies direct to Zanzibar at very good prices.
Stone Town, Zanzibar
My girlfriend and I at this point stay with the group as they are doing the Spice Tour (which you can read about below) right after lunch and as this was on our list of things to do, we tag along to get it done before heading to our hotel. Knowing what I know now however, I would have forgone booking the hotel the first night and would have stayed in Stone Town with the group for the first night. It turns out a lot of the tours, like turtle and dolphin swims start near Stone Town.
The nice 5* hotels are all in the north of the island and the island is HUGE. It’s almost 1 hour each way to get from the north to Stone Town and it’ll cost you big time. It would have made much more sense for us to stay with the group the first night, do the spice tour, walk around Stone Town, and do the dolphin swim the following morning before checking into our hotel. Nevertheless, the hotel was booked and there could be much worse things than having to go to a 5* resort with all you can eat and drink!
After the Spice Tour, we head back to the hotel around 5, where we say our goodbyes to everyone. We had such a good time with everyone and I can’t deny that I was a little sad. We exchanged emails and hugs before finally catching a taxi up to our hotel. We would see some of the group a few days later for our Safari Blue excursion but for the majority, it was goodbye.
Staying at the Dream of Zanzibar Resort in Zanzibar
Zanzibar is an island right off the coast of Tanzania. It belongs to Tanzania but has a semi-autonomous government, like Puerto Rico is to America. They have their own government but still share an economy with Tanzania. Zanzibar has recently been pushing to separate from Tanzanian as it feels that its spice and tourism industries can propel its own economy.
The country is 95% Muslim and you can see the difference vs the mainland as many of the men are dressed in traditional garbs and most women cover up with veils. The girls on our tour were advised to wear long pants, and cover up their shoulders while in Stone Town as it is conservative but as you head towards the beaches, it’s all good.
Where to Stay
Zanzibar is a huge island with some of the most pristine beaches in the world. As such, it was only a matter of time before it was discovered by the rest of the world and it certainly is now. There are huge and luxurious 5* resorts, as well as backpacker style bungalows and everything in between. The prices can range from 20$ at a discount lodge to 1000$ a night!
Check out Diamonds Star of the East if you fall into the latter bucket. All of these hotels are located along the beach because that is likely why you are here. There are also many hotels in Stone Town of all price levels but these hotels they’re not right on the beach.
We spent so much time looking at hotels on TripAdvisor and we ended up initially booking the Hideaway Nungwi which looked absolutely breathtaking. However, it is a new hotel and eventually the reviews started pouring in on TripAdvisor of mostly mediocre ones saying it has too many growing pains.
For the 450$/night we were planning on paying for this place, I didn’t want any potential bad experiences whatsoever. We eventually canceled this reservation, and found another highly rated 5* hotel in Diamonds Dream of Zanzibar. There are a few other hotels by this company in Zanzibar including Diamonds Star of the East for $1000 a night, and Diamonds Gemma Dell Est for about $500-600.
Ours came in at 300$ a night which seemed so cheap compared to what we were planning on paying that we actually felt like we were getting a good deal.
Our hotel was absolutely amazing on all accounts. Upon arriving, they had to open a gate to let us in and we knew we were in the right place. Located on the North East part of the island in an area called Kiwengwa, this place had everything. Tall palm trees surround the hotel, grass perfectly trimmed, a large pool for relaxing, white sandy beaches, and just breathtaking views of the turquoise water of the Indian Ocean. The color of the water is unbelievable. It’s turquoise/green as far as the eyes can see. The water is clear and you can see your feet even when the water is at your chest. Accompanied by the white sandy, this is by far the nicest beach I’ve been to yet. Puts Thailand and the Caribbean to shame.
Our hotel actually had a private beach with plenty of chairs that faced out into the water. There was public beach space right in front of our private beach and unfortunately, there are many locals trying to heckle and sell you things. However, our hotel had security guards with batons and they seriously drew a line in the sand warning the hecklers not to cross. For the most part, when you’re in the private beach area, you’ll rarely be heckled but if you want to take a dip in the ocean, prepare to be heckled.
