One weekend, five things to do in Zanzibar

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If there’s one thing I regret (even though I find it hard to actually write these words, as I don’t want to change any second of my stay on this gorgeous island) about my time in Africa it’s the fact that I only spent a weekend in Zanzibar. My time there was short, yes. However, it was filled to the brim with incredible activities, a lot of fun and so many experiences I will take with me for the rest of my life.

Here are five suggestions on how to spend an unforgettable weekend in Zanzibar:

  • A trip to Prison Island

Prison Island has a surprising amount to offer for such a small island. It started out as an island for prisoners, although they actually never used it as a prison. Later on it was used as a quarantine station for people who contracted yellow fever. Now there’s a sanctuary for giant tortoises. This sanctuary started out with a few tortoises which were a gift from the government of the Seychelles, now there are more than 50 tortoises living there. For a small fee you can walk through the little park, pet and take pictures with them. Some of them are nearly 200 years old. Twice a day there will also be feedings which you can watch.

Close by, there are also a lot of beautiful spots to snorkel. If that’s not for you, there’s always the possibility to just lie on the (albeit small) beach and swim in the clear water there. It makes for a perfect day, or afternoon trip (depending on how long you want to snorkel).

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  • The Forodhani food market (only at night)

One of the biggest regrets I have about the very short time I spent in Zanzibar is that I didn’t have enough time to try all the great food this island has to offer. However, I went to this market twice and it’s just incredible.
The market is made up of lots and lots and lots of stands filled with food. Try the Zanzibar Pizza (savory and sweet), or the seafood (but take care and keep your eyes open to see if it’s still fresh and good). Try the sugar cane juice (though keep in mind that the taste certainly isn’t for everyone). Or maybe you want to try some soup? Have a Samosa too. And don’t miss out on the beef-wrap (kind of kebab) kind of things. There are just so many things, it’s almost impossible to eat and try them all.

Your best bet (and this goes for everything: restaurants, bars, cafés….) is to always go to where most of the locals are. If there are locals eating the food there it’s bound to be authentic and good.

This food market fascinated me not only for the vast array of different types of food and how they were prepared but also because of the location. During the day the park, close to the harbour is very quiet and peaceful. At night the area is buzzing and filled with people – tourists and locals alike and the next morning it’s again as if nothing happened.

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[Above: Seafood galore! |Below: freshly made Zanzibar pizza.]
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[Above: the kind-of kebab (Say: “Weka kila kitu.” This means “with everything.” and was one of the first phrases I learnt. It will also guarantee you a laugh (if not a high-five) from the person you’re ordering from). |Below: This lovely guy is Mr. Lecker Lecker. He learnt from an Austrian chef, knows how to make Semmelknödel and speaks a bit of German. He insisted on taking a picture with us (he also makes the most delicious sweet Zanzibar Pizza. Try Nutella-Mango. Or Nutella-Banana-Coconut).]
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  • Dolphin Bay

This was something I was super, super skeptical about. When I heard about “You will swim with dolphins” all I could think of was “Please don’t let them be in a tiny basin”. There was nothing worse for me than the thought of supporting the captivity of these animals.
I was lucky though. What people forgot to tell me was a single word that made all the difference: “wild”. They should have said “Kristina, you’re going to swim with wild dolphins.” That would have eased so many of my worries.

When we arrived at the bay, we were given diving goggles and flippers (which I refused because they annoy me to no end) and then boarded a tiny boat to drive out and look for dolphins.
In this place I have to say that we totally lucked out on this trip. A local guy who was with us and has been many, many times to this bay has told us that he’s never seen them as close and as many of them as he did that day. Needless to say that we went crazy. We chased the dolphins, jumped from the boat when we were close and then played and swam with them. It was incredible. Mind blowing. Unbelievable.
We swam and swam and swam until we barely had the energy to climb back into the boat anymore. Only then did we allow our boat driver to take us back to shore.

If you don’t want to, or cannot swim with dolphins the beach and sea at this place is also, almost too perfect. It’s the stereotypical white beach, turquoise water picture.

