What to see in Zanzibar when your relax-mode is off
If you are going for a week in Zanzibar and you are looking for the best excursions, you have to know that the island of Tanzania offers many opportunities, from boat trips to swim with the dolphins to discover the ancient capital Stone Town up to the spice plantations. If, however, you are not going to Zanzibar I hope to make you dream with my words and images because I am in love with this island and I would like to come back soon.
The name Zanzibar derives from the Persian zanj, word with which the Persians referred to the blacks. In fact, zang-i bar means “Land of Blacks”. The archipelago of Zanzibar is important as a point of confluence of different cultures: African, specifically the Bantu, Arab and Persian civilizations.
I have been in Zanzibar for a week and I did an excursion almost every day. When I travel I love knowing the place where I am and I try to find out as much as possible. Excursions to Zanzibar are planned by agencies, resorts and beach boys. The guys on the beach have lower prices but do not offer any insurance. While I was in Zanzibar I heard colorful stories about their services, people left to wait hours and various incidents but to the record, I also met satisfied people. Said that, here are the excursions in which I have participated when I was not in a relax-mode.
Prison Island & Nakupenda
Locals call it by the name Swahili Changuu, but tourists know it as Prison Island. Whatever you call it, it is an island of 800 x 200 meters off the coast of Stone Town, the capital. It houses a former prison and a colony of giant turtles from the Seychelles. Some turtles are very old, there is one of two hundred and six years and it seems that they arrived here thanks to the Sultan Majid bin Said in the second half of the nineteenth century. The only disappointing of this visit was the overcrowding of the park, literally full of tourists. Seeing the turtles surrounded by dozens of people eagerly waiting to take a selfie, it was not just a good show.
After the visit to Prison Island I took the boat for lunch and snorkel in Nakupenda, better known as “the island that is not there” due to the fact that this islet appears or disappears according to the tide. Here I had my first encounter with Zanzibar cuisine, especially with Samosa, Indian influences, and an excellent grilled octopus, obviously served with tasty local spices.
Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park
The Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park is a real nature reserve that is located in the central southern part of the island and can also be easily reached from Stone Town as it is only 35 km away. It is a place not to be missed as only here you can see the western red colobus, the red-headed monkeys, the only species of the island. Meeting them is the easiest thing in the world because they populate the part near the entrance to the forest and do not care about the humans who immortalize them in any position, even when they climb on the telephone wires to cross the road. You can imagine the joy of the children present. If you have a child it is an unmissable excursion. I visited it at sunset and this allowed me to stay in peace because there was few tourists and also in the afternoon the monkeys are more active.
I could not leave Zanzibar without having visited the ancient part of its capital. Stone Town is a maze of alleys and colors, it is a market that invades you with smells and a sunset on the ocean of the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. I think an excursion to Stone Town is essential to understand the intercultural soul of this marvelous island. Stone Town has been declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site and please go there freeing yourself some glasses of western culture, here you will not find unforgettable palaces but you will smell the life of the stone capital of this extraordinary island that is Zanzibar.
Stone Town’s main monuments include the Palace of Wonders (Beit al Ajaib, in Arabic), which was built in 1883 on the seafront of Mizingani Road, by the will of Sultan Barghash bin Said. It has been a royal residence and a government palace, today it houses a museum, “The House of Wonders Museum”, with permanent exhibitions on the local culture and the typical Zanzibar boats (dhow or elder, traditional Arab sailing boat, and mtepe, traditional boat swahili). Another building worth seeing is the Sultan’s Palace, or Beit el-Sahel in Arabic, whose official name is the Palace Museum. It was built in the nineteenth century as a royal residence, later became a government palace, since 1994 it has become a museum on the royal family, taking the name of Palace Museum. One floor is dedicated to Sultan Khalifa bin Haroub and his two wives, while a room is dedicated to Princess Salme, daughter of Sultan Said, who fled to Europe with her husband, taking the name of Emily Ruete. The Palace Museum is also located on the seafront of Mizingani Road, between the Palace of Wonders and the Old Dispensary. The latter is a building built in the late nineteenth century to commemorate the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria. The name Old Dispensary comes from the fact that it was used as a dispensary during the colonial era. It is a finely decorated palace, with carved balconies, mosaics and stuccos. Today it is home to the Aga Khan Cultural Center and houses a museum about the history of Zanzibar.
The influence of the Indian and Arab domination can be seen in every corner of Stone Town but become evident in the ancient doors that look like real sculptures. I think it’s important to really understand how to rely on a local guide and stay until sunset to be admired strictly by the African House.
In Stone Town there are many examples of Swahili architecture, too. Like the numerous mosques, on all that of the Aga Khan, but also the churches, such as the St. Joseph’s Cathedral and the Anglican Christ Church. Do not miss the impressive seventeenth-century Arab Old Fort of Zanzibar and the Hamamni Persian Baths, built by the Sultan Barghash bin Said. A few kilometers from the city of Zanzibar there are the spectacular spice plantations. In fact, the cuisine of Zanzibar is a riot of flavors and colors, thanks to the spices grown in the archipelago and the cultural mix of island that have characterized its history over the centuries. You have to think that the typical dessert is the Spice Cake with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and chocolate. Delicious!
Where to Stay
Since its opening, Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa has become synonymous with luxury on Zanzibar’s eastern coast. As we’re seeing with many new properties popping up around the globe, Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa has joined the sustainable-resort movement and has taken major precautions to preserve its natural landscapes through architecture designed around the existing fauna. Heading up the project was architect Neil Rocher who is known for his eco-friendly designs and offers a wealth of knowledge of African culture. His designs paired with founder and owner Andre Niznik’s vision to create a sanctuary of uncompromising luxury. The hotel is also committed to giving back to the local community. The all-villa property has 11 villas and 3 Cinnamon Rooms and each of them was designed by renowned architect Neil Rocher to fit in with the natural garden surroundings and all face the seafront. The building that houses Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa’s restaurant also has a bar, a fine-dining restaurant, a rooftop lounge and a large swimming pool, with air conditioning and Wi-Fi available throughout. The stylish restaurant overlooks the main pool and serves up an international menu with Zanzibar flavours. To give you an idea of Zanzibari fare, it’s a combination of flavors and traditions from African, Indian, British, Arab, Portuguese and Chinese cuisines.