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Zanzibar Holiday

Africa's best authentic tailor-made safaris

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Zanzibar Holiday

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By Vihann Van Wyk

Safari Travel Planner

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Few world destinations conjure such exotic visions as the spice islands of Zanzibar. Look beyond its postcard-perfect beaches, turquoise seas, and stunning luxury lodges; this archetypal island paradise is so much more than it first appears on a Zanzibar holiday.

Aerial view of tropical island, Zanzibar.
Aerial view of tropical island, Zanzibar.

Beneath the tranquil surface, a fascinating and turbulent past lies veiled; whispers of a time when giraffes were sent as gifts by sultans and spices were worth much more than gold.

Spices of Zanzibar.
Spices of Zanzibar.

The frenetic focal point of African, Arabian, Indian and Persian trade for over a millennium, this East African archipelago has harbored Portuguese carracks bound for India.

Stone Town, Zanzibar.
Stone Town, Zanzibar.

It has also been the staging post for some of the Victorian era’s greatest explorers – David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley to name just two.

Boat sailing in sunset near Stone Town, Zanzibar.
Boat sailing in sunset near Stone Town, Zanzibar.

But it’s not only sultans and sailors and dhows stuffed with spice. Zanzibar’s fascinating history has a dark side too.

Zanzibar islands.
Zanzibar islands.

For hundreds of years, her crowded slave market was the grim epicenter of a vast network that stretched inland to the shores of Lake Tanganyika, south around the Cape Peninsula, and northwards to Oman and the date palms of Arabia.

Prison Island, Zanzibar.
Prison Island, Zanzibar.

Today, evidence of this rich, troubled history can be readily found in Stone Town’s unique mix of Swahili, Arabic, and Indian architecture.

Stone Town building, Zanzibar.
Stone Town building, Zanzibar.

This history is also evident in the thought-provoking museums, the fusion of fragrant cooking styles, and, of course, the ever-present scent of spices caught on the passing breeze.

Forodhani market in Zanzibar.
Forodhani market in Zanzibar.

Visitors can enjoy locally-guided spice tours, cooking classes, stylish boutiques, and colorful markets awash with hand-crafted silver jewelry, leather goods, and clothes.

A typical market scene in Stone Town I Credit: Flickr
A typical market scene in Stone Town I Credit: Flickr

Away from the bustle of Zanzibar Town, the island’s beaches are some of the best in the world, and offshore, there’s scuba diving with turtles or whale sharks and sunset dhow cruises to deserted, tidal sandbars.

Whale shark in the waters of Mafia Island, Zanzibar.
Whale shark in the waters of Mafia Island, Zanzibar.

On the archipelago’s three larger islands, you’ll find a range of lodges and activities for every dream and budget.

Tropical beach in Zanzibar.
Tropical beach in Zanzibar.

The main Zanzibar Island (proper name ‘Unguja’) is the largest and busiest, then Pemba to the north with its excellent diving and laid-back vibe.

Tropical beach in Zanzibar.
Tropical beach in Zanzibar.

The more exclusive Mafia Island in the far south is the best place to see hatching turtles (between June and September).

Turtle in the waters of Zanzibar.
Turtle in the waters of Zanzibar.

Between these main landmasses, a scattering of smaller isles shelter protected reefs and some of the world’s most stunning barefoot luxury resorts.

Zanzibar beach.
Zanzibar beach.

A holiday to Zanzibar isn’t just a holiday to any tropical island but a unique blend of cultures and experiences, a chance to bask in an ancient archipelago with a still-tangible history like no other in the world.

Beach hammock in the sunset, Zanzibar.
Beach hammock in the sunset, Zanzibar.

Zanzibar’s islands have been inhabited for many hundreds of years and although ancient records refer to imported elephants and other iconic species, you won’t find any of Africa’s major land mammals here today.

Tropical coral reef in the waters of Zanzibar.
Tropical coral reef in the waters of Zanzibar.

