The kids first trip to Africa was a week in Zanzibar (part of Tanzania) in Spring 2016. It’s worth mentioning from the get go that Fly Dubai do cheap flights from the UAE to Zanzibar and this was one of the main reasons we went. In fact it was so cheap my nephew Steve and his wife Hyunjoo and our friends Tim, New, Ben and Jamie came along as well.
We spent the beginning and end of the trip in Stone Town and the bit in the middle on the beach, more of which in a minute. We had an unusual start to the holiday in that the previous week there had been a Fly Dubai flight go down in Russia, which made for an nervous atmosphere in the plane that seemed to manifest itself in higher than usual levels of passenger communicatio (unless it was just me). The whole flight seemed to be full of UAE based teachers most of who were getting stuck into the gin and tonics. With everybody chatting and a fair few drinking the flight felt more like a a bucket job to Benidorm than a flight to Africa, right down to the hearty round of applause when the plane landed safely.
I don’t know where the contents of the plane got to once we landed, maybe to beachside resorts, but once out of the ramshackle airport it got a lot less Brits abroad pretty quickly.
Stone Town is the old bit of the larger Zanzibar City and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is easy to see when you are there, it really is the cliched winding streets taking back in time blah blah blah. But of course there are plenty of musungos (whiteys) that spoil the Out of Africa reverie, as well as some fairly persistent street vendors and plenty of tourist tat.
The best times to wander around were either early morning or the late afternoon, as things got really steamy during the day and in the morning at least many of the persistent street vendors seemed to like a lie in.
Stone Town highlights included the night market, cultural centre, slave market tour and food market but really none of these rank as any great experience on their own but punctuate the day which otherwise revolves around beer on the beach, shop for souvenirs, stop for coffee, stop for lunch, you get the idea.
The night market is a chance to sample some barbecue delights on the seafront, we had a go at some octopus, meat on a stick and flat breads. The kids were catered for with Nutella pancakes (when I say kids I include myself) and we ate sitting on one of the stone benches in the square watching the world go by or as least as much as you can in almost street lighting free gloom. We were warned off eating at the market by a tour guide we had used for a city walking tour, before he conveniently recommended his mate’s restaurant which he seemed to think was the only place in the city that wouldn’t give us food poisoning. Steve was all over the scam though and persuaded a reluctant Lorena and Hyunjoo not to take any notice, needless to say we were all fine.
The Dhow Country Music Academy cultural centre can be combined with the Night Market as it’s only a ten-minute walk away along the sea front (kind of) in an old colonial building, which is big on atmosphere, . We went along in the day to check out what was on and we were told there were two weekly events and we ended up at both. One was an African drum thing and the other was the Arab influenced Zanzibar music called Taraab. Weirdly although there were plenty of tourists in Zanzibar only a few of us made it to the shows which were a few dollars to get in and both excellent entertainment.
We chose the African drum gig with the kids and it was a good choice, there was plenty of action and a chance to join in, the best part of me strutting my stuff was the look of absolute horror on the kids faces, love it…we eventually got mom and Danny up as well and did the Zanzibar version of the Okey Cokey. Tommy was not up for dancing he was protesting the event after one of the dancers produced a HUGE snake and starting cavorting around the place with it, I could see his point to be honest.
For the Taraab gig New volunteered to babysit and so just the adults went, and as this was much more a sit and listen vibe so just as well I guess. Again there weren’t more than 15 people in the audience and they deserved more. I would put this as must do in Stone Town and considering that apart from the night market, the only other nighttime options were either sleazy bars or tourist restaurants, even more so.
We visited the The Slave Market as part of a guided tour and it was the highlight. The tour guide for Stone Town was as I have already mentioned more interested in getting his hands on our cash, taking us to places where he was on commission, but the slave market and Anglican Cathedral guide was everything he was not, interested in telling the story of his city and people. I have to say the tour got the kids thinking as well and it’s true that one visit like this is worth hours in the classroom.
We stayed in the Tausi Palace Hotel in Stone Town, it was one of many colonial places at was in the cheaper end of this category, but for a family room was still over $100 a night. For that we actually got two rooms though and a decent breakfast in the rooftop restaurant, which had a panoramic view as well, and to quote one of my East India company ancestors, had tolerably good food.
Our mate Tim splashed out and stayed at the Tembo Hotel, which he said was bit more expensive, but with its beach side location and lovely pool, would be well worth the extra spend. As it was we ended up availing ourselves as well and they didn’t seem to mind our kids splashing around in the pool and they had a good time with the local kids on the beach. Although there was one moment where one local kid told Tommy he was rich, which freaked him out a bit, but again this was a good chance for the kids to re-calibrate their visions of the world.
We also went for a couple of nights outside of Stone Town as well, mainly because the places there are half the price. We stayed at McPippos a new place close to the airport. Tim had stayed there a few days before and wasn’t impressed, there had been a power outage, the hotel was too far out from town and it was all very ordinary. I have to say he was right about the power, ours went out for a good two hours and it was a 20 minute bus ride into town. Still I guess the power scenario is pretty common outside of Stone Town (as opposed to Zanzibar City) and the bus ride into town proved to be one of the highlights of the trip as it gave you chance to mix with people who weren’t trying to sell you something and the bus stop featured a rolling game of shuffle billiards called Carrom. So a journey in town could feature a quick round of Carrom then sharing some fruit with fellow passengers and counting how many people you can get in a mini bus ( I lost count).
