As the sun sets on the west coast of Zanzibar and the sky blends from pale lemon to blush pink, fishermen set off in their wooden dhows, sails puffed out in perfect triangles. The results of their night’s work can be seen in the rows of electric-blue sardines at the Darajani Market in Stone Town, or the fishing village of Mkokotoni, where boxes of huge red snapper and barracuda are weighed on scales at the side of the road. Fishing has always been one of the main industries here, along with spice production and, increasingly, tourism. Since Zanzibar (an archipelago of islands, the main ones being Unguja and Pemba) is only 36 kilometres off the coast of Tanzania, many visitors combine a few days at the beach with a mainland safari, but direct flights from Europe and the Middle East mean it’s a stand-alone holiday destination in its own right.
I start my trip with two nights at Kilindi, a gorgeous hotel on the northern tip of Unguja, just round the headland from Kendwa beach – one of the best beaches on the island, which even in low season has a feel-good vibe. Hammocks are strung between palm trees, piles of fishing nets dry in the sun and there are games of volleyball in the sand. This is where the hotly anticipated Zuri Zanzibar resort opens next year. Water sports – scuba diving, deep-sea fishing, kayaking – are one of Zanzibar’s main draws, so I head out to snorkel in the turquoise waters of the Mnemba Atoll marine park, spotting a pod of dolphins on the way.
There are also excellent beaches on the quieter, less developed east coast, as I discover a few days later when I drive two hours south to the Michamvi Pingwe peninsula. Strong winds make it a great place for kitesurfing, but because of the reefs and tidal patterns of the Indian Ocean, swimming is in many places possible only at high tide. Instead, I clamber over tiny rock pools for refreshing mojitos at the renowned restaurant and bar The Rock, which is perched on a giant boulder about 50 metres from shore.
The island’s interior deserves exploration, too. There’s the Jozani forest, home to around 2,000 red colobus monkeys, and the 25-hectare spice farm, Kizimbani, where my tour involves smelling and identifying a variety of spices. I learn how locals use dried cloves to soothe toothache and how bananas are often boiled and seasoned with salt before being eaten. On the drive to Stone Town, the Unesco World Heritage section of the island’s capital Zanzibar City, where I spend my final two nights at Kisiwa House, I pass sugar-cane plantations and traditional houses made from mud and coconut leaves. Cows pulling wooden carts piled high with cassava amble slowly along the roadside. Yet it is in the warren of narrow streets, filled with mosques and minarets, houses with brass-studded wooden doors and peeling painted façades, and shops selling colourful printed kanga fabrics, that the island’s true character is revealed.
I go on a walking tour of the town, which takes in the site of the former slave market, where one of the first Anglican churches in East Africa now stands, and hear a potted version of the island’s history from the days of Arab rule to independence in 1963. I eat and drink well: at the new Park Hyatt, which has the best ocean-front location in town; at Archipelago, where I tuck into prawn masala; and at the Tower Top restaurant at the Emerson On Hurumzi hotel, an exquisitely restored mansion where, sitting on mosaic-print floor cushions, I eat squid salad while listening to the afternoon call to prayer. This is the sound of Zanzibar, as intrinsic to life here as the rhythm of the sea.
WHERE TO STAY
To Kendwa beach, 15 dome-shape white pavilions overlook the sea. Each has a small dipping pool, open-air upstairs bathroom and bedrooms with shutters that swing open to maximise the views. You’ll have your own butler who can organise dinner whenever, wherever you want: ask for giant shrimps with lentil dhal and spiced potatoes on the beach by a crackling fire. The atmosphere is casual, the service spot on.
The latest addition to the Zanzibar Collection is an adults-only hideaway on the south-east coast. Nine ocean-front villas with thatch roofs stand on either side of a blue mosaic-tiled swimming pool, a lounge bar and restaurant. The design is a real departure, with a pearlescent colour scheme, beaded chandeliers and shell-print cushions in the bedrooms. The location, right in front of a blue lagoon, means you can swim even during low tide.
Kisiwa House A family
Owned hotel in the heart of Stone Town, a two-minute stroll from the ocean. Up the staircase there are 11 simple rooms, each with wooden four-poster beds, Persian rugs, antique furniture and old photos of Zanzibar on the walls. The breezy rooftop restaurant is ideal for breakfast.