“Travel is never a matter of money, but a matter of courage,” T.S Elliot, an English novelist, poet, and journalist once said. I have adapted this to be my motto, ever since I discovered the wanderlust that lies within me.
The recent Easter holidays found my travel partner (Kate) and me crossing the border of Kenya into Tanzania on our way to Zanzibar- the most beautiful Islands in the Indian Ocean.
The planning took a little over two months. We identified affordable accommodation and means of transport, as well as the activities we would undertake in our expedition.
Travel tip: If you plan your vacation in advance, you end up spending less, and you have ample time to explore more options.
As is our style, we opted to take the road trip from Nairobi to Tanzania’s largest city Dar es Salaam. The journey took us 16 hours. After a short sleepover in the rather busy city, we’re on the 9 am ferry bound for the Island of Cloves- Zanzibar.
Zanzibar is an archipelago in the Indian Ocean consisting of two major islands; Pemba and Unguja and many other islands. It is also known as the Island of Cloves due to its exotic spices, above all cloves, pepper, ginger, and nutmeg, among others.
There are two ways to access the island, via air or water. We took the latter. For water lovers, you can opt to use the slow ferry that takes up to seven hours to get to Zanzibar, or a fast boat, that takes two hours to cover the same distance. Seven hours would have been too long a journey for us. Hence, we settled for the boat. Now in the boat, our vacation was officially launched!
Several companies run fast boats services. The most popular boat service among the locals and tourists, however, is the Kilimanjaro Ferry by Azam. The boat is segmented into classes to accommodate each traveler’s pocket.
From a distance, we could see the port of the Spice Island, the beautiful Zanzibar. To say we were excited is an understatement. We couldn’t contain ourselves as we watched the white-sand beaches and rows of palm trees sway lazily in the sea breeze. The site was getting nearer and nearer as our boat made its final berthing sounds in preparations to dock.
Zanzibar is an old historic town that has so much to give than meets the eye. It bursts with culture and history that dates back to 19th century. The Stone Town is home to disparate elements of African, Arabian, Indian, and European cultures. Together, the cultures have come into play to form a homogenous way of life, making Zanzibar a fabulous place to relax and unwind as well as explore.
One thing you have to know about Zanzibar is that it’s a semi-autonomous state within Tanzania. Hence, visitors (those from outside East Africa) are required to have a Tanzanian visa to enter. As soon as we alighted, we were directed to the customs for a quick check in. Soon after, we stepped out and were met with very friendly faces of people asking us to ride in their taxis – and the friendly coastal feeling hit home.
We picked a taxi and had a mini drive around the city as we headed towards our hotel, which was away from town. We had a great experience as our driver, thankfully, also doubled up as a tour guide.
Being Kenyans, we fit in very well in Zanzibar as it is a Swahili- speaking community. For once, the language barrier was a non-issue.
Two hours after arriving at our hotel, we were ready to explore the city all by ourselves. We stopped at a local restaurant to sample some of the most delicious Biryani (a South Asian mixed rice dish) ever made.
Narrow long-stretched streets arouse curiosity
The tour of Stone Town was nothing short of exciting. To access the town’s intriguing sites, we used long, narrow streets, which made us very curious to explore what lay hidden around the next corner.
As is characteristic of many such towns, there was an influx of tourists from all races trying to discover the amazing old city. We decided to walk around without asking for directions; as that is always an exciting way to know a place.
No words can begin to explain how interesting Stone Town is. There are hotels every corner you turn, restaurants, curio shops and very friendly people selling all sorts of things – spices, fabric, you name it.
Stone Town seems small as you are walking around. We came to learn later from an amazing friend and a local tour guide we met during our trip that Stone Town sits on 99 acres of land. It has 51 mosques (for both Shia and Sunni Muslims), 45 hotels, a Catholic and an Anglican Church.
The Spice Town has some of the best hotels such as Park Hyatt, The Zanzibar Serena, and MaruMaru where world leaders such as Bill Clinton and Hollywood actors have visited and even slept.
During our stay, we heard of a hotel in the town, and being curious explorers as we are, we had to sample it. We visited the Lukmaan hotel, which was recommended by locals for traditional and continental delicacies, as well as a wide range of sea foods.
The highlight of our tour of Stone Town was at Forodhani Gardens- a park where locals come to relax and enjoy food and exciting activities. We sat at the front seat, giving an awe-inspiring view of the port and the ocean. Local teenagers were taking a dive into the ocean; in what we were informed is one of the traditions in the town.
In the late evening, Forodhani gardens opened up to a food market. Here we sampled luscious banquets of foods from red-colored chicken, to Shawarma, and the finger licking Zanzibar pizza. The town was a bustle of activities at night, especially because the Swahili Music Festival was scheduled for that weekend and the long Easter weekend was in waiting.
Just twenty minutes boat-ride away from the beautiful Stone Town, there is a haven hidden from Zanzibar that is totally worth a visit. Prison Island was initially designed to hold prisoners but ended up being a quarantine zone for the sick. Later, the Island became a breeding place for tortoises which so far stand at about 200 in number. Prison Island also has a hotel.
We had the pleasure of feeding the tortoises. And snorkeling! Let me say the world we live in is beautiful. The underwater is even more stunning. We got to see several species of fish and many sea plants which had us excited that we almost forgot that we were in the infinity of waters and not just a simple swimming pool.
The Spice Town where we drank madafu
Aside from the historic sites accessed through narrow streets, and the tortoise paradise, Zanzibar is famous for one thing since the colonial era – spices! So it would be an absolute mistake not to take a tour of the Spice Island where all manner of spices that we were never aware of are grown and produced.
Though the tour happened on a rainy day, the rains did not dampen our enthusiasm. We went to a garden where we had a chance to smell and even taste the many spices. We were even serenaded with a tourist song by a palm tree climber. He welcomed us with a famous coastal natural drink called madafu (coconut water).
On our last day in Zanzibar, we decided to visit a local town. We went to a henna artist based in Stone Town. We sat by the corridors that are so close to each other, we had to keep guard of our feet lest they were stepped on by the many motorcycles and people as they crisscrossed the town. We sat there for about an hour, within which we even got to experience a firsthand feud which made us snap back to reality.
Rwanda is a beautiful land with several hills which led to its nickname ‘land of a thousand hills’. With its serene environment and culture, the East …
On our final night in the great historic town, we sampled the nightlife in Zanzibar. We managed to get into a very contemporary club right in the middle of the city. We didn’t know that such a conservative town had such party revelers! We enjoyed great music in the company of our two newly found friends of Zanzibar descent.
One thing I can say about Zanzibar is that people here are amazing and the tourist sites are informative and exciting. Words cannot possibly articulate the beauty that this country beholds. So, I would highly recommend adding Zanzibar as a tourist destination.
One piece of advice that we picked up from a friend we met late last year is: “when you travel to a new country, the best way to learn about the place is to interact with the locals.” So far this has worked very well for us, and we have ended up making lifetime friends.
As narrated by Ritah Nyawira- a passionate Kenyan traveler!
Image: Ritah Nyawira