The Diamonds hotel brand is an Italian company and it is clear as the vast majority of the people staying here were Italian. Germans, Dutch, British made up the rest and we did not see a single other American person the entire 5 nights we were here. All menus and documents here were in English and Italian, prices for anything quoted in euros, and even the power plugs were using Euro plugs vs the British plugs the rest of the country uses.
I found the atmosphere of this hotel and the island as a whole to be more relaxed and chilled. It’s certainly a place you take all your boys for a crazy weekend. It’s a hotspot for honeymooners, families, retired people, and individuals looking to relax after a safari (like us). Also keep in mind the Muslim culture here, makes it really uncondusive to having a crazy night out. Fortunately, we met this couple from Belgium on their honeymoon that we got along with so well. We ended up hanging out for most of our time here and even did a trip to Mnemba Island to snorkel! Making random friends is one of my favorite parts of traveling.
Poverty in Zanzibar
Being a hotspot for European vacation goers, the island of Zanzibar is incredibly poor. With a Per Capita GDP of something ridiculously low of 250$ a year, you will really see the disparity between the ridiculous accommodation along the coast, and how people really live on the island. You’ll inevitable have to drive through the island just getting to your hotel, and if you plan on doing anything besides sitting on the beach. It always saddens me to see this, even though I know that’s just how the world works, but it just makes me appreciate what I have a little more.
Food at the resort
Without a doubt, one of my the most important things in my life, the food at this hotel is not to disappoint. Our hotel was all-inclusive, as well as almost all the other luxurious hotels in Zanzibar. Unlike a place like Thailand where you can walk out of your hotel and be surrounded by dozens of delicious restaurants, the hotels in these parts of Zanzibar are completely isolated from the rest of society.
If you’re staying in Nungwi at the northern tip, there are a few beach-side restaurants more meant for people staying in cheaper accommodations but as for the area we stayed in, if you leave the gates of the hotel, there is absolutely NOTHING on the road. It’s completely desolate. You almost have no choice but to do all- inclusive. I don’t even think our hotel had a non all-inclusive option. But why would you want anything otherwise?
There were five restaurants at our hotel, each serving up different cuisines. Italian, Asian Fusion, African, Contemporary, and Seafood were all a part of the menu. Aside from the seafood restaurant which was not free, you could eat and drink as much as you wanted to at all the other restaurants. A few nights out of the week, they would close the restaurants and have a themed dinner by the pool. Breakfast was omelettes, pancakes, fruit and everything you could think of.
Lunch was an assortment of different items changing every day but there’s always a grill cooking up steak and tuna. Dinner would be up to your choosing of which restaurant you wanted to eat at that night. I won’t go into detail of each restaurant but they were all amazing. I was hoping to gorge myself on seafood every night but unfortunately, the only seafood in the all-inclusive are tuna and calamari. Prawns, Lobsters, and Crabs were only served at the seafood restaurant for a price but relatively cheap.
There are three bars in the hotel and like any all-inclusive resort, drinks are flowing from breakfast until midnight. The service is superb at this place and there are always people ready to take your orders. Although top shelf liquor is not included in the all-inclusive, the non top shelf stuff is good enough. We drank wine and rum every night and just relaxed making up for the last ten nights of camping.
What To Do in Zanzibar?
There is a plethora of things to do in Zanzibar that will keep you busy no matter the length of your stay. Zanzibar is regarded as one of the diving capitals of the world and unfortunately for us, we are not scuba certified which I fully intend to fix before I head to Mozambique. If you can’t dive, there are plenty of other things to do like snorkeling, kitesurfing, parasailing, dolphin swimming, and cultural tours. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to go back to Stone Town to do more exploring. Again, this is why it would have been nice to stay that first night in Stone Town with the group.