For the best chance of seeing Zanzibar’s smaller, rarer, and in some cases, endemic species, head to Jozani Forest Reserve just south of Zanzibar Town or Ngezi Forest Reserve on Pemba Island.

Beach on Pemba Island, Zanzibar.
Beach on Pemba Island, Zanzibar.

Jozani is home to the fabulous Kirk’s red colobus monkey, which with its distinctive grey tufts and ochre-red back, is one of the rarest sights in Africa. 

Red colobus monkey in the trees of Zanzibar rain forest
Red colobus monkey in the trees of Zanzibar rain forest

Even rarer and much harder to spot are the diminutive Zanzibar suni, Ader’s duiker, and Pemba blue duiker, all species of antelope found only in the archipelago.

The very rare diminutive Zanzibar Suni I Credit: Wikipedia
The very rare diminutive Zanzibar Suni I Credit: Wikipedia

The Pemba flying fox (really a huge fruit bat with a wingspan over 1.5m/5ft) is another native to the northernmost island, while Chumbe and Chapwani Islands are known for their giant coconut crabs.

Dhow floating in tropical waters of Zanzibar.
Dhow floating in tropical waters of Zanzibar.

Nearby Changu (Prison Island) is known for its resident (though introduced) giant tortoises.

Aerial view of Prison Island, Zanzibar.
Aerial view of Prison Island, Zanzibar.

 Over 200 species of bird have also been recorded across the islands, including the Pemba sunbird and Pemba scops owl, both endemic to Pemba Island, making it perfect for a birding holiday.

Pemba scops owl, Zanzibar I Credit: alchetron.com
Pemba scops owl, Zanzibar I Credit: alchetron.com

Beyond the mangrove and coconut forests, shallow tidal lagoons give way to stunning coral reefs, and a whole new world unfolds beneath the waves.

Dolphins in the waters of Zanzibar.
Dolphins in the waters of Zanzibar.

Zanzibar is a breathtaking destination for diving and snorkeling, though overfishing and careless management have damaged some areas. 

Turtles in the waters of Zanzibar.
Turtles in the waters of Zanzibar.

Chumbe Island, south of Zanzibar Town, has a protected reef reserved for snorkeling.

Mafia Island, Zanzibar.
Mafia Island, Zanzibar.

For diving, the best sites are off Pemba and Mafia – the former known for its spectacular wall dives and open-ocean pelagic fish and the latter for Chole Bay, arguably the best coral garden in East Africa

Whale shark in the waters around Mafia Island, Zanzibar
Whale shark in the waters around Mafia Island, Zanzibar

Visit Mafia between September and March, and you’ll also have the chance to swim with whale sharks, while from June to September nearby Juani Island hosts one of the world’s most special sights – the mad seaward dash of hatching turtles.

Diver with turtle in Pemba, Zanzibar.
Diver with turtle in Pemba, Zanzibar.

It’s impossible to soak in everything Zanzibar has to offer without maxing out your visa and staying the full three months.

Seascape of Zanzibar.
Seascape of Zanzibar.

The main Zanzibar Island itself is already more than can be explored on the average summer holiday, and Pemba and Mafia are beautiful destinations in their own right.

Beach in Zanzibar.
Beach in Zanzibar.

With its superb diving, myriad islands and inlets, rich cultural history, delicious seafood, and broad mix of laid-back, luxurious (and often very affordable) lodges and hotels, Zanzibar pulls visitors back time and again.

Tropical beach on Pemba Island, Zanzibar.
Tropical beach on Pemba Island, Zanzibar.

Happily, a trend towards sustainable tourism is also increasingly evident in recent years, allowing visitors to support the excellent work many operators are doing to promote local development and wildlife conservation.

Sunrise on Pemba Island beach, Zanzibar.
Sunrise on Pemba Island beach, Zanzibar.

But whether you’re combining the islands with a mainland safari or treating yourself to the spice isles alone, Zanzibar is a paradise not to be missed, a dream that only gets stronger once you first touch its shores.

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Copyright © Discover Africa Safaris | Zanzibar Holiday | Last Updated: 29 September 2023