THERE is something about waking up on a tropical island with its fresh palm trees and bright blue water sloshing onto light sandy beaches that makes the heart happy.
And on Zanzibar Island happy really is what the people are.
Undeniably African in most senses of the word (about half the population lives below the poverty line) Zanzibar consists of numerous small islands and two large ones: Unguja which is the main island and referred to as Zanzibar, and Pemba Island which is less touristy.
Zanzibar is blessed with magnificent beaches and a rich history – and a mere three and a half hour flight from Johannesburg to its capital, Zanzibar City, makes it an easy destination for South Africans.
But Zanzibar, as my husband Guillaume and I discovered on our dream second honeymoon last week, is an island of contradictions of which both sides are equally beautiful.
In a small village not too far from my hotel, young Zanzibari girls crowd around me. The scene before me is one I have seen all over East Africa. Many of the children are dressed in bright dresses which are too big, torn at places and some a little dirty. A donation from richer countries in Europe or America, the clothes worn by many people in Africa are often sold at local markets when the bags of donated goods, intended to be handed out for free, reach the continent. That’s the way of East Africa; everything is an opportunity to make money. The girls in their pretty hand-me-downs touch my hair, look at my bracelet and necklace and feel the fabric of my shirt.
I take a photograph of them and turn my digital camera to show them what they look like. Most have never seen a photo of themselves and they can’t get enough of it.
Kambi Waziri, an ex-sailor I encountered in the street in front of the hotel, quickly turned tour guide and accompanied me to the village.
“It’s a really nice village too, you must come and see it,” he said proudly when we were negotiating the price for my outing. It turned out to be a mutually beneficial agreement.
Zanzibar is a small island with a big heart and 1600km of road, so it takes a long time to get anywhere and having a local to show you around can be helpful.
He introduces me to the village doctor and shows me the very basic clinic. We take a walk through the town, meeting and greeting people who welcome us into their houses. Some ask for money but back off as soon as they realise that I am not handing it out.
It is a remarkable experience, to walk into a town as a stranger and leave feeling so welcomed. To feel safe although you don’t know anyone, and to look down to find the hand of a little girl, dressed in her donated princess dress, in your hand – smiling at you as if you have been friends for ever.
At the other end of the Zanzibar contradiction scale you find a haven of relaxation and comfort.
Thanks to Africa Stay I got to know the island, using some of their many five and four-star hotels as bases – hotels that not only offer many of the estimated 984625 people on the island jobs, but form part of the greater tourism industry which, according to one tour guide, make up 42% of the island’s GDP.
If being pampered is your thing, Zanzibar is just where you want to be. Most of Africa Stay’s hotels flow onto the breath-taking beaches offering the best views, and the opportunity to lie under a banda, swim in the sea or relax next to the pool and sip cocktails.
Here you can indulge in three buffet meals daily and dine with your feet in the sand, treat yourself to a day at the spa, kayak and jetski or just soak up the sun and fantastic sights.
From the hotel you can also easily arrange excursions to many of Zanzibar’s tourist attractions. Like a stroll through magnificent Stone Town, now a world heritage site which is claimed to be the only functioning ancient town in East Africa, with its narrow streets and exquisite Arabic doors.
Or a spice tour at one of the island’s many spice farms – an informative outing that prickles the senses and is filled with tidbits of information. If that isn’t your cup of tea you can arrange to take a dhow (local boat) to Prison Island to brush up on your knowledge of the slave trade and see giant land tortoises. Or you can snorkel the glorious coral reef and then enjoy a local meal of crayfish with a selection of tropical fruit.
It is after such a meal, followed by a marathon bargaining session at the local market and a fiery sunset and cocktails at Mercury’s Zanzibar – a tribute to Freddy Mercury who was born on the Island – that I returned after dark to my hotel.
Early evening in Africa is a personal favourite. Tiny villages without electricity are lit with candles and locals roam the streets socialising.
In the soft light kids play, adults catch up on their daily gossip and meals are prepared.
As I drive past, people notice me and wave – often shouting with big smiles, “Karibu Zanzibar!” (Welcome to Zanzibar!) Small village or five-star hotel, morning or night … you always feel welcome in Zanzibar and I for one will be back soon.
WHAT IT COSTS
TOUR operator Africa Stay and Mango Airline have partnered, offering direct weekly flights to Zanzibar from Johannesburg and holiday packages that won’t devastate your wallet. Their packages are all inclusive which makes your stay even more enjoyable as most things on the island are quite expensive in comparison to the mainland. Prices vary between R6 995 and R14 150 per person in low season, depending on the accommodation you choose (five, four, three or two star).
It includes flights, accommodation for seven nights, three buffet meals a day and most beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic).
Having been to Zanzibar on a shoestring budget previously and now as part of a package deal I can highly recommend Africa Stay. For more details or to book, visit www.africastay.com/zanzibar-flights
YOU CAN EASILY ARRANGE ANY OF THESE DAY OR HALF DAY EXCURSIONS FROM YOUR HOTEL:
1. A tour of Stone Town and the local market;
2. Prison Island and the giant land tortoises;
3. Spice tours where you can shop for flavoursome spices, coffee and tea;
4. A day out on a dhow and snorkeling reefs; or
5. The night food market in front of the Old Fort in Stone Town. It’s an African feast of seafood not to be missed – provided you are not squeamish!
ZANZIBAR DO’S AND DON’TS
1. MONSOON season is March to May and afternoon tropical downpours are the norm. But this also means cooler temperatures and cheaper accommodation. Often visitors are blessed with a quick downpour followed by sunshine for the rest of the day, so don’t exclude this time of year entirely. During November and December there is another, shorter, rainy season.
2. If you are planning your own trip and not using a tour operator, keep in mind that Zanzibar is an expensive destination and you will have to cough up a lot more for most things in comparison to the mainland or Kenyan coast. If you are flying to Dar es Salaam you can take the ferry from there to Zanzibar, or search for chartered flights to the Island form the mainland.
3. If you want to take the budget route when arranging excursions, try one of the beach boys who will be hanging around the beach at your hotel. They put up a tough fight but if you know your stuff you can get bargain a great price. Keep in mind that it won’t be done as professionally or reliably as the tours arranged by your hotel.
4. When you are in Stone Town or using public transport keep an eye on your belongings. Your wallet might disappear if you don’t.