White sand beaches. A twisting labyrinth of a city. Trees full of monkeys. Zanzibar is exactly as exotic as you’d expect. The East African island has something for everyone, and it’s not just the beaches that make the island memorable. The whole Zanzibar experience is different from anywhere else on Earth, and here are the five biggest reasons why.
5 The Wildlife
Zanzibar is a tiny island to the east of Africa, so don’t expect anything too massive. Elephants, giraffes, and hippos all call Tanzania home, but they stay on the mainland, where there’s room to roam. Instead, Zanzibar tourists can expect to meet smaller members of the animal kingdom, from lizards to sea birds to monkeys.
Famously, the island’s Jozani Forest is home to some of the rarest primates in the world. Found only in Zanzibar, the red colobus monkeys are as colorful as they are friendly. Don’t visit the forest if you’re afraid of Curious Georges getting up-close-and-personal, because they have the tendency to jump on shoulders and skitter across feet. None of the animals in Zanzibar are known for being dangerous, but many of them are known for popping up in random places.
4 The Locals
Within hours of arriving on the island, you’ll start to pick up bits of the local language. Jambo! (Hello.) Karibu! (Welcome.) Asante! (Thank you.) Swahili is the local language, and people will shout greetings at you from every possible direction. It’s a sign of the island’s hospitality. Locals want you to feel welcome, and they’ll go out of their way to make sure you have a good time. Thanks to the tourism industry, many Zanzibaris speak good English. Those who don’t, though, will still do everything they can to help give you directions or advice.
Many Zanzibaris are deeply religious (the island is majority-Muslim), but most of the locals you’ll meet on the street will be more open to Western activities. There’s not much of a nightlife on the island, but there are a few local places that stay open. Foreigners and locals can mingle together, forging lifelong friendships after only a few minutes of conversation.
3 The Music
Zanzibar is a mishmash of many different cultures. Because of its history as a trading hub, there’s Arabic, Indian, European, and African influences in everything from the architecture to the food to the language. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the local music. If you go to any of the beachside restaurants, you’ll probably hear the slow rhythms of reggae. A lot of the resorts will play American music. But the real local specialty is taarab.
Taarab is Zanzibar’s big, musical claim to fame, supposedly created by the island’s sultan SeyyidBarghash bin Said in the late 1800s. The genre mixes African, Indian, and Arabic influences into a slow, exotic rhythm that feels like Bollywood’s Arabic cousin. It’s an acquired taste, for sure, but it certainly fits into the pace of island life. For something a bit more upbeat, there’s also bongo flava, which is the reggae-influenced hip hop that Zanzibar stole from the mainland. Bongo flava has a more contemporary feel than taarab, but it still fits perfectly into a beach hang-out session.
2 The Fish
Of course, tourists can enjoy the brightly colored and often curious fish during one of the many snorkeling hotspots on the island. That’s well worth the trip. However, this entry is more for the pescatarians who are reading this article at home: Zanzibar has some of the most delicious fish in the world. The sheer variety is enough to keep food snobs happy for dozens of meals.
Whether you venture out into the bustling food market near the docks or try a rooftop restaurant at one of the more expensive beachside resorts, the results are still the same: delicious aquatic goodness served on rice or skewers. Because this is such a multicultural island (see #4), the cooking styles are almost as varied as the fish themselves. Almost.
1 The Sunsets
Zanzibar is just south of the Equator, with steady ocean vistas spreading out in all directions. If you’re free in the early evening, you should find the nearest rooftop and watch the sunset. Many beachside hotels and restaurants will have areas designated for sunset watchers. Stop what you’re doing, find a recliner or sofa, and watch the colors drip across the sky.
You haven’t seen a sunset until you’ve seen a Zanzibar sunset. The best time of year is rainy season, which is typically cloudier and allows for the orange and pink sunlight to light up the clouds hovering just over the ocean. You’ve probably seen photos of an African sunset, but no photo can capture the real experience.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see a traditional dhow (a single-sail boat and the island’s unofficial symbol) as it sails across the multicolored horizon. No other place in the world offers this specific view, and it’s something that everyone should put on their bucket list. With all the reasons to visit the island, this one is the most important.Swimming may be a more famous island pastime, but sunset-watching is the number one reason to visit Zanzibar.
Evan Purcell is a teacher and writer who has lived everywhere from America to Zanzibar. He is currently doing volunteer work as a teacher in Bhutan. His latest novel, One Night in Zanzibar, is an action-packed romance based on real places and situations in the beautiful African island. You can read more about his travels and writing at http://www.EvanPurcell.