Zanzibar is a phenomenal place, but it’s not because of the beaches.
The temptation, when you arrive on a tropical island, is to plonk yourself down with a cocktail and a book and try your best not to move until your time is up and you’re begrudgingly slingshotted back into the thousand tiny disappointments of everyday life. Zanzibar offers the opportunity for that – bright blue water, sugar-fine sand, palm trees that scrape the sky, all of that jazz. But it has so much more to offer.
When Teagan Cunniffe and I travelled there for a story in our November issue, scoping out the eco-friendly places to stay on this absurdly beautiful island, we stayed well on the other side of the hotel security fence. We sipped black coffee in Jaws Corner in the cool early mornings, and freewheeled down back roads on rickety bicycles. We snorkelled above East Africa’s healthiest coral garden, and heard whalesong juddering through the water. We ate a not-insignificant number of chapattis.
Here are my recommendations of the day trips that you can’t miss on your trip to Zanzibar.
1. Take a bike tour to a spice farm
The history of Zanzibar is inextricably tied up with spices, and a tour to the spice farms north of Stone Town is one of the most popular tours on the island. But we decided to do something a little different. Or at least, I did; Teagan imagined that we would be taking a short, idyllic caper around some mango trees, smelling vaguely of cinnamon. Instead, we smelled very differently as we cycled the roughly 30 kilometres from the centre of Stone Town to the spice farm and back.
Riding through the downtown area was, let’s say, a full-body experience. Teagan and I wobbled after our guide like little chickens after a hen, dodging motorbikes, donkey-carts, dala-dalas, goats, cars and people. It was dusty, chaotic, and some of the most fun I had on the island.
But if that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you can load the bikes onto a dala-dala and skip forward to the serene part – when the cars and buildings give way to tall palm trees, quiet roads and smooth red clay.
The spice farm tour made up for the exertion. We followed Abdullah, the spice farm owner, who showed us the fruits and spices grown here. Seville oranges, cinnamon, jackfruit, ylang ylang, carambola, annato, pawpaw, limes, mango, were just some of the produce we sniffed and slurped and sampled as we made our way around – and then it was time for lunch. It was a slow and heavy ride back to town.
2. Day trip to Chumbe island
Chumbe island is the first privately-funded marine park in Africa. There are only seven eco-bungalows on the island, and the fees gathered from accommodation are entirely funnelled back into a variety of projects aimed at marine conservation in and around Zanzibar. Staying overnight is of course not cheap – but day trippers get access to the island, an amazing lunch, and even use of a bungalow for the afternoon, which offers amazing value. It’s worth it for the world-class snorkelling alone. The only catch is that availability for day trips depends on the number of overnight guests, so it’s not possible to book more than one or two days ahead.
3. Stone town tour
It is impossible to plan a trip to Zanzibar without hearing about the winding alleyways, the citrus carts, the motos, the bicycles, the architecture. I suggest treating it like a museum, and accepting that it’s better to do one section fully than dash around trying to look at everything. If you do only have one day, try to find a tour that can be tailored to your interests, rather than doing a loop of every historical site of interest. Spoiler alert: there are a lot of them. Like most experiences in Zanzibar, this is one that it’s worth shelling out for a licensed guide. There will be plenty of unlicensed touts at Forodhani gardens who will want to take you around, and that’s fine – but be aware that this information is often passed down third hand, rather than by independent study.
We went with Hammad from Eco-Culture Tours; ask him about his outlandish theory regarding the slave chambers underneath the Anglican cathedral.
4. Jozani Forest
Jozani Forest is the largest surviving forest in Zanzibar, and most people come here to see the endemic red Colobus monkeys. That’s not difficult – because they’re protected in this area, they’re not afraid and highly habituated to humans. (Although because they lack the stomach enzymes necessary to digest sugary fruit, they’re not really domesticable – as our guide explained to us, there’s nothing humans can offer them that they don’t prefer to do themselves.)
You’ll be assigned a guide at the entrance (this is included in your fee, though of course you should also tip), so you could make your own way there via alternative transport if you wanted.
5. Eat street food
With the obvious caveat that some stomachs are stronger than others, street food here is great. I still have dreams about fresh Zanzibar chapattis, wrapped in newspaper, too hot to hold properly. Kachori also come highly recommended – little deep-fried balls of mashed potato, spiced with chilli and lime. Kitumbuwa, little rice-flour fritters are often flavoured with cardamom. And, of course, you should buy a fresh coconut every time you see one.
6. Safari Blue
Don’t be fooled – many casual tour guides will want to take you on a “Safari Blue” trip. That’s because this tour is so popular, and has been around for so long, that it’s used as a synonym for “day trip on a boat.” It’s a very smooth-running organisation, with armbands and group names to make sure people don’t get lost, and once you’re split up into groups of 10 or so on each boat, it feels much more like a family affair. There are a lot of highlights, when your day includes two different snorkelling spots off the various islands around Zanzibar and a delicious seafood braai on the beach (beers and lobster included) – but one of my favourite moments was when the sails came down, and we took a lazy ride back to shore with the trade winds behind us.
7. Visit the Sponge Farm
This is possibly the least glamorous outing we did in Zanzibar, but also the most satisfying. Okala, a conservationist known locally by only his last name, wanted us to see this project first hand. The Sponge farm has been developed as an alternative source of income for fishermen – if they’re carefully looked after, they can provide full-time employment for two people. It was a spontaneous excursion, but he welcomes interested people – and also runs a fabulous beachside restaurant.