Picture a beautiful island surrounded by crystal clear waters and blindingly white sands, where every sunset is more breathtaking than the last. You know, the ones you see advertised in almost every honeymoon magazine. Well that’s exactly what you get when you go to Zanzibar – a picture-perfect island which is the epitome of paradise, just humbly lying off the coast of East Africa.
During my first trip to Moshi, I didn’t get the chance to leap across the bay, so the second time around, I wanted to make sure I squeezed in a short “holiday” from volunteering. So myself and some fellow Hostel Hoffers did just that – we booked our flight, packed our bags and revelled in the fact we could finally dig out some of our long-forgotten beachwear and summer dresses.
As soon as we touched down in Zanzibar, we hopped in a taxi and headed straight to Kendwa, a very small village near Nungwi – a popular tourist spot sitting on the north coast of the island. The journey itself took just over an hour, giving us plenty of time to take in the colourful scenery while our taxi driver blared out African bongo beats to get us in the holiday mood.
As we drove down the winding roads, narrowly missing goats, chickens, and people as we passed through small towns and villages, I was pleasantly surprised to see an abundance of untouched farmland and tropical forests. I don’t really know what I had pictured in my mind, but knowing the island is a popular tourist location, I think I had expected to see an invasion of high-rise buildings and big hotel complexes. It was nice to see that Zanzibar remained fairly unspoilt and hadn’t yet lost its African soul to mass tourism.
When we finally arrived in Kendwa, our driver took us down these hidden bumpy roads before dropping us off at our final destination – Kendwa Rocks Hotel. Known for its big night life and crazy full moon parties, we were geared up for a few nights of dancing and knocking back the cocktails, before maybe moving on to somewhere quieter on the island to relax.
However as we were there during the low season, it was a lot quieter than we had anticipated, and we actually ended up getting the right balance between lazing around on the beach and the occasional boogie in the evening. As a result, we ended up staying at Kendwa Rocks for most of our trip, as I think we had all fallen a little bit in love with its beautiful location, and couldn’t quite bring ourselves to leave. The staff were amazing, the food was delicious, and the accommodation was about a minute walk from the beach. As Mohammed (one of our favourite waiters) would often say – it was “poooooooooooa” (translation: “cooooooooool”).
Sunshine, sunsets, cocktails and….what was that?? a rat?!?
We decided to stay in a palmwood banda (a hut basically built from coconut wood and palm leaves) surrounded by lush green tropical gardens. The room itself was pretty basic, but had an exotic/rustic charm to it and we were happy to call it home for the next five nights. One thing I will mention though – being near a tropical garden did mean we ended up sharing our surroundings with a number of interesting wildlife and birds that were fairly vocal in the mornings. For example, one night we came across what we thought was a monkey at first glance, but upon closer inspection (and lots of Googling) we realised it was actually a Giant Rat (I’m talking the size of a small dog here!) which are apparently quite rare native animals in Zanzibar. So it was just our luck that one of them had decided to reside in our garden!
The next five days mainly consisted of us topping-up our tans and dipping our feet in the warm turquoise waters. Every day at sunset we would ceremonially enjoy the cocktail happy hour (which actually lasted three hours) while watching the sun glow all shades of orange and red as it went down above the sparkling ocean. This was usually followed by a night of partying until at least 3am with some friends we had made during our stay. In fact, I think the most moving around we actually did was either walking to and from the bar, or trying our hand at some African dance moves. And if we weren’t already curled up in bed (trying to make the room not spin around as we fell asleep), then we’d maybe manage a late-night stroll along the beach under the inky-starred sky.
Discovering Zanzibar’s other native wildlife…
We did however manage to tear ourselves away from the beach one afternoon and took a long walk to Nungwi so we could visit a turtle sanctuary where we had heard you could swim with them. During the low tide, you can usually walk along the beach right up to Nungwi. However our timing was a little off, and the tide was just starting to come in as we got nearer. So this involved a bit of paddling and manoeuvring around some rocks to get onto Nungwi beach itself. When we finally arrived, we didn’t have a clue where the sanctuary was, but fortunately found a friendly Rasta who walked us there. After maybe another 20 minutes of clambering over rocks and walking through sandy grasslands, we finally arrived at the sanctuary (albeit a different one to where we’d originally asked to go!).