Spice Tour and Slave Markets
Zanzibar was the spice capital of the world back in the days and is still one of the largest spice producers today. It’s called the “Spice Island” for a reason. There are many tours you can do around Stone Town that will take you around one of these spice plantations. The tour we did cost us 35$. We got the full tour of a spice plantation, and finished it off with a visit to the slave markets in Stone Town. I’d highly recommend one of these trips just because I doubt most of you actually know how the cinnamon in your spice cabinet actually comes to be. I see many spices ground up and packed neatly in a jar but never stopped to think where does this stuff come from? It’s not the same as seeing a fruit or vegetable because that is how it’s going to look when it’s grown, and when it’s eaten. However, doing one of these tours will answer all your questions and you’ll be able to answer these questions.
Our guide took us around their farm and showed us at least a dozen different spices including cinnamon, all colors of pepper, nutmeg, tumeric, chilis, vanilla, mint, and curry leaves. Turns out that most of the spices grown on Zanzibar are not indigenous to the island. Back in the days, spices from all over the world were brought to Zanzibar as it was a central trading hub in the old world and had a climate conducive to growing the many spices that were in demand.
For example, cinnamon from South East Asia, cocoa from South America, tumeric from India, and cumin from Indonesia were all brought over to Zanzibar at some point in time.
One of my personal favorites was the lipstick fruit which is a fruit with seeds that provide qualities similar to lipstick and people here use this as a natural lipstick. Naturally, when they showed us these spices, we could hold, smell, or eat them and I offered to try one of these. Well . . . the results vouch for themselves, it works pretty good.
The lipstick lasted for hours. It is used for other reasons other than natural lipstick, as it is responsible for giving food coloring like red curry. Another interesting spice is cinnamon that is acquired from the cinnamon tree but only a small part of it. The rest of the tree has different uses like perfume and medicinal purposes.
They also grow fruit at this plantation. In fact, They grew just about everything you’d expect to find in a tropical climate. They even had a guy demonstrate getting coconuts from the tree by scaling a tree about 50m (160ft) high. It was insane. Guy made it look easy so naturally I tried to give it a shot which I failed miserably at and also cut open my toe. I would not recommend doing this unless you are well versed in climbing trees. Muscular fitness has nothing to do with it.
Leaving it to the pros, they actually grabbed a dozen or so coconuts for us to drink and even made some ornaments from the coconut plant. At the end of the tour, about 1.5 hours later, you’re given time to buy spices and perfumes at reasonable prices, although still tourist ones. The best part came at the end with a fruit tasting. We had almost all the tropical fruits you could think of including some fruits I’ve never heard of in my life. The ones that stood out in particular are the jackfruit, a fruit that is a combination of pineapple and banana, and the custard fruit, which tastes like custard with apple flavoring (pictured below).
Eventually, we bid farewell to the spice plantation and make our way back to Stone Town where we visit the old slave market. Zanzibar, unfortunately, has some dark history to it and used to be one of the largest markets for trading slaves back in the 18th century. Africans would be rounded up from all around the continent, some even thousands of miles inland, and would be brought to Zanzibar to be auctioned off before being shipped off to likely the colonies in the Americas.
As soon as we arrived, it felt creepy, like you could almost feel that monstrosities were performed here at one point. There’s a lot of reading material here and everything is absolutely fascinating. I remember learning all about the dark period in man’s history known as colonialism and where I was standing was one of the main hubs of it.
On our drive from Arusha to Dar Es Salaam, we drove through the town of Bagamoyo which served as an important stop in the slave trade as this would be the last stop before slaves were taken to Zanzibar where they were sold. Bagamoyo is swahili and translates to “lay down your heart” because it was here that slaves would abandon any remaining hope of freedom or escape. The ones that were fit enough to make it here would then be crammed like sardines in boats bound for Stone Town.
