Monday 23 April 2018

Zanzibar: Spice of life on Africa's paradise islands

Africa's paradise islands are perfect for honeymooners, but be sure to explore beyond the resorts...

Zanzibar's waters are a brilliant striking turquoise colour
Zanzibar's waters are a brilliant striking turquoise colour
Stone Town, the capital of Zanzibar. Photo: Deposit
An eagle ray in the waters off Zanzibar
A beach bed at Breezes, Zanzibar
The Slave Market Memorial (foreground) in Stone Town on Zanzibar. Photo: Deposit
Zanzibar's Lush Mangrove forests

Yvonne Gordon

We were standing in a mangrove forest, but in this world of wood and water, the tide had gone out, exposing a complete layer of gnarled roots; an intricate network, spread out like spiders' legs, intertwined and overlapping, reaching over and under each other for water, every root glistening and dark brown with mud.

 It was then that I noticed it. Right in the middle of the tangle of roots, a tiny splash of bright red, the claw of a crab sticking out of the mud - a swampy underworld where it looked unlikely a living creature could survive.

We were a small group on a walking tour through the mangroves of Jozani Forest in Zanzibar, the island archipelago off the coast of Tanzania in Africa. The forest was quiet, except for the odd call from a yellow-rumped tinkerbird and the faint sound of a lonely cicada. It was my first time in Africa, and the unexpected flash of red in the mangroves was one of many surprises I found on an island so rich with layers of nature and culture, I'm not even sure I made sense of it all. Bright colour, though, was definitely a theme.

Jozani Forest is home to Red Colobus monkeys, an endangered species with distinctive red, black and white colouring and a shock of white spiky hair. Walking through the forest to see the monkeys was fun, but the underworld of the mangroves was fascinating. Salmin, our guide, told us about the fish, crabs and shrimps in the water, which is a mix of freshwater and salt water, but thankfully has no crocodiles. The mangroves have many uses - providing building materials for bridges, houses and boats, firewood, food (there are up to 15 species of crab) and even medicine, and they also help to prevent coastal erosion.

Zanzibar's Lush Mangrove forests
Zanzibar's Lush Mangrove forests

Zanzibar sits in the Indian Ocean, and its pristine white beaches, lined with palm trees and secluded ocean-side resorts, make it the ideal spot for honeymooners, many who come here to relax after a mainland safari. There are 46 islands in the archipelago and the main island is Unguja. Our resort, Baraza, was on the east side of the island, a collection of white villas set along paths lined with colourful red, purple and pink bougainvillea and opening out onto Bwejuu Paje beach.

One of Zanzibar's most striking features is the colour of the water, a brilliant turquoise blue, so myself and my travel companions booked a snorkelling trip to explore beneath the surface. A short drive brought us to a place that looked close to my idea of paradise. A simple white stone path led out from the white sand, across the rock pools and coral reef. At the end of the path, a traditional wooden Zanzibar dhow was anchored, surrounded by blue-green water and patches of coral reef.

After a short boat trip, we anchored in Mswakini Lagoon and set off snorkelling, led to the edge of the coral by Hassan our guide, accompanied by a shoal of stripy zebra fish swimming alongside. We spotted bright orange clownfish and black and yellow angel fish with their long top and bottom fins. With more than 400 species of fish recorded here, diving is also popular.

Back at the resort, we had a private lunch on the beach, a romantic set-up under a wooden pergola with flower-lined posts and a roof of palm leaves. As we admired the sea view and a line of surf breaking on the distant reef, we tucked into fresh seafood and chilled wine and watched couples pass by on foot or by kayak, before the warm water of the incoming tide came lapping around our feet and we moved, giggling, up the sand for dessert and coffee.

Stone Town, the capital of Zanzibar. Photo: Deposit
Stone Town, the capital of Zanzibar. Photo: Deposit

There's plenty to do in Zanzibar. A visit to Stone Town with its mix of European, Persian, Arabian and Indian history, will take you down a maze of alleys and to the buzzing Darajani Market, or history buffs can visit the old Slave Market. One evening we sipped cocktails on the terrace of The Africa House Hotel (africahousehotel.com), admiring the dhows sailing past at sunset.

Zanzibar was once the world's leading producer of spices, and another highlight was our visit to a spice farm to smell and taste spices like cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, lemongrass and vanilla - seeing them grow and learning different uses from food flavour and colour to medicine. We also toured the village of Bwejuu.

One of the best things to do, though, is just relax and enjoy the setting. Baraza Resort & Spa is connected to its two neighbours, The Palms and Breezes Beach Club & Spa (all part of The Zanzibar Collection; see right) where you can dine, swim or just kick back and relax. For couples, private experiences include private dining in a beachfront restaurant or the Sultan's Bath at the spa, a double massage followed by a bath in a mosaic-tiled pool. Even yoga classes can be private.

Before leaving, my last experience of Zanzibar was walking on the beach. The tide was coming in and I watched a little crab burying itself in a rock pool, a last flash of orange to round off all the bright colours of the island, from colourful clothing, flowers, plants and wildlife to the mesmerising blue-green of the sea.

An eagle ray in the waters off Zanzibar
An eagle ray in the waters off Zanzibar

Three must-do’s

Forest tours

 Nature lovers should book a Jozani Forest tour (€72 per couple) which includes a forest walk, a board walk in the mangroves lined with eucalyptus and mahogany trees, and a chance to see the rare Red Colobus Monkey, indigenous to Zanzibar, plus birds and butterflies.

Spice of life

Take a guided tour of a local spice farm (€120 per couple) to touch and taste traditional spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, vanilla and cardamom plus traditional fruits, with a chance to talk to the farmers who grow them. Combine this with a guided tour of Stone Town, to learn about its rich history (€142 per couple for both tours)

A beach bed at Breezes, Zanzibar
A beach bed at Breezes, Zanzibar

Take a Sultan’s Bath 

Enjoy a few hours experiencing an old Sultan’s Bathhouse with this private experience for couples. It starts with an aromatherapy massage for two people at the same time, you then get to bathe in a small mosaic-tiled pool with candle light and soothing music (€215 per couple).

What to pack

Check your shots. You will need to take malaria tablets, and if coming from a Yellow Fever Zone, must have a vaccination cert. Contact the Tropical Medial Bureau (tmb.ie) for advice. Reef shoes can be handy for beach and reef walks, but can be supplied at the resort's water sports centre.

Getting there

From Dublin, fly to Zanzibar with Ethiopian Airlines (ethiopianairlines.com) via Addis Ababa, Emirates (emirates.com) via Dubai, Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) via Istanbul, Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com) via Doha or Kenya Airways (kenya-airways.com) via London Heathrow and Nairobi.

Where to stay

Yvonne was a guest of The Zanzibar Collection (thezanzibarcollection.com), which has a two-bed villa at the five-star Baraza Resort & Spa from €642 per night. At The Palms, villas start from €675 per night — both prices are all-inclusive based on two adults sharing. The four-star Breezes Beach Club & Spa costs from €95pp per night, half-board.

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