Zanzibar, situated between 25 and 50 kilometres off the mainland coast in the Indian Ocean, is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania. Known collectively as the Spice Islands, the Zanzibar archipelago consists of roughly 50 small islands and islets, as well as two main ones: Unguja (usually referred to informally as Zanzibar) and Pemba. The capital of the region, located on the island of Unguja, is Zanzibar City with its well-known and much-visited Stone Town historic centre: a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The postcard-perfect island of Zanzibar oozes culture and history that is at first brush seemingly at odds with its idyllic geography of white-sand beaches and coconut palms swaying lazily in the sea breeze. But it is precisely this diversity that makes Zanzibar such an attractive and varied island to explore, as well as a dream destination for simply relaxing and recharging.
The Zanzibar Archipelago is a magical spot to unwind after your safari. You’ll enjoy gin-clear, turquoise-blue water and shallow sandbars perfect for wading. For those that make the effort to venture beyond the main island of Unguja, there are many small, nearly deserted islands and islets within the wider archipelago that remain virtually unvisited by tourists.
When you tire of lazing on heavenly beaches, then its time to don a mask and snorkel (or scuba gear) and immerse yourself in a mesmerising underwater world. While fishermen have heavily exploited the reefs around Zanzibar and the large numbers of tourist boats have further exacerbated the problem, the attractive sea conditions, excellent underwater visibility, and the opportunity to swim with dolphins lure many travellers into the water.
While Zanzibar is first and foremost an idyllic beach and warm-water destination for travellers, it would be a travesty to visit the Spice Islands without exploring the World Heritage Site of Stone Town: Zanzibar City’s old quarter. There is a rich and terrifying history of slave and spice trading that deserves to be seen by every visitor. Follow up the old slave monuments and museums with a trip into the island market to ensure you get a healthy dose of Swahili culture before you head off to the Chole Island Marine Park just off the coast from Stone Town where the nearby Prison, Grave, and Snake islands make for a pleasant day-trip and provide a good break from exploring the dark, winding passageways of the old city.
On the south coast of Zanzibar, the Menai Bay Conservation Area is a designated sea turtle protection area for the threatened turtle species that come onto the island at night to lay their eggs. Roads to the southeast coast also pass through the Jozani Forest, which is home to Zanzibar’s rare Red Colobus monkeys as well as other primate and small antelope species.
Although it is officially part of Tanzania, Zanzibar is in almost all aspects – politics, religion, culture and food – very different. Developed originally as a base for traders from the African lakes region, India and Arabia, Zanzibar became a hub for the region’s slave and spice trades. Consequently, most Zanzibaris consider themselves Zanzibari rather than Tanzanian, and their territory has its own leader and governing bodies. While mainland Tanzania is a mix of Muslim, Christian and various indigenous groups, Zanzibar (which the Sultanate of Oman ruled for centuries) is almost entirely Muslim. Despite being overwhelmingly Muslim, conservative casual wear is generally acceptable dress everywhere, but revealing clothes should be avoided since they may cause offence – particularly in towns and villages in the coastal areas where there is a very strong Muslim influence. In Zanzibar specifically, you will need to cover your knees and shoulders when outside of the hotel and beach resort areas.
It is also worth recognizing that while thunderstorms and rain showers can introduce an exciting element to a wildlife safari, heavy rainfall doesn’t tend to enhance a beach holiday! As such, it’s a good idea to try and make sure you visit Zanzibar or any of the other Indian Ocean islands during the drier months from June to October and December to February to ensure the optimal island and beach experience.