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  • Writer's pictureAlly Landes

ZANZIBAR | An Escape to Paradise

When the whole world has been in lockdown for close to 2 years and you’re finally vaccinated and ready to break out, deciding on where to go can be challenging. The plan is always to go home to reunite with family, but unfortunately in our case, quarantine restrictions in Europe didn’t make it feasible with only 10 days to get away. We didn’t feel it was the right time to explore a bucket list destination as we didn’t know if there would be changes/restrictions, and so we looked at the places close by least affected by COVID for a somewhat safe escape option as we eased our way back into travel. Zanzibar won us over by offering both land and water adventures.


The traditional dhows of Zanzibar seen in Jambiani.

Zanzibar Island is the main island in the Tanzanian archipelago of Zanzibar and with some research we decided to base ourselves on the southeast coast in Jambiani (known for its seaweed farming) after exploring the west coast city of Stone Town with 2.5 days on our arrival and exit. July is part of the cooler dry season, and it is said to be one of the best times to dive. But as clarified to us by the dive centres, it is actually the windy season, which means rougher seas, but with glorious outdoor temperatures between 26-28˚C. We had several bouts of heavy rain, mostly in the early morning hours which did not affect us, but these are not at all common this time of year, which is perhaps just further evidence of climate change.


The beautiful coastline of Jambiani.

STONE TOWN

I booked a beautiful spacious Airbnb for our 2 nights in Stone Town, and it couldn’t have been in a more central location if I’d tried. The St Joseph’s Cathedral (1 of the only 2 churches in Stone Town) is directly opposite and can be seen from the balcony (take note: the bells sound off in the very early morning hours in very random intervals). It remained closed the 2 days we were there, so we never got to take a look inside.


St Joseph’s Cathedral seen from our Airbnb balcony.

We had everything in walking distance, and we did a lot of exploring. We highly recommend packing a comfortable pair of trainers, as flipflops are only good for short distances and then you spend most of your time barefoot on beaches anyway. Our first stop was to find breakfast and we were directed to the renowned Lukmaan Restaurant for typical local cuisine which is compulsory in any new country we visit. You’ll find a recommendation of the best places we experienced at the end in the info section.


A rooftop view of Stone Town with St Joseph’s Cathedral in the background.

THINGS TO DO

You must go and visit the People’s Palace Museum, which was unfortunately under renovation during our visit, so we didn’t get to see any of the rooms furnished, but we got to admire the architecture which was worth seeing and understand the history in more depth. Our guide was fantastic. The Sultan’s Palace is one of the main historical buildings of Stone Town which was built in the 19th Century after the original building was destroyed in the Anglo Zanzibar War in 1896.


A view from the People’s Palace Museum balcony.

The Anglican Cathedral and Old Slave Market is also worth a visit. The church is a landmark historical building which took 7 years to build (from 1873-1879) and it is one of the most prominent examples of early Christian architecture in East Africa. It was built to mark the end of slavery – being located in the area where the largest slave market in Zanzibar used to be. It’s an incredibly sombre tour, but a compelling one at that. Again, our guide here was also full of knowledge. Their history is an important one and they retell it with such passion.


The Anglican Cathedral
Old Slave Market monument.
The slave sell where 80 women and children were crammed and imprisoned into this awful space.

Our guide from the People’s Palace Museum booked us a taxi boat (it’s quite competitive trying to sort it out oneself) for the next morning to travel to Changuu Island aka Prison Island for its use as a prison hold for rebellious slaves in the 1860s. Today it stands as a tourist resort (alas, also under renovation on our visit – you’ll notice this is a trend for us!) but we ventured over to see the endangered Aldabra Giant Tortoises which originally came from the Seychelles when they were gifted from the British Governor. They love a good neck rub and are most definitely the highlight. The oldest tortoise was said to be 290 years old – despite this, he was not the biggest! The island lies 5.6km northwest of Stone Town and is a picturesque outing worth taking the time for.


This old boy is said to be 290 years old.
Aldabra tortoises love their neck scritches.
Some of the smaller resident tortoises.

