The Zanzibar Archipelago is a glorious land of Eden-like beaches and sparkling warm waters, with a fascinating Arabic-Swahili culture. Geoffrey Dean reveals the best places to scuba dive, fish and, of course, sleep in the Spice Islands
When Jonathan and Bronwyn Earl first flew up from South Africa to Pemba for a holiday in 2008, they thought it would be a one-off visit. But so taken were they with the island that they have been coming back not just every year but twice a year. Jonathan proposed on Pemba, they got married on Pemba and they celebrate their anniversary every year on Pemba. For the two of them, like many others, its magnetic allure makes it one of the most special places in Africa.
Zanzibar, or Unguja as the locals know it, and Pemba are the two principal islands of the 50 or so that make up the Zanzibar Archipelago, some 25-50km off Tanzania. Zanzibar is the biggest, with Pemba about two-thirds of the size, but each is quite different from the other. While Zanzibar is predominantly flat and sandy, Pemba is hilly, fertile and heavily forested with mangrove ecosystems. Zanzibar has a population of more than a million and more than 200 hotels, while Pemba has 300,000 residents and its hotels can be counted on one hand.
If the pace of life on the former can be a little frenetic, it is altogether slower on Pemba. The two enjoy semi-autonomy, being part of Tanzania, but in control of their own affairs, apart from foreign policy and defence.
Zanzibar, and in particular Mnemba, a coral atoll just off it, have some very fine scuba diving, but Pemba’s is even more spectacular. The coral reefs and small barrier islands surrounding Pemba protect a multitude of marine species. There are 25 dive sites, of which the majority are just off Mesali, an islet near its south-western tip with a baobab tree reckoned to be more than 500 years old. Some of their names tell their own story — Coral Mountain, Coral Gardens, Table Mountain, Kokota Overhangs and Purple Baobab, for example — and six of them require divers to have an Advanced Open Water PADI certification.
Jonathan Earl has done them all. “It’s a diver’s paradise here,” he says. “Exceptional visibility, beautiful coral, stunning multi-coloured fish of all sizes and dramatic wall dives. I once saw a school of seven or eight mini-manta rays, or devil rays as they’re known, which jumped clear out of the water.” So, too, do the scores of spinner dolphins, which love the waters around Mesali. Twisting out of the sea, they perform acrobatic twirls in mid-air, seemingly to order, if you follow them by boat.
Fundu Lagoon’s proximity to Mesali gives the lodge a great location. The property, which opened in 2000, is accessed by boat — 15 minutes in a rib — and its very remoteness is part of its mystique. “There’s nowhere quite like it in Africa,” Earl says. “Whether it’s the diving, the fishing, the food, the staff, the space of the cottages, the beach, the views, the sense of winding down… And then at night, there’s the fabulous constellations and the noise of the bush babies.”
The fishing around Pemba has long been exceptional, due to the deep drop-offs all around the island, especially to the north of it, where the depth reaches 1.2km in places. Marlin — blues, blacks and striped — proliferate there, as do sailfish, grey trevally and both yellowfin and dogtooth tuna. Rusty Rausche, a veteran South African seaman who skippers Fundu’s fishing boat, knows the islands and waters around Pemba better than anyone. “The fishing’s as good as it gets in East Africa,” he declared. “The majority of the barrier islands off Pemba have fishermen who spend the odd night but don’t live there, as there’s no water for them. Only Panza has its own water. Uvinje, where a new lodge is being built, and Fundo are two islets that are populated but rely on desalinated water. Njao gets water brought in by dhow.”
The other two main hotels on Pemba — Aiyana and Manta — are in the far north of the island. The Manta Resort has gained notoriety for its ‘underwater’ bedroom, with windows that are three panes thick and a lounge and deck area above water level. At US$1200 per night (in low season), it does not come cheap but there have been plenty of takers.
About 50 kilometres to the southwest of Pemba lies Zanzibar. Its rich history is embodied in UNESCO World Heritage Site Stone Town, a maze of winding lanes and narrow alleyways, palaces, mosques, raised terraces and circular towers. The Beit el-Ajaib (or House of Wonders), which Sultan Sayyid Barghash erected in the late-19th century, is an extraordinary construction, with beautifully carved doors inscribed in gilt with texts from the Koran, marble pavements and silver decorations on the staircases. It was also the first place on the island to have electric light.
This lavishness has been adopted by many of the top hotels. Baraza, a delightful boutique resort on the south-east coast, is a tasteful fusion of Swahili and Arabic design, with imposing arches, intricate stucco décor, antiques and brass lanterns. Children are allowed there but not at The Palms next door, another even smaller five-star establishment, with only six villas amid hundreds of coconut palms (hence the name). The rooms are exquisitely designed and furnished with thick Swahili doors and hardwood floors.
