If you want to get away from the stress of every day life and relax, head to Zanzibar – one of the most picturesque places on the planet. The island located off the east coast of Tanzania was once a major center of trade, that has turned into a vacationer’s dream paradise. Imagine soft white sand beaches that stretch on for miles and turquoise blue water so clear that you can see all the way to the bottom. The air is warm and rich with local spices grown here in abundance. The island invites people to its shores and keeps them longing to return again.
We flew into Zanzibar from Kilimanjaro airport, then proceeded to Nungwi, our home for our short stay. The hour long ride to the small sleepy fishing village at the top of the island is arduous and costly. From the airport, the taxi rates are fixed, depending on where you want to go. We paid $65 USD for the ride from the airport to our final destination. Going back, there are more options available since there are many places advertising taxi service on the beach, and depending on your negotiation skills, it will be a fraction of the cost. We found a nice guy, Said, who took us back to Stone town for only $35 USD.
Zanzibar welcomes travelers on a variety of budgets; there are accommodations ranging from luxury five star resorts to cheap hostels. We spent our time at the Hilton Doubletree resort in Nungwi, booked through Anoma with a price mistake of only $50 per night instead of the $250 regular price. The only draw-back was that it required a minimum 4 night stay. Even though we only needed 3 nights, we were happy to pay for the 4th night as well considering that it only cost us a total of $245 after taxes and fees – less than 1 night at the regular price. Upon checking in, and informing the front desk that we have Gold status with Hilton, we were promptly upgraded to a room with pool/ocean view.
After the hot dusty safari, the quiet beach felt like a tropical paradise. We kept the activities down to a minimum, choosing instead to spend the majority of our time around the beach. Here is what we did, compressed into a day:
6:30 AM: Woke up, threw on some shorts and walked out to the beach. It’s still quiet at this early hour. The traditional dhow boats just started coming in from a night of fishing. Each night the fishermen have to navigate across the rough waters at the breaker to get out to the open sea in darkness, but they know the water like the back of their hands. Every morning the iconic white sails can be seen coming back into shore. As they get closer to the coast, the sail is lowered as they prepare to unload their catch to be sold at the nearby fish market.
7:30 AM: Came back and had a quick breakfast at the hotel. Coconut and freshly-made waffles is a great way to start the day.
8:30 AM: One of my favorite experiences while on the island was going snorkeling on the dhow boat. You can book through the hotel or with locals on the beach. We decided to go with a local company, the Sea Brothers, and the whole excursion including lunch cost us $25 pp. Beware that these places might not have the greatest equipment. My life jacket could not be zipped up, so I had to tie a rope around it to keep it from floating up. The mouth piece of my face mask fell off a few times too. Aside from the questionable equipment, the trip was great.
In the morning the sky was cloudy and grey coupled with high winds. We were justifiably anxious about the reliability of the dhow that would take us out to sea. I had to take half a Dramamine, a motion sickness pill, because I was afraid of the choppy water. As it turned out, we were worried for nothing, the boat ride was smooth and easy. As soon as we were in deeper water, the big white sail unfurled and picked up wind as we glided across the water. In no time we made it to the Mnemba Atoll to start snorkeling. The water out there was surprisingly warm. Spending an hour and a half at the dive site, we saw a lot of fish, but the corals were disappointing. There were many sea urchin littered across the ocean floor and some of them were bigger than my head with long spikes.
After diving, we took the boat back to the beach for lunch. On the ride over, the crew were hanging out on the side of the boat, fishing with just a line. They actually caught a few decent sized fish that would later supplement our lunch. After a delicious meal, we went for a walk along the beach. The sand was so fine and fluffy, it felt like we were stepping on a pillow.
1:30 PM Back at our hotel, every day after lunch we would go for a walk on the beach to work off some of the food. The sand is white and super fine, but during low tide there is a lot of seaweed and gunk that gets washed up on shore.
While walking on the beach we were approached by a lot of locals trying to sell us everything from name plates to snorkeling trips. The touts that frequent these beaches can be very persistent. They try to strike up a conversation and latch on to the visitors, which can be very disconcerting. The best way to deal with them is to be polite with a firm “No, thank you”. Walking away while avoiding eye contact also sends the message.
2:30 PM: We alternated our days between swimming in the Indian ocean and lounging on the deck chairs. The warm water was calm and shallow – perfect for beginner swimmers like me.
4:00 PM: During low tide, we ventured far into the water with our snorkel gear to find sea urchins. These prickly creatures are in abundance in the Indian ocean. After finding a few small ones, we gathered up our loot and went back to shore in anticipation of eating some fresh sea urchin. These spiny critters have a tough exterior and are hard to crack open, but we made do with a knife that we borrowed from the kitchen. After a lot work, we finally found the delicate creamy part, except it tasted sandy and weird. I totally appreciate why they cost so much now.
4:30 PM: Every afternoon, without fail, a group of local women walked out into the water fully clothed, with buckets and sticks. At first I thought they were going to pick up shells during low tide, but what they were doing is a well practiced synchronization that is designed to draw in the fish. They spread out into a large circle and disturb the water to stir up the bottom dwellers while the women at a large gap in the circle hold a net to catch the fish. They continue to move closer tightening the circle, until they are next to each other, closing in the net. It’s such an amazing experience to watch.
5:30 PM: It’s hard not to be mesmerized by the color show every night at sunset. Picture the cerulean blue sky slowly changing to various shades of orange as the blazing ball of fire descends into the ocean. The sunset here is so vibrant. We sat in awe until the sun was completely gone and there was just a streak of red across the sky.
6:00 PM For dinner, we opted to frequent the many restaurants on the beach in Nungwi. The island is predominantly Muslim, so if you go during Ramadan, be mindful that most restaurants will not serve food until after 7:30. It’s ok though, you can still enjoy a few beers while watching the sun slowly disappear into the horizon.
Most restaurants serve the same fare, everything from western food to traditional dishes and of course an extensive list of grilled seafood. We always opt for the fresh seafood, caught earlier that morning. They had everything on the menu from king prawns to octopus to Australian bug to fish, and most dishes don’t cost more than $10. Our meal for two with food and beer usually cost us about $20 total!
8:00 PM The perfect way to end the night is to sit on the beach, under the sky full of stars with a shisha and drink in hand. Leaning back on the easy chair set up right by the water, we listened to the waves thundering in. The warm night is filled with Moroccan music playing softly in the background. We took turns taking a few puffs from the long pipe inhaling the scented smoke. Life can’t be better than this.
10:00 PM Sleep
There are many other things to do around the island like visit the red Colobus monkey in the Jozani forest, or visit the giant tortoise on prison island, or go on a fruit and spice tour; but we decided to take it easy and spend all our time at the beach. Nungwi is a quiet and low key place, especially during low season. It’s the perfect place to enjoy nature and quiet walks on the beach. The longer we stayed, the more we fell in love with this island and could not wait to come back again.
- Flight: Precision Air – $ 325 per person for one way ticket
- Hotel: Hilton Doubletree Nungwi – $ 82 per night
- Snorkeling: Sea Brothers – $25 pp
- Taxi: $35—$65 one way trip from airport to Nungwi