JAMBIANI

Our Airbnb host allowed us a late checkout and organised a driver to take us over to Jambiani in time for our 2pm check-in to Villa Juliana. It’s a 1-1.5 hour drive from Stone Town and was $30 for the trip. Coming back to Stone Town however, from Jambiani it was a flat rate of $50 without room to negotiate for a supposedly safer car and driver. We can attest that there was no difference in the slightest to either car or quality of drive so don’t leave it till the last minute and you can shop around. You can of course rent a car for about $50/day with an international license, but we were being picked up and dropped off from our 3 days of planned dives, and the rest of the time we had left, we mapped out on foot.


Our gorgeous balcony view at Villa Juliana.

We hit the jackpot with this beautiful eco-friendly resort. Our room overlooked the pool, garden and ocean, and breakfasts were served on our terrace each morning come rain or shine. The lovely thing about this resort is it remains private to its guests only. We’re pretty sure this is a bonus, especially in the peak season as your dining area is reserved outside your private rooms. Other resorts are open to the public to dine in their restaurants and bars. Some do require you make reservations and select your meal of choice in advance.


Looking on to Villa Juliana in Jambiani.
Villa Juliana's pool looking on to the sea.
Jambiani Beach

The beaches along Jambiani and Paje are stunning and they’re active with seaweed collectors, fishermen hauling their catch in the low tide or out on their small dhows, casual fishing herons plodding through the shallows, and of course the colourful kite surfers to whom Paje is a paradise this season. The beaches are lined with all sorts of picturesque and rustic resorts, bars and restaurants. One thing we were surprised about for July was the lack of tourists, which in hindsight made this the perfect destination at this time. It is a little sad to see empty establishments without the buzz, but we had the space and choice to be anywhere we wanted to go.


A seaweed collector wading in the cool waters.
Fishermen chat while they do some work on their dhow.
A seaweed collector and her baby get on with the days chore while an onlooking kite surfer goes to collect his board.
A seaweed collector bagging her days collection.
Herons fishing in low tide.
A seaweed collector goes further out whilst the tide is out.
Fishermen and ladies haul in their nets.
Seaweed collectors making their way back home at the end of the day.
A lovely sentiment: Free ice tea to anyone who fills a bucket with trash from the beach.
A Paje kitesurfer and heron.
A Paje kitesurfer and seagull.

THE TIDES

One thing you need to be aware of are the ins and outs of the tides. In Jambiani, there is no room between high tide and your resort, which means you will have no access to walk over to other places for dinner. These timings change slightly every day, so we’ve linked a timetable for you in the info section below. You have a bit more margin on the Paje beaches, but if you’re walking back to Jambiani, you’ll need to know the timings. You can of course walk along the roadside if you are on foot, it’s just not as nice an option. The walk from Jambiani to Paje is 6.4km and takes about 1 hr 20 mins if you’re walking at a constant pace, but if you’re casually exploring your surroundings, you can take up to 3 hours to get there.


The tides making their way up to the resort breakwaters in Jambiani.
The start of low tide in Jambiani.

THE DIVING

We organised 3 days of diving and spread it out to get a good cover of as much of the island as we could in the east, northeast and the south. I asked for transportation when I booked our dives which is inclusive of the dive rates and they all happily obliged. Water temperatures in July were between 25˚C and 27˚C and the dive centres all recommended wearing a 5mm wetsuit. They also all use DIN in Zanzibar so just make sure to tell them if you use YOLK so they can have your tanks prepped for you.


Because we each had 40kg of luggage allowance with our flight, we decided to bring all our own dive gear with us. The only time the extra weight was a burden to haul was in Stone Town as you can’t park outside your residence. Make sure your dive bag has wheels (this only counts in Stone Town mind you) as you need to walk through narrow winding streets, and in our case, climbed lots of awkward stairs to get to our apartment. Once you get over this, it’s a cinch. In the end, it was all worth it.


Out to dive.
Blue cool waters and fluffy blue skies.