Visitors hoping to spend a little less could opt for Breezes Beach Club, a comfortable hideaway fronting onto the same patch of white sand as The Palms and Baraza. Similarly, the Zanzi Resort in the south-west is good value. With panoramic views to the sea, it is near Changuu Island, a prison for runaway slaves that was never used and is home to Unguja’s giant tortoises, which were a gift from the Seychelles.
Not far away is The Residence, whose 66 villas are an opulent mix of African, Omani and European architecture. Helpfully, each villa comes with a bicycle, allowing guests to explore the tropical gardens that spread over a 32-hectare site that was once occupied by the Shirazi princes. The hotel sits on a mile-long beach of powdery white sand, near the village of Kizimkazi, known for its dolphin boat safaris.
Finally, if it’s a budget hotel you are after, then Kendwa Rocks at the northern end is the place. The beach here is glorious, and the fact that there is no tide is a big advantage. The Rocks Lounge provides nightlife throughout the week and is a popular haunt.
This spectacular archipelago isn’t just about the sun, sand and sea. Philip Briggs outlines some other good reasons to go
Zanzibar’s time-worn Stone Town — an atmospheric enclave of around 2000 traditional buildings run through by a labyrinthine knot of narrow alleys — lies at the historical and cultural heart of the Swahili Coast. The ancient waterfront, lined with creaking dhows and their billowing sails, is guarded by the imposing battlements of the Old Fort, which started life as a Portuguese church in 1598, and was fortified by Omani Arabs a century later. Elsewhere, the enchanted traveller might wander past tall Zanzibari houses inhabited by the likes of Livingstone and Stanley before they launched their explorations into the African interior. More than any individual landmark, what strikes most visitors about Stone Town’s backstreets, and their hotchpotch of African, Arabic, Asian and European influences, is the compelling sense of a place in which you can lose yourself — both literally and figuratively — for hours.
The countryside surrounding Stone Town is dotted with outlying buildings of historic and architectural interest. Kizimkazi, on the south end of Zanzibar, is the site of an inscribed mosque founded by a local sheikh in 1107 and still in use today, while pillar tombs and a mosque of similar vintage can be visited at Pemba’s Ras Mkumbuu. But the most impressive of the island’s many ruins, only 3km south of Stone Town, is Maruhubi Palace, which was built for Sultan Barghash in 1882. A harem of around a hundred royal concubines lived here prior to 1899, when a raging fire rendered it uninhabitable, but surviving features include a Persian-style bathhouse, a lily-covered pool and the pillars that supported the upper storey.
The islands support the striking and rare Kirk’s red colobus monkey. This Zanzibar endemic has an unkempt, snowy-tufted crown and a thoughtful gaze that bring to mind an arboreal Einstein contemplating the mysteries of the universe. Habituated troops can be tracked in Jozani Forest, part of the Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park, whose creation in 2004 has been instrumental in the number of this endangered species growing from around 1500 to more than 3000 today. An introduced population can be seen at Pemba’s Ngezi Forest Reserve, which is also a good place to look for four endemic bird species: the Pemba scops owl, Pemba green pigeon, Pemba white-eye and Pemba sunbird.
Zanzibar is also known as the Spice Island, in reference to the ubiquitous clove plantations first established there by Sultan Said of Oman in 1827. The isles are no longer the world’s largest clove producer, but the tropical aroma of the drying flower buds still permeate the countryside of Pemba and Zanzibar in harvesting season (September-November). Today, half-day spice tours are all but de rigueur, offering the opportunity to see the 15m-high trees from which the cloves are plucked.
• Getting there Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and Qatar Airways all fly to Dar es Salaam. From there, fly to Zanzibar or Pemba with Coastal Aviation.
• Where to stay There are plenty of accommodation options to suit all budgets. In Zanzibar, high-end retreats include: The Zanzibar Collections’ Baraza Resort and Spa (doubles from £495), The Palms Zanzibar (doubles from £495) and Breezes Beach Club and Spa (doubles from £90), as well as The Residence (doubles from £385). For a budget escape with a buzzing nightlife, try Kendwa Rocks (doubles from £35). On Pemba, Fundu Lagoon (from £265 per person) is a very good option with a great location and superb diving. Aiyana (doubles from £250) and The Manta Resort (doubles from £320) are also top-notch.
• When to go The Zanzibar Archipelago is a year-round holiday destination.
• Health Visit your travel clinic to ensure you have had all the necessary vaccinations.
• Further reading The Bradt Guide to Zanzibar (8th Edition) by Chris and Susan McIntyre