For dreamy beaches, fascinating history and exciting watersports, look no further than the African island of Zanzibar. For advice on where to go for Zanzibar diving, dining and culture, read on!
The funny thing about arriving on the island from Dar Es Salaam on mainland Tanzania is you need to go through customs and show your passport, even though it is included under the Tanzania visa. After centuries of colonisation by the Europeans and Arabs, Zanzibar was named an independent country in 1963. It merged with its neighbouring mainland region – then known as Tanganyika – to form the United Republic of Tanzania, but the island retains a semi-autonomous status, hence the border control.
On arrival, we headed straight for Zanzibar’s historic centre of Stone Town. Its architecture is a fascinating visual reminder of the island’s diverse background, from its native Swahili culture to Arab, Persian, Indian, Portuguese, German and British influences. The town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
One of my favourite facts about Stone Town is it’s where Freddie Mercury was born, on 5 September 1946. Here I am in front of Mercury House, his birthplace. I was surprised that there wasn’t any kind of museum for Freddie – inside the building is now a tourist gift shop. His parents moved to the island for his father’s work as a cashier at the British Colonial Office, while the island was still a British protectorate.
In the evening we went for cocktails at the Sunset Bar of the Africa House Hotel, which very much lived up to its name, with a beautiful view as the sun went down.
The next day, we visited some of Stone Town’s historic sites, including the 19th century Anglican cathedral of Christ Church. Built on the former site of the island’s biggest slave market, it serves as a monument to mark the end of slavery. Here there is a museum, including the horrifyingly cramped low-ceilinged rooms where dozens of people were kept chained, as well as a memorial to the slaves outside.
We stopped to visit the Darajani Bazaar, a bustling market selling enormous fish, slippery seafood, shiny vegetables and Zanzibar’s famous spices. The meat section of the market, slightly worryingly, was all displayed unrefrigerated in the open air, with flies dancing across the carcasses.
After a visit to one of Stone Town’s famous spice gardens, we headed north to the beach resort of Nungwi. This small and quiet area is home to Zanzibar diving centre, Spanish Dancer Divers, a 5 star PADI dive resort. Here I decided to dip my toe back into scuba diving after a year or two’s hiatus.
Our Zanzibar diving group was a motley crew – from our Dragoman tour group alone it ranged from a 19 year old lad who had never dived before to a remarkable 78 year old lady who joked that her dive card was so ancient that no-one would even recognise it any more. The Spanish Dancer dive crew was very accommodating, organising an introductory session for the young lad and refresher sessions for the rest of us, making sure the older lady was comfortable and ready to go. They even arranged an on-board breakfast as it would be an early start.
We saw fluttering shoals of bright fish, stripy characters lingering among the anemone and amazing fish showing-off their big spiky displays. Here on Zanzibar diving is well worth a look.
Our next stop was a beach I’d heard a lot about – Paje. This is home to wide, white sandy beaches and dozens of kitesurfers.
Our home for the next few days was the fabulously relaxing New Teddy’s Place, just a few steps from the beach. With its rustic cabins, hammocks and chilled vibe, it’s the perfect place to stay on a backpacker’s budget. The staff here are very friendly and the daily menu is divine.
Despite the many kitesurfers taking advantage of Paje’s ideal conditions, a short stroll will uncover beautiful beaches with hardly a soul on them.
During the day, you can wander around the villages behind the tourist resorts to find the local shops and bargain for a handmade souvenir or two, or grab a table in one of the beachfront bars and restaurants. At night, the area is known for its parties. We went to one at Jambo bar and danced until the early hours. Don’t be surprised to see men wearing Maasai warrior robes hanging out at the parties too, as these parties are enjoyed by tourists and locals alike.
From Teddy’s we took a taxi to Pingwe beach. Here we browsed in cute trinket shops and put up our feet with a cocktail in the decadent Upendo beachfront pool resort.
The reason for our trip here was a restaurant called The Rock, which is located on, well, a rock in the middle of the sea.
At dusk it was high tide so we caught a small fishing boat to access this unique restaurant.
Inside it was very romantic with candlelit tables and we feasted on lobster and pasta. At one point we ventured onto the restaurant’s sea-facing deck for a drink. It felt like a special occasion and a wonderful way to wrap up our Zanzibar diving and dining expedition.