In general: Zanzibar is an archipelago made up mainly of “Zanzibar” – the local name is “Unguja” but it is internationally known as Zanzibar – and Pemba Islands, as well as over 50 small islands. It is located in the Indian Ocean, about 40 km from the Tanzanian coast, and 6° south of the equator. The island is roughly 85 km long and 39 km wide.
Culture/history: The capital is Zanzibar City, located on the west coast of the island. Its historic center is Stone Town and it is said to be the only functioning ancient town in East Africa. There are three buildings that I know of that have underground tunnels leading out to the ocean; these were built after the slave trade was prohibited by the British; that way the poor slaves were smuggled at low tide from the boats through the tunnels into these buildings. Stone Town’s architecture, mostly dating back to the 19th century, reflects the diverse influences underlying the Swahili culture. Stone Town was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
Zanzibar’s main industries are spices, raffia (products made from raphia palm trees), seaweed and of course tourism. The islands mainly produce cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper. For this reason, the islands are also known as the Spice Islands. Please do try to go on a spice tour, the plantations are about 20 km north of Stone Town, it is definitely worth your while.
Language is KiSwahili but English is widely spoken especially in Stone Town, also Arabic and Italian and lately there are quite a few tour guides in town who speak German.
It is lots of fun if you try to speak some words in KiSwahili, greetings for example. You will for sure be rewarded with a bright smile. Most important word is “Jambo” which is a friendly greeting – you just reply also with “Jambo”. Thank you is “ahsante”. For the English word “cool/okay” you can use “poa”. For more phrases, please check page “To do and not to do”.
As per the last consensus in 2012, approx. 1.3 million people live on Zanzibar island. Population growth annually is just over 3%.
ALL beaches on Zanzibar are PUBLIC beaches, they belong to the people of Zanzibar, by law. That means that a hotel’s property ends a few meters from the beach. You can take long walks on the endless beaches, uninterrupted.
One is not allowed to sleep on a beach at night. Tents on the beaches or anywhere else are not permitted on the island.
Besides the beautiful white sand beaches and delicious food, Zanzibar has quite a lot to offer. There are quite a few lime stone caves scattered all over Zanzibar and it is believed that in ancient days people lived in these caves. Some of the caves (like Tazari in Nungwi) are believed to have been used as hiding places for slaves in the pre-colonial Zanzibar era of the slave trade. Many of the caves are home to African bats. You can watch them at sunset flying out of the cave entrance. In Bwejuu at the south east coast is a large cave big enough to hold up to 1000 people. It is still used as a shrine. I mention a few of the caves on the pages “discover Zanzibar”.
Summer: December – February with temperatures around 30-35 degC
Rainy season: March till mid June, temperatures around 25-28degC in March, when it rains around 22-25degC – the last two years we had heavy rains and floods especially from mid April till mid June. Therefore most hotels are closed during the rainy season.
Winter: June – August, around 25 degC, with cold wind blowing especially in June
Spring: September – November, around 28-30 degCh. This is the “mini” rainy season, usually with short lived rains, sometimes though it rains for an entire day.
In general, the east coast of Zanzibar has better weather than the west coast.
Please be aware that, as anywhere else in the world, weather patterns keep changing here too.
Weather forecast: please check google weather for forecasts, it at least gives you an indication – there is NO weather station on Zanzibar. The closest one is in Dar es Salaam.
Beaches: You find here picture perfect postcard beautiful white sand beaches lined with coconut trees. My favourite part of Zanzibar is the south east coast. It is quiet, tranquil, the locals of the south east coast are extra friendly (genuinely friendly, they smile with their eyes). Here you have approx. 20 km of white sand beaches lined with coconut trees, stretching from Jambiani via Paje and Bwejuu to Michamvi.
Paje is the main village at the south east coast; it is very popular with kitesurfers – be aware that the beaches are crowded with kites during kite season and swimming in the ocean is almost impossible if not dangerous. If you stay in Paje during that time just walk a few minutes till you find a peaceful beach and safe swimming. Luckily we are blessed with a 20km stretch of beach, there is a perfect place for everyone.
Kitesurf seasons are from mid December till end of February and from mid/end May till October.
Especially the east coast of the island is protected by coral reefs that make swimming safe – no sharks or huge waves.
NB: At low tide you cannot swim in the Indian Ocean at the east, south and west coasts. The beaches at these coast lines are very flat, hence the ocean recedes at low tide out to the coral reef, which is anything between 1 and 1.5 km offshore. You can walk out towards the coral reef at low tide. Watch out for the black sea urchins, spiky things that you don’t want to step into. They are clearly visible so watch your step and wear special shoes. Also don’t pick up cone shells – see page To do and not to do. You can check the time table for low and high tide for Zanzibar on http://tides.mobilegeographics.com/calendar/year/7156.html
At the north coast, you can always swim even at low tide since the beach falls off deeply after a few meters. Therefore, the north coast is very popular with tourists. In December and January (high season) the beaches are packed with tourists there and it is quite noisy. If you are looking for a quiet holiday, this ain’t the place for you.
The west coast is my least favorite part. Especially at the southern end it is very rocky and there are only small patches of sand. Also, the sand at most of the west coast is coarse yellow, not the amazing white sand Zanzibar is famous for.
Sport activities include scuba diving, kitesurfing, SUP, snorkeling, deep sea fishing, wind surfing; cycling, volley ball, beach soccer etc. and golf (only at Sea Cliff Resort and Spa, 18 holes – No. 8 of the “30 of the World’s Most Beautiful Golf Courses” https://golfscape.com/blog/30-worlds-most-beautiful-golf-coursesjjj
Snorkeling: The best snorkeling is at Chumbe Island Coral Park with its fully protected coral reef sanctuary (www.chumbeisland.com). You can book a day trip or even stay there a night or two.
Also, the Safari Blue tour (www.safariblue.net) is highly recommended. You will be out on a boat all day, snorkeling, dolphins might choose to swim with you, BBQ lunch on a sandbank etc. Make sure you book with them, there are many cheap copies around, you will be disappointed.
Snorkeling at the Mnemba Attoll off Matemwe at the the north east coast is recommend if you don’t mind to snorkel-dive since the corals are a few meters down.
At the south east coast where you find the best white sand beaches lined with coconut trees, best snorkeling is at the Blue Lagoon off the coast of Dongwe.
Otherwise you can snorkel at the coral reefs off the entire east coast of the island at low tide.