Once they reached Stone Town, they were put in stone cellars about 30 square meters (300 square feet), where they would stuff about 50 or 60 of them with NO windows. Many would die before they were even put on sale. They estimate that 50,000 slaves were sold here a year, and another 50,000 died while trekking through Africa on their way to Zanzibar and estimate something like a hundred million people were either sold or died as slaves until its abolishing in 1876. All in all, a great tour to do. It took about 4-5 hours in total but was totally worth the 35$ for everything that we learned and saw.
Para-sailing in Nungwi
Looking for things to do on TripAdvisor Zanzibar, the top 5 things are all diving. Sadly, couldn’t do any of those so had to look for the next best thing. Parasailing in Nungwi was one of them. Nungwi is the area of the island in the very north. There are many hotels, high end and low end, and it was about a 30 minute drive from our hotel in Kiwengwa.
I had done para-sailing before in Thailand but Thailand is Thailand and they said about two words to me while they strapped me up and told me to run as the boat started to speed off into the water. It was cool but it only lasted about 2-3 minutes and cost me about 50$ so I felt cheated. After reading the reviews for these guys, they got 4.5 stars on TripAdvisor and sounded much more official.
We booked the trip via our hotel, (all they do is just call these guys which you could do if you had a Tanzanian phone) and we’re told we’d be picked up at 1:30 after I requested to do this in the afternoon. It is 80$ a person but it is worth it in my opinion. Their operation is very legit and they’ve custom made the parasail so it gently lifts you up into the air and you can get up to 250m (800ft)! Around 1:30pm, a car indeed arrives to pick us up and drive us to their office in Nungwi. We were the only two riding at this time slot.
We’re taken out to the speedboat where we get all strapped up and ready to go. My waterproof camera was dead so I was extremely bummed out about it as I didn’t want to risk my camera or phone as I remember in Thailand, we were dropped into the water at the end. However, after seeing my girlfriend go first, she didn’t hit the water at all so I braved it with my phone to get some pictures.
This experience was amazing! I was up in the air for a solid 15 minutes and was so high above sea that I could almost see the other side of Zanzibar. It was at least twice as high as the para-sail took me in Thailand. I held onto my phone so hard I thought I might break it but nothing happened to it!
Safari Blue Day Trip
Rated the highest thing on TripAdvisor aside from diving, this is a day trip that starts at the south west of the island in Fumba, about 20 minutes from Stone Town, and you ride on a Dhow around the south west coast trying to spot dolphins, snorkeling, eating seafood, and soaking up the sun. It was on the top of our list of things to do in Zanzi and it did not disappoint. It’s not the cheapest of excursions however at 60$ per person, without transportation. Luckily, we orchestrated this trip with our group and got a special bus to pick 8 of us up for 75$ a person. They fit about 15 to a boat but if you are a big group, they will seat you guys together.
This was one of the highlights of Zanzibar without a doubt. After driving an hour from our hotel, we arrived to Fumba beach (a local fishing village), around 9am and walked to our boats as it was low tide to set sail at 9:30. We set sail for a sandbank which housed all of our snorkel gear and on the way we were lucky enough to see a bunch of dolphins circle our boat.
You do not swim with them on this excursion however as there is a separate one just for that, but you do get pretty close to them and we saw a few do flips out of the water. I regret not swimming with the dolphins, and that’s why it would have been good to stay in Stone Town the first night so you could do that specific trip without having to drive an hour from the north.
We stayed with the dolphins for about 30 min before heading to the sandbank to get our snorkel gear. We had two snorkeling sessions at the corals not too far from this sandbank and saw some of the most mesmerizing waters I’ve ever encountered. It was a beautiful sunny day out and the the water’s color was really brought out. Green faded to turquoise, and faded back to green as we moved around. The snorkeling was nice but hearing how great the diving is in Zanzibar, I thought I would see more things while snorkeling.
