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Zanzibar - Spice Islands - Tanzania

Zanzibar and the Spice Islands | Tanzania     

Zanzibar Archipelago is a small group of islands lying a short distance off the east coast of Tanzania, East Africa. This Indian Ocean archipelago has two main islands (Zanzibar and Pemba) plus a number of smaller islands that surround them.

Tanzania’s Spice Islands

Dream of exotic spices and ancient mariners
Tanzania’s Spice Islands lie off the northern coast of Tanzania. The islands lie within Tanzania but have their own government and democracy. Zanzibar is a popular post-safari and honeymoon destination.

Trade Route of Ancient Mariners
In centuries past, Arabian mariners in traditional dhows traded for exotic spices and more infamously for slaves. It was after the British take over of the mainland after WW1 that the slave trade finally ended.

Exotic Influences
Arabian influence is evident in the people and religion. Indian influences show up in the colorful glasswork and the English imperial buildings hint of a Colonial dominance in years gone by. The islands have endured many foreign occupations, including Dutch and Portuguese. All have left their collective mark to create a getaway destination to marvel and explore.

Scuba Diving
The marine life is diverse and abundant, attracting divers, snorkeling and fishermen. The coral reefs around Zanzibar (Unguja) and Pemba are excellent dive sites with visibility between 20 and 60 meters (65 to 196 feet).

Zanzibar Archipelago
(the Spice Islands)

Serengeti and Masai Mara - route of the migration

Persian, Arabian, Indian and Chinese cultures and architecture are evident in the Spice Islands’ exotic ambience.

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Map of Zanzibar and Pemba Islands



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Wildlife and Safaris
Beaches and Islands
Beaches and Islands

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Zanzibar highlights

An exotic past
Marco Polo was the first European to write about Zanzibar and his explorations that led to his discovery of Zanzibar in the 11th century. However, the earliest visitors to Zanzibar were Arab traders who are said to have arrived in the 8th century. This is an island richly imprinted with exotic cultures and history.

Beaches and water-based activities
Palm lined white sand beaches, beach activities, deep sea fishing and pristine coral reefs provide a shopping list of adventures including scuba diving in the clear warm waters, gliding over the waves on a traditional dhow or windsurfing.

There are over 25 beaches in Zanzibar scattered between quiet fishing villages. Some beaches worth mentioning are Mangapwani on the west coast and Matemwe, Pwani Mchangani, Kiwengwa, Uroa, Bwejuu and Jambiani on the east coast.

If you are not yet fond of seafood then Zanzibar will be the place to turn you into a seafood fanatic, since the many fine restaurants on the island serve up ocean delicacies that melt in the mouth.

How to get there
This idyllic Indian Ocean Island is easily accessed by air from Dar es Salaam. Ferries are also available from the mainland to Zanzibar island, but not all are recommended.

There are no large animals on Zanzibar yet bush pigs, small antelope, a variety of birdlife and many large butterflies inhabit the islands.

Pemba highlights

Pemba Island is located only 80km (50 miles) from Zanzibar, east of the mainland of Tanzania. It has more natural forests and plantations than Zanzibar and grows more cloves than the bigger island. It is one of the best kept secrets in the archipelago and is a true gem. It seems incomprehensible that so few tourists visit this island.

Diving paradise
Pemba is an idyllic destination for scuba divers, with its coral gardens and tropical fish. However decent accommodation is limited.

Ancient ruins
Considered to be one of the oldest settlements in East Africa, Pemba hosts some of the oldest ruins of the archipelago, with ruins of ancient mosques, tombs, palaces and other evidence of human settlements dating back to the 6th century.

Ngezi Forest Reserve is lovely to visit, with much of the forest on the island now conserved within the Reserve. The rarely seen Pemba Flying Fox bat is protected and is one of the largest in the world with a wing span of over 5 feet

How to get there
You can reach Pemba by light aircraft from Zanzibar. The flight will take about 30 minutes.

Read more about Zanzibar Archipelago:
Zanzibar Island | Pemba Island | Mafia Island
Misali and Mnemba | Other Islands

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Zanzibar Island (Unguja)

How to get there

There are a number of boat transfer companies that will take you from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar but remember you get what you pay for and you must be careful what the local porters advise. It is best to pre book with your tour operator. Round trips are possible as a day trip with boats departing as early as 7:30 am and returning around 4:30pm.This will leave enough time to explore Stone Town. Trips across to the island can take between 1.5 and 4.5 hours depending on your choice of ferry/boat.

A good number of small airlines fly from the mainland to Zanzibar but these are small aircraft and you must inquire about luggage allowances prior to your flight. Also ask about airport taxes since these are payable as cash on arrival. You will need to carry your passport even for a day trip because Zanzibar has its own customs and excise port of entry.

