Did you know that Zanzibar is actually an archipelago composed of more than 50 islands, including two main ones? Unguja, commonly referred to as Zanzibar, and Pemba.
Zanzibar has been an important commercial stop since the ancient Assyrians, with traders coming from as far as Arabia, India and the Persian Gulf. This fusion of different African, Asian and Arab influences can be seen today in the island’s architecture. A prime example is Stone Town, a must-see while on the island. However, Unguja, or Zanzibar Island, is worth discovering outside the old town.
Mtoni Palace Ruins
Built and expanded between 1828 and late 1880 by Sultan Said and Sultan Barghash, the ruins of Mtoni Palace feature bathhouses and a well-preserved hammam. The original site belonged to Saleh bin Haramil in the early 1800s, which makes it Zanzibar’s oldest palace. The Omani trader was the first to introduce cloves to Zanzibar, the birth of the spice trade on the island.
Kidichi Persian Baths
Dating from 1850 and built by Sultan Seyyid Said for his Persian wife, Scheherezade, the Kidichi Persian Baths are in ruins, but you can see some of the older carvings, as well as the bathing pool and massage tables.
This palace was the most decorated on the island, built with coral stone and wood for Sultan Barghash in 1882 to host his large harem of 100 concubines. A fire destroyed it in 1899, and today the great pillars and bathhouses are all that remain.
Kizimkazi, an hour’s drive from Stone Town, is the access point to Mena Bay, home to both humpback and bottlenose dolphins. On many occasions, you might snorkel close to them — though make sure that the tour operator follows guidelines for responsible dolphin viewing.
Zanzibar was an infamous slave trade stop along the African coast. Started by the Portuguese in the 15th century, the slave trade was promoted by the Omani until they abolished it in 1873 following bombardments by the British navy. Slaves were detained on Prison Island, and later it served as a place of quarantine for the sick. Today the ruins can be visited, via a 30-minute boat ride from Stone Town, and give a glimpse into the island’s somber history. Those interested in learning more about this part of Zanzibar’s history will also want to visit the Old Slave Market, located under the Anglican cathedral, in Stone Town. Also called Changuu Island, Prison Island now serves as a nature preserve for giant tortoises, and the turquoise waters offer nice snorkeling options
Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park
One of the rarest primates in Africa, the indigenous Zanzibar red colobus monkey can be seen in the Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park, and in farms around the reserve. Though shy, the little monkeys are used to humans and can be easily spotted in trees and on the ground. You might also see Skyes’ monkeys, or get lucky enough to spot the Zanzibar leopard.
Zanzibar Butterfly Center
A local project aimed to sustain local communities, this small center allows you to view butterflies in cocoons and hatching. The population is in its early stages and on the small side, but it’s worth visiting the center to support this local initiative.
Zanzibar is known as the Spice Island, and for good reason. Take a spice tour through plantations, forests and fields where cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and black pepper grow, to be sold throughout the world.
Diving and Snorkeling
Pange Sandbank, a 20-minute boat ride from Stone Town, is great for snorkeling in shallow waters and encountering clownfish or parrotfish. Mnemba Island, accessible from Nungwi, has been compared to an aquarium with wall and drift diving. Turtles, dolphins, whale sharks and humpbacks can be seen depending on the time of the year. Prison Island is another good destination for leisurely snorkeling.
Miles of unspoiled beaches can be found on Zanzibar. Several are well-developed like the popular Nungwi and nearby Kendwa, with cruises, cycling and snorkeling available. Make sure to visit the Mnarani Marine Turtles Conservation Pond. Paje is popular for watersports, including kitesurfing. More remote beaches include Jambiani, Uroa and Matemwe, all quiet fishing villages where local women and children harvest seaweed during low tide. Nakupenda Beach is a sandbar but makes a relaxing stop on the way to Prison Island.
Kitesurfing is a growing sport on the island, and popular spots are located around Nungwi as well as near Paje and Matemwe. Other kiteboarding beaches include Jambiani and Kiwengwa.
Sometimes called the Green Island, Pemba is largely underdeveloped and much of it is covered in mangroves, lagoons and long, isolated sandy beaches. If relaxing by the beach is not your thing, head to the tropical Ngezi Forest for a change of scenery and chance to spot local wildlife. One of Pemba’s highlights is Misali Island, which has great diving and snorkeling, plus a rare velvet monkey. Pemba is best reached via plane from Unguja.
— Patricia Pagenel