Two years ago I spent a month in Kenya. My Mondays through Fridays were spent working, but the weekends were my own, giving me time to explore East Africa. While I didn’t plan everything out before my trip, I did decide that I would at the very least go on safari and visit Zanzibar, located just a few hours and one country away from my home base of Nairobi.
If you’ve never heard of Zanzibar, that’s OK. It’s an archipelago off the coast of Tanzania (if this were Last Week Tonight with John Oliver I would be showing you a country that isn’t actually Tanzania, and then show you where it is actually located, but since I am writing this and not showing you in a video, that’s not possible). Zanzibar’s remote location, white sand beaches, wildlife and middle eastern influences make for a transformative experience.
I flew to Zanzibar from Nairobi via Kenya Airways and it was a delight. The cabin was spacious, I was given a warm towel to clean my hands, and was provided a light meal, even though the flight was just an hour long (I am easily impressed if any airline offers me food that I don’t have to pay additional money for).
Now the Zanzibar airport is absolutely tiny, as you might imagine. We deplaned like we were in Burbank, skipping the gangway in favor of a staircase right out of the airplane.
A driver (who the hotel helped set me up with via email) picked me up and while en route to the hotel we passed by the presidential motorcade. Apparently, Zanzibar has a president, and I passed him on the streets. In case you were wondering, he had about 6 motorcycle cops in front of and behind his tricked out car. Exciting stuff!
My hotel, the Asmini Palace Hotel, was beautiful and like many of the buildings in Zanzibar, it was influenced by middle eastern architecture. The concierge was insanely helpful, tracking down some egg-protein shampoo (I’m not kidding, I forgot mine and I guess egg protein is the only type they had available) for me and arranging a last minute excursion to Prisoner Island, which is where the tortoise petting happened (more on that later).
When you are in a new place and aren’t sure what to do, ask the concierge. They usually can help you get what you need and are happy to make the reservations. I relied heavily on my concierge to fill my limited time in Zanzibar.
My hotel even had turn down service, which is definitely not something I am familiar with. The only time I’ve had turn down service is on a cruise ship. The service focused on making sure my mosquito net was tightly wrapped around my bed as to prevent mosquitoes from biting me in the middle of the night. I definitely wouldn’t have known to wrap the net as she did, and was greatly appreciative after getting over my initial shock of having someone enter my room unannounced. In addition to vigilantly taking my malaria pills, I was actively avoiding mosquitoes.
The hotel had a rooftop restaurant where I ate both dinner and breakfast the next morning. It had a great view of the city and made for a relaxing place to read, eat and drink some wine.
Stone Town’s history is a dark one. It was a major hub of the Eastern slave trade and a memorial has been resurrected in honor of the men and women who lost their lives. Next to the memorial you can see where slaves were housed before going to market. The small, cramped space is terrible to walk through, but an important reminder of what happens at humanity’s worst.
Despite the dark past, Stone Town has a vibrant present. I have to say that I felt more comfortable walking around and taking pictures in Zanzibar than I ever did in Nairobi. Probably because there were so many more tourists wandering the streets with me. And there were also children roaming around everywhere. The majority of them were wearing full Muslim garb. This included the very young girls who wore headscarves (something I thought was started a little later in life), and full on make-up. It was like Toddlers and Tiaras Zanzibar-edition. They would all say hi to me and giggle. Probably laughing at my frizzy hair, which was a hot mess thanks to the humidity.
This was my first - and only - trip where Islamic prayers were broadcast over a town-wide PA system. The call to prayer happened throughout the day and Muslims would walk to the local Mosque. It was fascinating to see in person, the music and call could be heard everywhere. I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a movie.
Despite the call to prayer, the small streets reminded me a little of Europe and while walking along the streets of Stone Town I found a Book Cafe. That’s both the name and concept of the store/cafe. All the other tourists found it too. It was great to sit down, grab a smoothie, and Google places to have eat. I even shared my table briefly with a German couple. I impressed them with my mad German skills before getting up to explore more.
Prisoner Island is located 20 to 30 minutes off the coast of Stone Town, where I was staying. I was the only one - other than the captain - on the boat ride to the island. I should have felt nervous or awkward being the only passenger, but the driver was too busy steering the boat to pay me any attention. It allowed me to focus solely on the gorgeous sea around me.
Before I went to the island, I thought all there was to do there was pet the tortoises. Turns out, it is more of a vacationers paradise island. People were laying out on the beach, swimming in the water, having lunch at the old prison, and just exploring the island, which was much more than just the shelled guests that lived there.
Had I known, I would have planned for a longer excursion. As it was, my tour guide showed me the old prison building, which was built, but never actually used as prison, and then took me to see the tortoises. They were HUGE! Enormous beasts that roamed around their sanctuary. They didn’t mind people and I was able to pet the ones along the path.
I would have loved to explore more of Zanzibar. Only having 24 hours to spend there, I felt compelled to stay in Stone Town and discover all it had to offer. I do have to say I must have met the majority of stray kittens, but would have loved to venture outside town to the animal rescue known as Cheetah’s Rock, and just sun bathe on the beautiful beaches while reading a trashy romance novel.