Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Spice Island

Chris and I landed in Zanzibar with no expectations whatsoever. All we wanted was a beach on which to rest our weary legs post-Kili and we hadn't thought any further than that. Zanzibar was the obvious choice and after a full day on the bus, arriving in a crowded and scary bus station, missing our evening ferry and a night in a seedy Dar es Salaam hotel cum brothel, we were more than ready to get there.

I have been to an embarrassing number of beaches in my time. Yellow sand, white sand, black sand, pebbly, wavy, calm, crystal clear, murky, sunny, windy, tropical, Arctic. It is amazing how different they can be, yet how they draw people from far and wide. Everyone loves going to the seaside, they are the focus of  annual holidays yet if you look closely, very few have all the elements that make them truly special; that make them places you really want to go to unwind. Most of the time, if we're honest, it can be a bit of a chore going to the beach. I have already waxed lyrical about my love of Palolem beach in Goa so I won't bore you with that again but I do think that Zanzibar may be the only place I have been to in a long time which ticked the majority of my extremely demanding and fussy beach holiday boxes!

Stone Town, the capital, oozes history and charm. The first place we had been to in Africa where we could walk around safely at night, where there were other tourists around, and where you could actually get something decent to eat outside of your hotel; we immediately felt relaxed. Highlights included wandering the maze-like alley ways and discovering architectural hidden gems, beautiful carved wooden doors and children playing hide and seek, the colourful evening food market where you can get just about every type of fish and meat you can imagine cooked on a stick in front of you,  learning the history of the slave trade on a guided tour of the city and, I have to admit it, getting a good meal with a nice glass of wine in a bar dedicated to the Zanzibarian hero Freddie Mercury...much needed after our tiring week. That the sun shone brightly everyday also helped!

But that is enough about Stone Town, this blog is about beaches...that is what Zanzibar is most famous for and what all those honeymooners flock here to see. The main dilemma facing beach bums in Zanzibar is whether to visit the Eastern or Northern beaches. We decided to sample one of each (it's a hard job but someone's gotta do it!).

Our first stop was Bwejuu beach, a fishing village on Zanzibar's Eastern coastline. The beach stretches for miles taking in the better known resort towns of Paje and Jambiani and the entire length of sand is dotted with little resorts, bars and restaurants, most of which have thankfully been developed in a traditional style.We stayed at an awesome little place called Crazy Mzungos. Run by a Kiwi/South African couple, their main business was villa rental and a fab Jack Daniel's sponsored bar (complete with crazy juice!) but they had also started developing some flashpacker rooms out the back. Just 10 steps away from the beach these were basic digs with cold water bathrooms, but beautiful and spotlessly clean. This place was the highlight of our stay on the entire Island - we barely moved for four days, spending our evenings getting to know the owners, Matt and Mich, and sampling their daily changing food menu.

The beaches on the Eastern side of the island are best known for two main characteristics. The strong tides that can go out for up to a kilometre at certain times of day and the major draw card, kite surfing. The tides mean that this is not the best beach for swimming. There are points in the day where you would have to walk for miles to dip your feet in the sea. However, the tidal changes do make for some interesting walks and show a slice of local life that you wouldn't normally see on your average beach holiday. When the tide goes out the locals descend on the beach to tend to their seaweed farms and search for crabs and cockles in the little pools left behind by the sea. It makes for a beautiful sight - boats stranded on the sand, colourfully clothed locals going about their business, the different colours of the white sand, the brown/green seaweed and the turquoise shallow pools of water dotted around the sandy plains; a photographer's dream! If you are the sort of person who enjoys peace and quiet, sunshine filled days, walks along the beach and the odd dip (when possible) then you would not be disappointed with Bwejuu.

For our foray into the Northern scene we decided to head to Nungwi and Kendwa, supposedly the more party oriented beaches of the north. They are also well know for being the best swimming beaches on the Island with almost no tidal changes at all. Very often, the pictures that you see of beaches in travel brochures only ever serve to increase your disappointment when you finally get to your destination. Not so here. Nungwi beach, in stark contrast to the wild beauty of Bwejuu, is picture perfect in every way, with the finest whitest sand, the most turquoise of seas, little wooden boats sailing past on the horizon and magical sunsets that transform the sky into a blanket of oranges and pinks. The town itself, however, is a little odd. Though friendly enough with a decent smattering of bars and restaurants bang on the sand, it is dominated by modern resorts and we were hassled all day long for sunset cruises and snorkeling trips. All in all it felt less relaxing and lacked charm.

A little further south, Kendwa is a stunning little beach that is home to two large backpacker style resorts catering to a young crowd. Quiet during the week, this beach is famed for its weekend parties, especially when the full moon is out. It struck us as a nice enough place to stay but again, there was so little local colour that you really could have been anywhere. The most famous resort, Kendwa Rocks, even had its own token payment system which gave it a rather Costa del Sol feel. For anyone who likes their creature comforts, to swim in the sea all day long, eat in more polished restaurants and drink in cocktail bars then Nungwi/Kendwa is the place to be. Honeymoon perhaps! On this trip though it didn't quite have the authenticity we were looking for.

Giant Tortoise
All in all, Zanzibar is one of the few places that I have been outside of Goa where your holiday can actually be played out on the sand, metres from the sea. The Island also has plenty to keep you occupied making it a wonderful place for a holiday break.

Unfortunately our camera was stolen en route to Zambia and we lost the majority of our Zanzibar photographs but hopefully there are enough here to give you a taste of the place. More photos of Tanzania (including Kili and Dar) can be found here.

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