Beaches and Local Attractions

Zanzibar’s brilliant white Indian Ocean beaches and coral reefs provide a perfect place for relaxing and soaking up the sun, snorkeling, diving or fishing - and is a popular add-on to a Tanzania safari or Kilimanjaro trek. The beaches are interspersed among picturesque fishing villages, where locals enjoy a simple life.

Most beaches in Zanzibar are immersed at high tide, so this can be a good time of day for enjoying other activities. Choose your resort carefully to ensure that the accommodation provides comforts and hot water plumbing, if that’s your preference.

Allow time in your calendar for some sightseeing too. With 75% of the world’s cloves being grown here, a visit to a spice farm is a delightfully aromatic experience. If you drive to the northern tip of Zanzibar to Nungwi you can watch how a dhow is build by local craftsman. Nungwi is the dhow building capital of Zanzibar. A dhow is a traditional boat and used extensively by the local fishermen. If you're interested in exploring the rich local culture and history of the island, it is worth visiting ancient and historic Stone Town.

The Coconut Palms
The coconut palms that line the coast and the stunning beaches provide more than just an atmosphere of paradise - they also provide a number of useful products for the locals. The plant and its fruit may be used for eating, drinking, building and weaving, or the shells used for utensils. People living in the rural areas will use the palms for thatching when building their homes. Nothing goes to waste!

Zanzibar Beach Resort

Some lesser known facts about the Zanzibar

  1. Freddie Mercury, the late lead singer from the band Queen was born in Zanzibar. His father worked as an accountant for the British government and the family came to Zanzibar from India but were actually of Persian origin.
  2. It is the only place in the world where you can find the Kirk’s Red Colobus monkey, mostly found in the Jozani Forest.
  3. The island had the first steam locomotive in East Africa in the 1880’s. A small 2 foot gauge engine that was used to transport the Sultan to and from his Summer palace.


At just 6 degrees south of the equator, the island is warm all year round, although December (summer) is somewhat warmer than June (winter). The heat of summer is often cooled by sea breezes, particularly on the North and East coasts.

Rains occur in November (the "short rains") and in April and May (the "long rains"). November rains are typically short showers that do not last long. The long rains are heavier, during what is referred to as the 'Green Season'. It typically however does not rain every day

Diving and Fishing Activities

The ocean between Zanzibar and Pemba is renowned for excellent game fishing. Zanzibar’s best diving can be enjoyed at the northern tip of the island, including diving over the reefs of Mnemba atoll.

Stone Town (the historical core of Zanzibar City)

Many hours can be spent exploring the bustling bazaars and meandering streets of the town which has changed very little in the last 200 years. It was recently declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

A maze of narrow streets and alley ways meander through Stone Town and pass busy bazaars, mosques and very beautiful Arab houses with their brass studded doors. There was much rivalry between families to out do each other in their quest for the best and most beautiful home and often it started with a door that served both art and function. Many of these residences were built in the 19th century when Zanzibar was the center of trade in the Indian Ocean region.

Doors of Zanzibar – There are around 560 elaborately carved doors found today with the oldest dating back to 1694. It is believed that this is the largest collection on the East Coast of Africa. Doors with the most elaborate adornment was a reflection of the affluence of the folk that lived in that home. Brass spikes or studs are common which is believed to be an Indian design influence, where they built studs into doors as protection against war elephants that would batter down doors in time of conflict. At one time, there were in fact many elephants on the island but they are no longer in residence.

Stone Town door - Fishing boat

Places to visit in Stone Town

The Market is a great place to shop like a local. Zanzibarians will visit the bustling market to buy their produce and other wares that they can’t get in their villages. This is where you may want to pick up a Khanga, the garment worn by the local women.

The Slave Trade – By the 17th century the Omanis were an important trading nation and they needed inexpensive labor to work in their date plantations which was their main export. By the 18th century the Dutch arrived looking for slaves to work in their plantations in the East Indies. Britain tried to end slavery in 1798 with a Treaty of Commerce and Navigation signed between Britain and the Sultan of the time, it was reinforced by the Moresby Treaty in 1822. Britain and the United States sent Consuls to Zanzibar to monitor the treaty agreements but these were ignored and slave trade simply continued openly. It was only after the British take over of the mainland after the First World War that the slave trade finally saw an end.

The Slave Market Memorial is one of the most poignant memorials in Zanzibar. It is a place where the slave market traded openly from 1811 to 1873 and was in fact the center of trade in East Africa. It is estimated that over a million slaves were bought and sold at this market.  The expressions depicted on the memorial statues show the suffering these poor people must have endured. The slaves were often kidnapped from villages on the mainland and brought to Stone Town by ship in the most vile conditions.

Slave Market Memorial and Old Arab Fort

The Arab Fort is an interesting building built between 1698 and 1701 and stands next to the house of wonders. It is open to the public and contains shops and an open air theatre.