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  • A history tour through Stone Town

You will see various tours offered at about every corner. While I’ve heard only good things about spice tours (they show you different plants, spices and tell you about the process and so on) we decided on a history tour. We started out at one of the two churches where there once was the slave market. We went down to see the slave chambers before changing direction and strolling through the market. Then our guide led us through the labyrinth of Stone Town’s tiny streets and alleys – pointed out various historic landmarks and told us about the architecture, different types of doors and so on.
To me, this was perfect. I loved walking through the tiny alleys and getting some background knowledge made this experience even more special.

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[Above: Morning mist over Stone Town. |Below: Our history tour started at the old slave market. Stone Town has a rich and long history. Some good, some horrid. As it is the case with all countries, I guess.]
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[Above: cute places to eat lunch or dinner can be found everywhere. |Below: doors in Stone Town are breathtaking pieces of art.]
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[Above and Below: the fish and food market is probably not for the faint-hearted.]
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  • Horseback riding (on the beach)

Yes, I’ve already hinted about this a few times when I posted some pictures.
However, this was one of the most incredible experiences I had during my time in Africa. Riding a horse on a beach has been on my bucket list ever since I started horseback riding when I was six years old. For this to come true in Zanzibar, at sunset – on the same day we also swam with wild dolphins? I can barely find the words. Even weeks after it’s hard for me to describe the feeling. I felt so free, happy and light.

Just a few things about the facility:
The stables we went to belong to a very nice couple from South Africa. They have four horses which are all very healthy and perfectly well looked after. Their temperament and character is great so that they can carry everyone from children to adults. The riding facility is attached to a resort, but you don’t necessarily have to stay there to go for a ride. You can take lessons or go for a ride through the coconut plantation and down to the beach.
They offer to take almost everyone, no matter their skills or experience, though you should have realistic expectations. If it’s your first time on a horse you will not freely canter through the waves and along the beach. However, if you do have some experience, it is very likely that you are able to do just that.
Also: helmets are mandatory. You can borrow one there at the facility.

On the day we were there we (once again) lucked out. While it looked like rain when we started, it cleared up as soon as we came to the beach and we were lucky to see the most incredible sunset. Plus, it was low tide, making it possible for us to canter through the water and along the beach.

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[Read more about Zanzibar here. Posts about my time in Tanzania can be found here.]

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Zanzibar

In an earlier post, I already hinted at how perfect my weekend trip to Zanzibar was. I still have trouble believing that weekend really happened and, to me, it still seems like it was a beautiful dream, too good to be true.

After spending a little over a month in Dar es Salaam, I was well used to life in Africa. I was used to how buildings looked, how food tasted and what people were like.

Or so I thought.

This all changed drastically when I disembarked from the boat that took me to Stone Town. It was like I was in a totally different country, if not continent. The buildings had an Oriental touch. The rundown facades mixed with the lush plants and gorgeous architecture immediately took my breath away. I could not tear my eyes from the buildings, the doors, the intricate details on fences – I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of Stone Town.

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However, there’s more. The majority of the population is Muslim so there’s an entirely different atmosphere to the island. While the coastal regions of Tanzania are also more muslim than the north, for example, there’s still a very large percentage of Christians. In Stone Town, as we were told, there are about 49 mosques and only two churches. Plus, if you keep your eyes open, you can find a Hindu temple every so often.
This mix of cultures, even though it’s still so very shaped by the Islamic culture, makes for a very unique atmosphere.

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And then there’s the food. Let’s not forget about the food. Sadly, I only stayed for two nights so the possibilities to check out and try more food were limited. However, I don’t think travelers will have any troubles finding something they enjoy. Due to the various influences and the rich history of the island, it’s vastly different from the “usual” African food.

All in all, I cannot recommend a trip to Zanzibar enough. Maybe it was because I only spent such a short time filled with so many brilliant memories. Maybe it’s because I’m absolutely obsessed with interesting architecture, history, and food. Maybe it’s because I find only little more fascinating than the mix of different cultures. Maybe all of this together, but in the end, I don’t think it matters much. I had a gorgeous time I will never, ever forget.