THE EAST

Our first two dives were on the east coast in Jambiani with Buccaneer Diving Jambiani. They have 2 dive centres, the other one is based in Paje. We dived Woo South which is a wall dive that drops down to 75m. This dive site is known for pelagic fish in the early morning hours on a good day and was a comfortable 25˚C in a 5mm wetsuit. We were lucky to spot 3 Whitetips and 4 Blacktip sharks down below in the depths and one massive Blotched Fantail Ray (Taeniura meyeni). Not having the strongest of eye sights anymore, I wasn’t able to make out any of the species from 30m, but I could at least make out they were sharks and a ray. Sadly, there was no opportunity for photos at this distance armed with GoPros, and this was the only time where we got to see the big stuff. There was nothing else to see of interest on this drift dive, but it was a good start to being underwater again.


Our second dive was at Powoni, a 13m dive which was the healthiest and most colourful coral reef we got to see during our trip, and the first of our 5 tidal surge dives to follow. Taking underwater photos from this moment was left to pure luck with the constant toing and froing from side to side, forwards and backwards. Concentrating on not crashing into corals or marine life was now the focus. The highlight on this dive for me was the gorgeous Leaf Scorpionfish (Taenianotus triacanthus) which was the first time I had seen one in bright pink. This dive site was dotted with orange and purple anthias which are the little jewels that bring reefs to life in their numbers. Copper Sweepers (Pempheris oualensis) were also present which I’m accustomed to normally seeing in caves or overhangs.


Remember I mentioned the drastic change between high and low tides? Well, when you get back from your second dive, you’ll understand just how low, low tide actually is. If you wear open toe fins, bring booties with you as you are going to have about a ten-minute walk back to the dive centre and you’ll just want to have your feet protected from walking over rocks and seaweed. It’s quite a phenomenon to see.


Tip: Dry bags are a must on the local boats as they do take in water and also in case it gets choppy. Someone will thank you to hold their mobile phone safe and dry for them.


Our second dive on the Powoni dive site.
Nosestripe Anemonefish (Amphiprion akallopisos)
Anthias (unknown species)
Leaf Scorpionfish (Taenianotus triacanthus)
Copper Sweepers (Pempheris oualensis)
Anthias (unknown species) and Copper Sweepers (Pempheris oualensis).
Scorpionfish (unknown species)
Blackspotted Pufferfish (Arothron nigropunctatus)
Turkey Moray (Gymnothorax meleagris)
Bluestripe Snapper (Lutjanus kasmira)

THE NORTHEAST

Our second day of diving was with Buccaneer Diving Zanzibar which is based in Paje. From their dive centre we drove to Mnemba which takes about an hour to get to. Lunch is provided on this trip with a choice of chicken or vegetarian and there is always fresh fruit on board.


What no one tells you is that there is no dive centre, changing rooms or toilets in Mnemba. You stop along the side of the road to a very busy beach which is where the dolphin tours take off from (please do not take this tour as it is extremely unethical) and you go directly onto your boat. Luckily, we were ready and had no need for either, but if you’re not organised for a direct setup, you’re not going to be comfortable. You’re getting back into the car wet, salty and sandy for a long hour’s journey back so think about what you want to have with you.


The shallower waters in Mnemba are a beautiful turquoise blue that make amazing photo opportunities with their stunning clear skies and fluffy clouds. Something we obsess over coming from the UAE. The coral reef here though is barren, a lot of it destroyed presumed from all the boats anchoring and quite possibly also from storms. Despite this there are a lot of fish, but it’s just not as colourful as in Jambiani. We saw quite a few moray eels, including a Turkey Moray (Gymnothorax meleagris), Geometric Moray (Gymnothorax griseus), and a free-swimming Undulated Moray (Gymnothorax undulatus), and a Crocodile Fish – I couldn’t ID the species. We dived Kichwani on our first dive which reaches 22m and Watabomi on our second dive at 18m.


Our 4 dives with Buccaneer Diving came to a total of AED2,030 for 2 divers with own equipment and transportation. The Mnemba dives include lunch.