After a quick chat with one of the marine biologists, he explained to us how swimming with turtles can actually be quite harmful to their health, and for that reason they didn’t let visitors do this at their sanctuary. Which actually kinda made a lot of sense. Happy enough to give swimming a miss, we went inside to the conservation pond where the turtles were and got to hear about why some of them had been rescued and the work the sanctuary was doing to prepare them for going back into the wild. While we didn’t get to swim with them, we did get the chance to get up close and feed them some seaweed, which was quite fun.
After that, we hopped in a taxi to the centre of Nungwi where we stocked up on Konyagi for our final night in Kendwa (Konyagi is basically Tanzania’s version of Gin, only you’re almost certainly guaranteed to have the hangover from hell the next morning). That night, we hit the hotel’s nightclub and enjoyed our last evening of alcohol-fuelled debauchery (most of which is probably un-bloggable…what happens in Zanzibar, stays in Zanzibar etc, etc…).
Zanzibar’s ancient gem – Stone Town
After a sad farewell to Kendwa, we decided to spend our final day soaking up the culture of Stone Town, which is the old part of the island’s capital. Stone Town is a timeless maze of narrow, windy passages of ancient and fantastically decrepit buildings. As you walk around, you can’t help but continuously look up at the magnificent architecture, which boasts colonial grandeur mixed with Arabic and Swahili influences.
That evening, we ventured to the popular night market on the waterfront to grab a bite-to-eat. Every evening at sunset, stalls set up their street kitchens to deliver some of the island’s tastiest grilled and fried treats – including the infamous Zanzibar Pizza, which is kind of like a Roti folded around your choice of filling and fried on a hot plate. Hot, greasy and salty, you won’t find a better hangover cure in the whole of Zanzibar.
As we walked around, we soaked up the vibrant atmosphere while listening to the sales patter of each stall as they reeled off their long list of seafood options. Half the fun was trying to decide which stall to eat from (as they all pretty much sell the same thing) but then we met Mr Smile and were instantly won over. Trying to charm Eva, he allowed her to have a go at cooking some of the seafood we had carefully selected. And I have to say, she did a pretty good job! With our stomachs full from all the amazing food, and our faces beaming from all the laughter, we happily tootled off back to the hostel for a rare early night.
The following morning, we arose bright and early – but not by our own choice. Right outside our window we could hear the heckling of someone in the street, shouting “Jambo, jambo…mzungu mzungu” (translation: “hello, hello…foreigner, foreigner”). After about ten minutes of us asking whoever it was to kindly “piss off” in Swahili, Eva stormed out to reception demanding that they ask this “rude man” to leave us alone. The receptionist just chuckled and explained to Eva that it was actually a parrot from the restaurant across the street!
So after “parrot-gate”, we decided to drag ourselves out of bed and spend the morning visiting the Old Slave Market before our flight back to Kilimanjaro. We were given a guided tour around the site (by a lovely man who looked and sounded suspiciously like Morgan Freeman) and learnt how the area was once the centre of East Africa’s slave and ivory trade.
At its height in the 18th and 19th centuries, some 45,000 slaves were shipped from Zanzibar to Brazil, India and Arab countries. Nothing really remains of the slave market today, except one dark chamber which we climbed down to see. It was probably no bigger than a single car garage, which reputedly imprisoned 50 slaves awaiting auction for days and days at a time. Rusty shackles and chains, still attached to the stone walls, were harrowing reminders of the not so distant past. The market itself was replaced with an Anglican cathedral, built after the abolition of slavery in the 1870s, where the former whipping post is marked by a marble spot at the altar.
Final thoughts on Zanzibar…
In my mind, I haven’t been anywhere yet that is quite like Zanzibar. It’s clear to see why it is often described as a ‘cultural melting-pot’, owing to the various different people who have settled here over the ages – all of which have all left their mark in one way or another. It really is a special and unique place that I would go back to in a heartbeat. So if Zanzibar is not already on your bucket list, then I suggest you add it straight away – but just be warned….you may never want to leave.
Have you ever been swept away to the tropical island of Zanzibar? I would love to hear your stories below!
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