Thank you, Isabel, for joining me on this trip and thank you, GK, for taking us. It was an incredible experience.

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Tips for when you go to Zanzibar

  • Take your passport.

Kind of a no-brainer, I suppose, but super important none the less as Zanzibar does have an immigration desk where you even have to fill out a form. Yes, it’s been part of Tanzania since the 60s but they still have a lot of autonomy. I’ve heard stories about people having trouble getting to Zanzibar due to what kind of visa they had. If you have an ordinary tourist visa and are there for touristic purposes you should have no problems, but still make sure that your visa is in order.

  • Take a reliable ferry.

If you’re going to Zanzibar from Dar es Salaam, for example, there’s the Asam Fast Ferry. It’s a bit on the pricier side (for African standards at least) but it’s quite fast and safe. I don’t think it’s necessary to tell you to not take a dhow. I guess it’s pretty self-explanatory why going by one of the traditional sailing boats is not a good idea. When you’re near the ferry/speed boat station, people will harass you to no end, offering you the cheapest ticket to go to Zanzibar. If you want to avoid this, do your research before going there so you know where to go and what to buy. This way you can walk with determination and people might back off and leave you alone.

  • Book tours and guides only from sources/offices that seem trustworthy.

There are a bunch of people on the street that offer to take you to a spice tour and whatever else. Please do your research and only book these things with companies that seem trustworthy. These don’t necessarily have to be the big companies, as I’m also all for supporting small agencies, but keep your eyes open and ask a lot of questions before booking to get a feeling of how trustworthy they are. Otherwise you’re just going to be disappointed.

  • Keep your eyes open.

You might feel safer in Zanzibar because there are more tourists. For me, every time I saw other people with similar skin colour I instantly felt a lot safer. Stupid, I know. I tended to let my guard down and, let me tell you, that is not the smartest thing to do.
Yes, there are more tourists in Zanzibar than, let’s say, in Dar es Salaam, but locals know this as well. Take care and keep an eye on your belongings. Don’t take unnecessary risks. In short: don’t let the feeling of familiarity lull you into a false sense of security.

On a slightly different note: take care when eating seafood. I had more than one person fall sick because they ate seafood that wasn’t good anymore. It’s tempting, yes, but have a good look at the place you want to get food from. I usually go by this rule that if you find a lot of locals in a restaurant, bar or food stand, then the food is great. This is, as you should know, my own personal opinion and not at all applicable to every situation.

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[Five things to do in Zanzibar. Posts about my time in Tanzania can be found here.]

Please note the general disclaimer of my travel stories:

All opinions and recommendations on this blog, but especially concerning these travel stories, are solely based upon my own experiences and in no way imply that anyone else will have a similar experience. All travelers are encouraged to use good sense and to keep their eyes open whenever venturing forth into a new place. Please use your common sense and listen to your own instincts.  Each traveling experience is unique to the person having it and I hope you have many!

Memories

Thailand 2010.

The best five weeks of my life.

/Drive to the orphanage.
/Talking to the kids after a fun English lesson.
/Evenings at the bar across the street.
/More teaching.
/Kids at the orphanage LOVED recording with my camera.
/Painting a classroom.

/At the local pool.
/Playtime with the kids at the orphanage.
/What do you do when the taxi you ordered doesn’t show up and it’s 2am? Right, you pile onto the pick up truck of the owner of the nightclub- even if there’s no way 17 people can really fit. And then? Then you start singing silly children’s songs. It’s moments like this – stupid and utterly reckless, when you feel most alive.
/Saying goodbye to friends was always hard.
/New adventures: on the way to Koh Samet!
/The bar where we spent most nights.

I was 18 when I left and I was hesitant at first but those five weeks soon turned out to be the best of my life. I’ve met people from all over the world and we became fast friends. We spent weekends away traveling the country, hiking up to waterfalls or partying to the early morning hours in Bangkok. We taught at orphanages and schools, ate fish flavoured ice cream and cooked pad-thai. We all had the time of our lives.