The side of the road where you stop in Mnemba to catch your dive boat.
The Mnemba beach where the dive boats and the unethical dolphin tours take off from.
The beautiful turquoise shallow waters of Mnemba.
The dhow boats are used for all water tours in Zanzibar. They are small and all have one board engines so they can be uncomfortable on rough seas.
Our first dive on Kichwani to 22m.
Our dive on Kichwani on our first dive at 22m.
Longnosed Butterflyfish (Forcipiger longirostris)
A pretty reef view.
Our second dive at Watabomi to 18m.
Nosestripe Anemonefish (Amphiprion akallopisos)
Undulated Moray (Gymnothorax undulatus)
Yellowfin Soldierfish (Myripristis berndti)
Bluestripe Snapper (Lutjanus kasmira)
Crocodile Fish (I wasn't able to identify the species).
Coming up to our safety stop at Watabomi.
Back at the Buccaneer Diving Centre waiting for our ride back to Jambiani.

THE SOUTH

Our last day of dives was done with Dive Time Zanzibar based from the small fishing village of Kizimkazi. We dived within the Menai Bay Conservation Area at Camera Drop (32.5m) and Barracuda (19m). We saw a school of barracudas on our descent at Camera Drop, but the visibility was poor and there wasn’t much of anything to see on this first dive. It may be the first dive I’ve not taken any photos. Barracuda was a much better dive, still with a very strong tidal surge, but plenty more to see and better-quality corals which made it a nice finale.


We spotted loads of Chinese Trumpetfish (Aulostomus chinensis) in all the three colours, the uniformly yellow being the most striking. We spotted two very shy octopuses wedged up tight in their dens, unidentifiable in this situation. Clownfish are a guarantee in Zanzibar, they were everywhere on each dive site and the most common are the Nosestripe Anemonefish (Amphiprion akallopisos) and the Allard's Anemonefish (Amphiprion allardi). We finished with seeing a Giant Moray (Gymnothorax javanicus) before ascending to our safety stop.


Our 2 dives with Dive Time Zanzibar came to a total of AED795 for 2 divers with own equipment and transportation.


Our second dive on Barracuda.
Black-blotched Porcupinefish (Diodon liturosus)
Allard's Anemonefish (Amphiprion allardi)
I have not been able to identify this fish, would love to find out what it is though if anyone else knows.
I have not been able to identify this species of pufferfish. Would love to know if anyone else does.
From this distance I would have said these were fusiliers, but I can't be sure.
The long walk back at low tide.
The Dive Time Zanzibar dive centre in Kizimkazi.

PAJE

We left our final day free to walk over barefoot to Paje and enjoy the sights and sounds along the white sandy stretch of beach and parked ourselves for lunch at Oxygen – seafood restaurant and bar with vegetarian options with a view on all the kite surfers out on the water. The beaches become much larger and more beautiful in Paje. It is the kitesurfing capital of Zanzibar, but is also known as the party destination so it attracts a much younger and louder crowd of travellers.


We timed it right to be back in Jambiani before 6pm where the beach then disappeared beneath the waves at the foot of our small resort bridge. As this was our last night, we made sure to have our last meal in Villa Juliana with the most superb lobster thermidor and the biggest jumbo prawns we’ve ever seen.


Beach resorts
Beach resorts
Beach resorts and kitesurfers in the distance.
Beach resorts
Beach resorts
Beach resorts
Paje kitesurfers.
Paje kitesurfers.
Oxygen seafood and vegetarian restaurant and bar in Paje.
Apéro time!
The view looking onto the beach and at the kitesurfers dotted on the horizon.
The Masai trinket vendors of Paje.

BACK TO STONE TOWN

Luckily our room was not reserved the next morning so we were able to have a late check out before heading back to Stone Town for the 2pm check in at the Maru Maru Hotel for our last night.


Fruits are only just the starters at Villa Juliana. We savoured this last breakfast.

We cannot advise against staying at the Maru Maru more. The bonus of this hotel is their rooftop terrace, it really does have the best sunset view in Stone Town and we planned for this. What we didn’t plan for was coming back to the hotel at the end of the night after being out for dinner and drinks to find the rooftop has a late band that come on to play which resounds throughout the entire hotel, including inside your room. They failed to mention this at check in after giving us a very long briefing on how the hotel operates. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it had at least been a good band. To save everyone the aggro, do go over for the sunset, but find another hotel to spend the night. It will make all the difference.