Livingstone's House was used as a stop over and starting point before a journey for many explorers in the late 1800’s. It was originally built in 1860 by the Sultan Majid. Dr. David Livingstone lived here for a short while before his last journey into Africa.

The Old Dispensary is found on Mizingani Road and was used as a dispensary during colonial times. It was unfortunately allowed to fall into disrepair in the 1970’s and 1980’s but has been restored to its former beauty and is now known as the Stone Town Cultural Center.

The Peace Memorial Museum is a must see for those interested in the history of the island. It takes a look at archaeology, trade, slavery, explorers and missionaries. It even has an exhibit of Dr. Livingstone’s medical chest.

The Palace Museum is a walk back in time and a look at the history of the Sultans of Zanzibar. It was built in the late 1890’s for members of the Sultan’s family and later became the official residence of the Sultan. It was originally called the Sultan’s Palace but was renamed the People’s Palace after the 1964 revolution. Its name changed to the Palace Museum in 1994 when it was converted to a museum. Some of the Sultan’s furniture and other belongings that survived the revolution can be found in the museum.

The House of Wonders is one of the largest buildings in Zanzibar, built an 1883. It has several stories with balconies and features a clock tower at its top. The Sultan Barghash used it as his ceremonial palace and it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electric light and an electric elevator, which is why it was nicknamed Beit el Ajaib, meaning the House of Wonders, by the local people.

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Pemba Island

Pemba is a beautiful island with gentle, undulating hills and valleys, covered in clove, coconut and mango plantations. Visitors however are sparse, in spite of the excellent diving. This can probably be attributed to the extremely poor infrastructure and facilities. Accommodation for visitors is mostly of the rustic kind. Food needs to be bought at local markets and shops. Transport options are also somewhat limited.

How to get there
You can reach Pemba by light aircraft from Zanzibar. The flight will take about 30 minutes.

Mafia Island

Mafia Island lies just south of the Rufiji River mouth on the southern part of the Tanzania mainland. With fewer than a 1,000 visitors a year Mafia Island can truly claim to be unspoiled. If you want to get away from it all then this is the island to visit.

How to get there
Access to the island is by air from Dar es Salaam, Selous Game Reserve or Zanzibar.
There are two airlines that fly to Mafia’s Kilindoni airport regularly from Dar es Salam. Flights take around 30 minutes with Coastal Aviation or Tropical Air.

Things to do
For deep sea fishermen, sailers, scuba divers and snorkelers, Mafia Island is a dream vacation destination. It is not unusual to see giant turtles laying their eggs on Mafia’s white sandy beaches. Chole Bay forms part of a marine park with an unbroken reef that follows the entire coast of Mafia Island. Birding on the island is excellent. A variety of coastal, sea, woodland and forest species of birds provide enjoyment for all visitors.

Visits to a local village, coconut plantation, traditional boat building yard, or one of the archaeological sites on the island provide a varied experience, validation that the island is more than just beach and sunshine.

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Misali and Mnemba Islands

Misali Island
Misali lies just west of Pemba’s Chake Chake town. It is covered in forest with a number of very scenic walking trails and a visitor center. Captain Kidd is said to have hidden here in the 17th century. The island and its surrounding reefs are a Marine Conservation Area and an entry fee helps to manage the island and community development. On local reefs, diving and snorkeling are excellent and the beaches are simply stunning.

Mnemba Atoll
The island is located 3 km (2 miles) from the north eastern coast of Zanzibar and is surrounded by a large coral reef. It is very popular with scuba divers and snorkelers. There is an exclusive resort on the island, often visited by celebrities.

Mnemba island

Mnemba island is a leisure haven without snakes, mosquitoes, scorpions or rats - only butterflies, dolphins, starfish and other wonders of nature prevail here. The beaches are pristine and secluded making it a perfect get away for honeymooners and discerning travelers.

How to get there:
The island is accessed by a short 15 minute boat ride from the north east coast of Zanzibar.

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Other Islands

Some of the other smaller islands worth mentioning:

The island is close enough to Zanzibar to reach it on a day trip. It is also known as Changuu Island and was originally used to house disobedient slaves. Then in 1893, a prison was built but it was instead repurposed to serve as a quarantine station for East Africa. The large tortoises on the island arrived on the island as a gift from the Seychelles. There is a small restaurant and beach for snorkeling.

This little island is close to Stone Town and has a lovely beach for snorkeling.

Bawe Island - Zanzibar

It is close to Prison and Bawe islands and has a small grave yard for mostly British sailors and is sometimes called the Grave Island. It is not often visited but there is a small beach lodge here.

This is a little gem and the reefs around the island are excellent for snorkeling. The reefs were gazetted as a Marine National Park in 1994. It has other natural wonders such as the Forest Reserve and the rare giant coconut crab that climbs palm trees and eats young coconuts. It also has a lighthouse that was built in 1904.

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