Someone told me since we got back from Zanzibar that Stone Town is dodgy at night and they stayed indoors. This would explain the lack of white faces in the evening but I’m not sure why the place has got this reputation. I guess there are a few dark alleys (quite a few to be honest) and I wouldn’t want to walk around drunk at two in the morning wearing a diamond tiara, but I never got a sense that there were undesirables lurking in every doorway. My advice is if you’re going to travel then travel and if you are the worrying kind don’t.
The Rest of the Island
As well as Stone Town we stayed on the beach for a few days for some serious down town at Mustapha’s Place on the Islands East coast at a place called Bweju . Before I get on to raving about how much I loved MP I will get the caveat over There is no A/C in the rooms and it gets hot. There, done.
MP was fab, it is just the kind of chilled out spot that is perfect for doing not very much. The website does tend towards hyperbolic and the beach isn’t that spectacular but the pool, the gardens, the vibe, the whole place was a perfect antidote to city life. You can get all your eats at the place itself, which to be honest wasn’t as cheap as it’s ‘backpacker’ tag might have you believe, or you can go out onto the beach for meal which we did one night as you can see in the photo below.
The kids spent most of the time in the pool and the remainder on the beach, where the order of the day was an early morning walk, some late afternoon volley ball or some night time star gazing. There not a lot more to say about the place and I mean that in a good way, it does what is says on the can and as long as you’re not in a hurry or expecting 5 star luxury and service then this is the place for some great family down time.
You can do a couple of side trips from this side of the island we did three, all involving boats. The first was me, the boys and Cousin Steve and it was the best and worst day of the trip. It was the best because we hung out with a dude with his dug-out sail boat who enlisted us all as his crew. He was only a young chap but he was really easy going and getting to help sail was a massive plus and felt really natural. The boys had an absolute blast first sticking their feet in, then paddling, then fishing, then snorkelling then progressing to hanging off the back of the boat. Which brings me to the worst bit. Tommy is one of those people who can have an accident in a padded cell so it should come as no surprise that he managed to step on a sea urchin in the really shallow water. Now I don’t (or at least I didn’t) know how serious a sea urchin injury could be and Tommy was howling like the proverbial banshee, but our captain’s lack of panic put me at ease. Still that was the end of the snorkeling boating trip and we went as quickly as our boat would allow to an Italian beach hotel that was conveniently close by. Once we got Tommy on dry land a nice chap from the hotel got a fair few of the spines out by rubbing papaya over them then plucking them out with a thorn. Tommy I have to say took all this a LOT more bravely than I would have done.
Anyway it turns out sea urchins will keep a 9-year-old off his feet for about three hours then it was back to the pool in MP albeit with a hop, rather than a skip and a jump. This was Danny’s first attempt at snorkeling as well and he loved it, so despite the 15 minutes of dad panicking it was all worth it.
Our next side trip was a more sedate sunset cruise on a slightly bigger sail boat with me, Tim, Steve and of course Tommy, the boats can be found by speaking to the guys at MP or going just down the beach a ways (to the left) until you come to a palm frond shack where some enterprising young lads have set up an excursion place, which while probably not what you’d call organised or legal, like whatever (as Tommy would say), it was cheap and they were nice lads. Anyway here’s a few pics from the sunset cruise, where we stopped off for a walk and a dip on a small island and watched other people doing the same, all very pleasant indeed
The next trip was an early start to go snorkeling with dolphins and consequently only me, Tim and Steve made it. This involved a mini bus trip to the start point and then a 30 minute odd trip on an outboard motor until we found the spot. Even at the ungodly hour of the morning we were there, it is was already quite busy with four or five other boats and it was all a bit frantic for my taste but I can’t deny there were loads of dolphins and you could jump off the boat and swim with them for a couple of minutes at a time, then back on the boat, chase them for a few minutes then repeat. Anyway here are the pics but really it was about what was going on under the water.
We also did a whole family excursion from Stone Town to Prison/Tortoise Island. You just go down to the beach and you will find plenty of boats to do a deal with and in the heat of the day it certainly felt good to get on the water. The island itself is cool for the tortoises but not much else, it’s as much about the boat trip and the views back to Stone Town, although you can go for a dip as well which is pleasant enough. There is an upscale restaurant as well but we stuck with having a delicious (and rather spiffing for those of you old enough to remember Enid Blyton) glass of ginger beer, which I would heartily recommend.
The other side trip we did was our our only no-water based adventure, to visit the Jozani National Park half way between Stone Town and Mustapha’s Place. This was a couple of hour stop and was easily manageable for the kids. You get a guide who takes you to see the monkeys REALLY close up and then for a walk on a boardwalk over some mangroves. We were there during low tide at the end of the dry season so it was all a bit of muddy fish free zone, but I guess it would be better at other times of the day or year. Anyway back to the monkeys who were really cool and even managed to distract the boys from playing jungle warfare for a while 🙂
That’s that then for Zanzibar, if you’re located in the Gulf I would definitely recommend it as a week long escape and if you’re coming to Tanzania for a safari then you could combine it with a trip to Zanzibar as well.