The start of the sunset.
The rooftop terrace and bar at Maru Maru Hotel perfect for sunsets.
The stunning sunset view from the Maru Maru hotel.

FLIGHTS FROM DUBAI

Fly Dubai allows 40kg/passenger which means you can take your own dive gear with you.


TRAVEL INSURANCE

Highly recommend travel insurance which covers for COVID. AXA covers for COVID, RSA did not, so make sure to ask.


COVID TESTS

Best to check what the updates are as requirements change all the time. From Dubai, a 48-72 hour test must be done prior to flight. Same must be done from Zanzibar for the departure ($80 each) and then another test is done for free in Dubai on arrival (free).


NEAREST COVID TEST CENTRE

Makunduchi COVID-19 Centre – www.zanzibarcovidtesting.co.tz/app/availability


RESTAURANT RECOMMENDATIONS

We tried so many different places, some we were recommended and some we researched, but these are our personal recommendations.


STONE TOWN:

Emerson on Hurumzi – Highly recommended for the cultural dinner experience set on the rooftop at their Tea House Restaurant celebrating Zanzibar cuisine fused with oriental Persian and Omani influences, as well as traditional Taarab performances by accomplished musicians from the Dhow Countries Music Academy. $40/person: includes a 3-course menu. By reservations only. They also offer cocktails at the sunset hour. www.emersononhurumzi.com


Upendo House: The Fifth – Fusion cuisine, with delicious dishes made by mixing Indian, Swahili and Mediterranean gastronomy. Leave room for dessert here, they make the most exquisite Panna Cotta I’ve ever had with tender coconut, caramelised pineapple and Thai chili. www.upendozanzibar.com/thefifth


JAMBIANI:

Villa Juliana – Only for resort guests, but this was the best food we experienced in Jambiani! www.instagram.com/villa_juliana_zanzibar


Beach Bar/Restaurant at Savera Beach Houses – Very good local food.


Casa Paradis Nobis – If you are on a budget, this one is not for you. Reservation and choice of meal must be made in advance over WhatsApp.


PAJE:

Oxygen – Stylish seafood restaurant and lounge (with vegetarian options) with a gorgeous view of the sea and kite surfers.


ACCOMMODATION

STONE TOWN:

Airbnb www.bit.ly/37OyfDT

This beautiful South African-owned 2 bedroom fully kitted apartment (sleeps 4) is incredibly spacious and located right in the centre of all the highlights, and opposite the pretty St Joseph’s Cathedral. The kitchen has all the amenities and is stocked with fresh fruits, breakfast yoghurts, cereal and biscuits, bottled water, juice, milk, tea and coffee. The bathroom also has all amenities, plus extra towels. The owner has compiled a booklet with house rules and recommendations to help you out and is on WhatsApp if you need her.


JAMBIANI:

Eco-Friendly Resort – Villa Juliana – www.villa-juliana.ch

This beautiful resort was built with an environmental conscience. Water and electricity is run on solar power (there’s no guarantee you’ll get a hot shower – you just have to suck it up) and windows are glassless in order to guarantee cross ventilation which can be aided with the ceiling fans. The best part? You get to hear the sea at high tide. Local craftsmanship and locally recycled materials were used in the construction and the furniture making it such a unique place with its tropical fruit trees in the garden. The chef prepared our favourite meals by far in Jambiani! We had the best breakfasts each morning served on our terrace outside our room overlooking the sea. Perfection!


CURRENCY

Resorts accept credit cards with an added 4-7% fee, but you will need cash for the visa at the airport, shops, and taxis. It is best to take American Dollars in cash and that can be exchanged to Tanzanian Shillings.


DIVE CENTRES

JAMBIANI:

Buccaneer Diving Jambiani www.buccaneerdiving.com


PAJE:

Buccaneer Diving Zanzibar www.buccaneerdiving.com


KIZIMKAZI:

Dive Time Zanzibar www.divetimezanzibar.com


TIDE TIMETABLE

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