Zanzibar is way up on the list when it comes to thinking of dream destinations for a beach holiday - even just the name is magical. Arriving by boat from Dar es Salaam, you will see the waterfront of Zanzibar town looking much as it did in the days when Victorian explorers used the island as a staging post for their expeditions into the interior of Africa. David Livingstone, who discovered the Victoria Falls, started out from here, as did Henry Morton Stanley, the journalist dispatched to find him.
Right in the middle of the waterfront is the Sultan's Palace, Built in the 19th century, it was called the House of Wonders because it had electricity and the first Lift in East Africa. After years of neglect, it has now been restored and houses a fine museum. Zanzibar has a colourful history. Omani sultans ruled much of the Swahili coast from the island, establishing the trade routes that still lead from here to the Middle East. Their domain dwindled in the days of the British Empire, and finally ceased with the bloody revolution of 1956. Zanzibar. Even the name is exotic. conjuring up images of sultans and explorers and of wooden Arab dhows redolent with the aroma of spices.
The heart of Zanzibar town, built of stone, is a tangle of narrow winding streets that seem to lead everywhere and nowhere. Look out for the ornate, carved wooden doors, many of which date from the time of the sultans. They were designed both to display and protect the wealth of the house-owners.
In the early morning, when the tourist shops are closed, life in the town seems to continue much as it has for hundreds of years. It is not difficult to imagine explorers combing its streets, looking for supplies and porters. Everywhere you go you will be greeted with shouts of jambo (hello) and karibu (welcome). Take a walk to the old dhow harbour and you can watch fishermen haggling with locals over their catch. You can also get a close-up view of the remarkable sailing boats, held together entirely with wooden pegs, that have been used along the Swahili coast ever since the Arabs first arrived from Oman.
Zanzibar. The name itself had always conjured up images of the exotic in my imagination, having once been a centre for spice, ivory and more infamously slave trade, so with a few weeks at my disposal I wasted no time in taking a short diving holiday there with a couple of friends. Type the name of this little East African island into any internet search engine and its appeal is obvious - countless images of picture-postcard palm-fringed beaches, vibrant turquoise waters and deeply coloured sunsets. A real paradise.
At Nungwi, our base for a few days on the northernmost tip of the island, Maasai in full traditional shuka paraded the beaches, happy to engage in a bit of frisbee or dancing in the bars late at night. Nungwi was perfect for people like us looking for more than just a hammock and a piña colada. Our days were filled with some fantastic dives, and come the evening there was an irresistible blend of fresh seafood, warm local hospitality and a few lively waterside nightspots for those with a little excess energy.
Amaan Bungalows was the ideal spot from which to enjoy the surrounding area – friendly, affordable and located right in the heart of the action looking out across the warm Indian Ocean. There were a number of bars and restaurants on the beach where we could relax and watch the sun go down – Cinnamon was a particularly chic little spot in comparison to most, serving great food and a satisfyingly long list of cocktails. Cholo’s bar, right next to Amaan Bungalows, is famous in the local area for being the place to go out. Certainly the beach parties it served up on a regular basis, with its mixture of tourists, locals and high-flying acrobats, were a highlight for us.
Sensation Divers, the on-site dive centre, was very professionally run, with the boat picking us up every morning virtually from our doorstep to some excellent dive sites. Although we missed out on some of the larger pelagics, we were more than compensated by large schools of many varied and colourful fish as well as vast forests of pristine coral. There was plenty for those not so scuba-minded as well: sunset cruises, a wide range of beach sports or a day’s sizzling in the sun to name but a few. Deep-sea fishing was also an option, with outfits such as Fishing Zanzibar offering day trips into the ocean in search of big game.
Mnemba Island, a small atoll lying off Zanzibar’s eastern coast has been described by Condé Nast as one of the top three most romantic beach getaways in the world. My only regret was that I was travelling with two other men! A short trip in a local fisherman’s dhow (a traditional wooden sailing boat) brought us to this exquisite hideaway, isolated amidst the purest aquamarine water of the Indian Ocean, which we discovered, while diving, contained an abundance of tropical flora and fauna.
A stay in the exclusive lodge tucked away among Mnemba’s dense vegetation is unsurprisingly pricey but worth every penny. It is tastefully understated – you can barely see that there is a lodge at all when you approach the atoll from the sea – but there is a faultless attention to detail that will ensure a state of utter relaxation and comfort. Just a few hours spent drifting and diving around this pristine white spit of sand was enough to spectacularly bring the paradise of my imagination to life.
We spent a couple of nights in Pongwe, which was in stark contrast to Nungwi – we stayed in simple yet comfortable wooden huts set back amidst the palm trees at the very hospitable Santa Maria Coral Park. With only a handful of huts along the entire bay, I often found myself the only person walking across a wide expanse of white sand. Nightly beach bonfires there under a canopy of stars were in all honesty some of the most peaceful moments I have ever experienced.