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Indian Ocean Islands - Zanzibar

Jambo Zanzibar

 

Thought this exotic, dream holiday destination in the Indian Ocean off the Tanzanian coast was beyond your budget? Marion Whitehead gives some tips for comparing value packages.

A timeless ritual takes place as the orange sun sinks towards the horizon: fishermen in their hand-crafted dhows head for the shore with their catches, their sails billowing in the gentle breeze. Locals wade into the sea with their kids to cool off and Zanzibar Dhow © Marion Whiteheadboisterous teens with an energy defying the sultry heat play a lively game of soccer on the beach.

You take it all in from a restaurant overlooking the ocean while you sip a long, cold Kilimanjaro beer, reflecting that little has changed in Stone Town, Zanzibar’s World Heritage Site, since the time of the sultans who once ruled this Indian Ocean island. There’s a tangible sense of history and, as a tourist, your lifestyle is more akin toroyalty than that of the average Zanzibari.

Zanzibar offers lazy tropical island holidays and then some. Exotic sights and smells abound in a land which was once the hub of the world’s spice industry in the 1800s. The trade routes of the Indian Ocean were controlled from Stone Town and empires vied to possess it. Grand seaside palaces were built and merchants’ homes sprang up amid a maze of narrow streets in the capital.

Zanzibar-Dhow1 © Marion WhiteheadToday’s palaces are the beach resorts where tourists flock from Europe, Asia and the Americas for a taste of island culture. South Africans can now fly directly from Johannesburg to Zanzibar’s international airport near Stone Town. Packages offering a combination of flights, accommodation and some meals are often the hottest buy if you’re on a budget.

When comparing prices, remember that while the lower upfront cost of a flight with B&B package may be less, what you end up spending on drinks and meals may mean that paying a little extra for a full-board package is cheaper in the long run, especially for families. One-week packages offer better value on a cost per day basis than four-day ones because the airfare is the same, whether you stay for a shorter or longer time. Cheaper options are for garden-view rooms in the low season from September, but you can upgrade to sea-view rooms if you pay extra. Bathrooms generally have showers only and tea/coffee facilities in rooms are not standard.

A word of caution: don’t get so seduced by the leisurely life in the resorts that you miss out on all the attractions Zanzibar has to offer (see guide below).

Zanzibar-Wading-in-Sea © Marion WhiteheadMy favourite package was organised by African Encounters(www.africanencounters.com ) as they were flexible enough to combine a few nights in Stone Town with one of their wide selection of beach resorts. Zanzibar’s exotic reputation was built on the old city –it’s now a World Heritage Site –and is worth far more than just a day tour.

I spent a night at Tembo House Hotel, a genteelly faded grand old mansion filled with antiques sitting right on the water’s edge in old Stone Town. It wasthe American consulate 150 years ago; now you can sip sundowners on the terrace and watch the dhows returning with their day’s catch. The swimming pool is in a courtyard next to the restaurant and you can stroll across the sand to dip your toes in the sea.It’s a few doors away from the posh Princess Serena Inn and half the price. Another option is its sister hotel, the Dhow Palace, the former home of a wealthy merchant deeper within the old city.
Contact: African Encounterstel
Tel 011 880-3079 | Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  | Website www.africanencounters.com

Don’t-miss excursions
Safari Blue
Your eyes bulge with excitement as you swim lazily through the clear, warm water of Menai Bay, a conservation area,and spot myriads of brightly coloured fish through your snorkel mask. When you eventually head for the sandy atoll where you left your stuff, there’s a guy under a sunshade waiting to hand you a fresh coconut to quaff. Then they whisk you off by dhow to a second dive spot with even more intricate coral shapes before stopping for a succulent fish braai lunch on a deserted beach on Kwale Island, topped off with an array of unusual fruits to tantalise your taste buds.

Safari Blue is an extremely professional outfit run by Eleanor Griplasand her quietly efficient crew. It’s the best day out you’ll have in Zanzibar and comes closest to the island holiday dream. There are lots of copycats emulating her success – some even trying to trade under the Safari Blue name – so be sure to book with the original pros.
Contact: Tel +255-777-423-162 | Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | Website www.safariblue.net

Jozani Forest
This is the only place in the world you’ll see red colobus monkeys in their natural habitat. The 5000-hectare national park is the last remaining piece of indigenous forest on the island and comprises four forest types, including red mahogany and a mangrove swamp. Protected since 1997, the red colobus are now so unfazed by humans that they’ll allow you and your guide to get really close and watch them eating leaves and grooming each other.
Contact: Tel +255-24-223-6089

Spice farm tour
Do you know that vanilla pods grow on a vine? As does pepper – the green, red and black corns are simply different stages of ripeness. Can you recognisethe glossy green leaves of a clove tree? On a spice farm tour, your senses will delight in a range of scents and tastes, and it’s a pleasant, shady walk on a hot day. My guide at Maganga Spice Farm in the Kidichi district north of Stone Town was extremely knowledgeable and his young assistant shimmied expertly up a coconut tree to provide us with a refreshing drink. This was followed by samples of exotic local fruits such as thejack fruit which tastes like a cross between a pineapple and a banana. You’ll come away with some useful tips, such as using ginger to combat sea sickness, or dabbing a cut with sap from the iodine tree to stop bleeding. Costs vary. Ask at your hotel for a recommendation.

Zanzibar-Turtle-at-Mnarani © Marion WhiteheadMnaraniMarine Turtle Conservation Project, Nungwi
It’s quite startling to see so many beautifully patterned green turtles in one place. When you toss sea lettuce into their enclosed lagoon at the far end of Nungwi beach near the lighthouse, the vegetarians power through the water with their large flippers and lunge for it. The carnivorous hawksbills are fewer and more difficult to spot. The approximately 20 turtles were rescue cases brought in by fishermen, who receive a small payment in return for not eating those they catch in their fishing nets. Come time to lay eggs, they’re released back into the ocean where their built-in radar directs them back to the beach where they once hatched, so they can continue the lifecycle.
Contact: Tel +255-773-204-320 | Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Travel planner
When to go
High season is from June to August, when it’s not as hot, but you’ll get better deals in September and October, when some light rains and wind moderate temperatures. The humidity soars in summer. Avoid the monsoons in April and May.

Money matters
Credit cards and US dollars are readily accepted in most resorts, but it’s good to have Tanzanian shillings (TSH) to buy items in markets and restaurants, and it saves on exchange rates. Getting around Check that your package includes collection at the airport so you don’t have to haggle with taxi drivers over fares without knowing the going rate. Good hotels and operators such as Exotic Tours provide air-conditioned minibuses – negotiate better deals on excursions by getting a group of people together to share transport costs.

The cheapest way to get anywhere is on local buses and dala-dala taxis – flat-bed trucks with a canopy and seats on the back. However, they can be crowded and unpredictable if you need to be somewhere by a set time.

The main roads from Stone Town to the north and south have been tarred and are in good shape, but busy. If you hire a car, be prepared for roadblocks where officials find reasons to ‘fine’ you and demand chai money to make up for their poor salaries.

Language
Although English is an official language, the average Zanzibari does not speak or understand much. It’s good to learn a few Swahili words:
Jambo – hello
Karibusana – welcome
Asana santé – thank you
Buasana – very good
Supaduka – supermarket

This is an extract from an article which first appeared in Getaway.