Zanzibar...So Much More Than The Beach
Matemwe Beach Guesthouse - Unguja Island
Aiyana Resort - Pemba Island
Can you take the dream beach vacation of a lifetime AND have a positive impact on the destination and its people? Sounds almost too ideal, but you can have it both ways at the Matemwe Beach Guesthouse and The Aiyana Beach Resort in Zanzibar.
Zanzibar, birthplace of Freddy Mercury, is actually an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, about 50km off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. It consists of two islands, Unguja, the capital - aka Zanzibar - and Pemba Island. A wonderful trip on its own, it's also an easy add-on to a trip to South Africa. Its population numbers just under 160,000 and the main island covers 2,461 km².
Hot Tip: The best time to travel is during the relatively cool spring - between June and September.
It is believed that human civilization dates back about 20,000 years in the archipelago. It is mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman documents by around the 3rd century AD. The tides of time and human civilizations have washed across Zanzibar over the centuries, and its current day incarnation bears the influence of both Swahili and Islamic culture. Zanzibar has been ruled by the Portuguese, the Omanis and the British. It has been influenced by Swahili and Chinese traders. Zanzibar's history has been shaped by both the spice trade and the slave trade. It has seen wars - including the One Day War, the world's shortest war that happened without a single gunshot - colonization and political annexures.
Local legends speak of the spirits who have protected Zanzibar through its trials over the ages - and those who still wander the islands angry for revenge. It's not hard to trace the link between Zanzibar's often turbulent history and the stories of troubled, even vengeful spirits.
Some of that dark history isn't all that far in the past. Zanzibar won its independence from the British after the revolution of 1964. Four weeks later, John Okello, a migrant labourer from Uganda, led a second revolution against the Zanzabari ruling class, who were largely Arab and Indian. Many people were killed and many also fled the country, including the sultan - Zanzibar's last - Jamshid bin Abdullah.
Many say the spirits of the slain still haunt the area. If you are interested in the spirit worlds, witch doctors are available for consultation throughout the area.
Unguja features a preserved historic centre called Stone Town in the heart of the capital, a designated Unesco World Heritage site with perfectly preserved cobbled streets. In Zanzibar City, you'll wander through lanes that meander through the minarets and streets lined with heavy, beautifully carved wooden doorways, a unique feature of Zanzibar's native architecture. The House of Wonders, a 19th century sultan's palace, offers a glimpse into the relatively recent past.
Along with the expansive blue ocean, most Zanzibari beaches have super fine, white sand with a beautifully silky texture, along with palm trees and other greenery to provide shade if you need it. The north shore of Unguja is renowned for its glorious, pristine beaches and the diving opportunities offered in the turquoise waters. Watersport opportunities abound in the area, with just about anything you can dream up available, including scuba diving and snorkeling in world renowned coral reefs, deep sea fishing, kayaking, windsurfing and waterskiing. Mnemba Atoll is considered by many to offer the best opportunities to spot colourful fish, turtles and more. There are many hotels to choose from near the north coast villages of Nungwi and Kendwa.
Hot tip: Watch out for mischievous monkeys in areas near the forests - they like to steal hats, bags, sunglasses and other assorted items of tourists who are beguiled by the beach and not paying attention.
Other places of interest include the slave museum, which served as a real slave trading post centuries ago and the colourful, noisy night market at Forodhani Gardens, located in front of the Old Fort. It opens at about 7pm and it's a hotspot for enjoying local cuisine.
Fresh prawns and shrimp are local delicacies. Other local specialties include seafood kebabs, sugar cane juice and Indian fare with a Zanzibari twist like chepatis filled with Nutella. Uroja soup is a thick and delicious mixture of ginger and pureed mango with various additions such as egg, meat, or potato boulettes. A Zanzibar pizza is actually something like a thin pancake or crêpe filled with meat, eggs and other fillings. Also called Zanzibar pancakes, the thin pancakes made with rice flour may also have a sweet filling.
Alternate accommodations - Matemwe Beach Guesthouse:
Nowadays you'll find major international hotel chains like the Park Hyatt in Zanzibar City and elsewhere, but there are alternatives that are much more budget friendly. The Matemwe Beach guesthouse offers an alternative to the hotel scene about 45 minutes from Stone Town. From their website:
Our aim is a simple one: to provide authentic, stylish and comfortable accommodation, in an atmosphere of relaxed hospitality and friendliness, while services are provided effectively and efficiently. We live in peaceful co-existence with the villagers who conduct their lives amongst us.
Not a hotel and not a resort and we regard this as a matter of pride!
Pemba Island is located to the north and remains the world's largest producer of cloves - a savoury scent that carries on the ever present breeze. Life in the archipelago generally follows the slow and deliberate rhythms of the incessant waves that splash at the sandy shores. With water temperatures at a balmy average 26ºC and visibility of 30-40 meters, snorkeling is naturally one of the most popular activities on the Island. Even more inexperienced divers will find a world of wonders beneath the waves.
Pemba Island also includes Misali Island, surrounded by a coral reef. In the 17th century, this was once of the hideouts of the infamous Captain Kidd the pirate - and some still believe there's buried treasure to be found on the ocean floor. On the western side of Pemba Island, you'll find traces of Zanzibar's darker history in the Pango ya Watoro’ or ‘the cave of the fugitives' - those who hid from the slave traders.
|The Aiyana Resort, Pemba Island (Zanzibar)|
The Aiyana resort is blessed with a secluded location on the north shore of Pemba Island. It includes 30 white villas with an airy decor that features local and traditional artwork, including intricately carved woodwork. Villas were designed to integrate into the landscape without marring or harming the natural environment. The resort's owners used local resources and materials wherever possible such as mangrove and coconut woods, coral stones - even manpower from the local villagers, who helped to shape the final version of the design.
Inside and outside merge seamlessly, including the ocean-facing villas that open onto the fine sand of the beach and a serene garden on the grounds. Even the showers open up to the sky.
The resort is surrounded by a dense forest. It is part of the Ngezi Rainforest on the northernmost point of Pemba Island. The protected rainforest represents the last vestiges of the original native forests of Zanzibar.
- Cool fact: The Ngezi Rainforest is home to the Pemba Flying Fox, a type of bat native to the island.
- Cool fact #2: The Rainforest is also home to the bright blue vervet monkey.
More than a resort...
The owners of the Aiyana resort are very committed to improving local conditions and they've set up projects in the local village to provide income, education and other essentials while respecting local traditions. Guests are encouraged to participate in a variety of projects fostered by the resort that contribute directly to the life of the villagers and preservation of the natural surroundings.