After our two snorkeling sessions, it was time for lunch around 1pm and we pull into a beautiful small private island. This was the part I was most looking forward to as they promised an all you can eat seafood buffet. It did not disappoint. There was all the prawns, beef, tuna, and lobsters you could handle. I figured this would be my one opportunity to gorge on shellfish so I took advantage and chowed about 5 lobsters. They also provide as many beers as you can handle and top it off with a fruit tasting besting what we had on the spice tour.
Without a doubt, this was the best lunch I had all trip and I was a happy man. After lunch, you’re given time to just relax on their beach, sleep on their beach chairs, or go sailing in their traditional Ngalawa boat, which was more of a canoe than a boat. Around 4, we leave the private beach and head back to our starting point and call it a day.
I’d definitely recommend this trip but I think because of the magnitude of Safari Blue’s own success, they have so many people every trip now and it feels a little scripted. The boat captain never spoke to us and I felt it was quite routing. Nevertheless, you see and do a lot of things and with the beautiful backdrop of the Zanzibari coastline, you can’t not enjoy what you’re doing.
Mnemba Island Snorkeling
Mnemba Island is the jewel of Zanzibar. Zanzibar is already nice, but Mnemba Island takes it to another level. This island is a worldwide marine conservation area and is actually owned by Bill Gates. The marine life and coral surrounding this little island, a 30 min boat ride from the northwest tip of the island, is absolutely amazing and puts any other snorkeling I’ve done to shame. To get onto the island, you must make a reservation at Mnemba Island Lodge and the rates are usually something well north of 1000$ a night.
At that rate, the average Zanzibari would have to work five years just to stay one night. Quite humbling to think about it that way. This is probably one of the nicest beaches in the world and because it is so ridiculously expensive to stay, the conditions of the island are pristine and untouched. If you got a nice camera, this is the place to test your skills because you could potentially come away with some of the best pictures you’ve ever taken.
There are many companies that do half day trips to Mnemba and after walking along the beach of our hotel, we stumbled upon One Ocean located at the hotel next to ours and we went in and booked it. These guys have great reviews on TripAdvisor and are more of a dive school that also takes out snorkelers.
For 60$ a person, it includes a car ride to Matemwe Beach, which is the nearest beach to Mnemba, and all snorkel gear + wetsuit, and entrance fees to the island. There were 5 of us snorkelers, and 2 divers and we both rode on the same boat out to Mnemba. Upon arrival, the divers went with one of the instructors, and the rest of us had a guide that snorkeled with us pointing out different fish in the water.
If you’re a fan of snorkeling, this is THE place to do it in Zanzibar. The concentration of different types of fish, sea urchins, and shellfish is insanely high here. You spend about 2 hours snorkeling and are done by 1pm. We get back our hotels around 2pm fully satisfied with our experience, although I’d like to have seen something bigger than me. Guess I’ll have to save that for after I get scuba certified!
What An Amazing Trip…
15 days later. Wow. One of the best trips I’ve had. We did so much in such little time that it was incredibly difficult to go home and head back to work. I’d like to stay on Zanzibar forever but there will be opportunities to return, especially since Mango Airlines flies direct from Joburg to Zanzibar now. But not until I’ve explored some other places! Too many places to see in Africa and I’m only getting started. Taking trips like these really humble you as sometimes you just need to pause, breath the fresh air, and realize you’re able to do things like this.
After spending time in Kenya, traversing most of the country of Tanzania, and relaxing on Zanzibar, the vast majority of the people you see along the way will never be able to go on that safari around the Serengeti that you took, or even go to a country like South Africa, let along even fathom going to a place like America or Europe. Myself, on the other hand, traveled to my 20th and 21st countries and just need to go to Australia so I can check off all the continents.
I had an amazing trip with Acacia Africa and would recommend them to anyone (in fact, on my plane ride back to Joburg, I met someone that was keen on doing a trip similar to me and I told him everything I knew). Our tour guides Sam and Tony were the best and great people to talk to when you’re lounging late into the night. And of course, the friends we made on this trip made the difference between a good and great trip. Can’t stop to reflect too much on this however, just gotta start planning the next one. Namibia!
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