The best time to visit Zanzibar is always: Discover the majesty of gay Zanzibar

The grass may not be greener in sandy Zanzibar, but the skies and seas are undoubtedly bluer. Fringed by the Indian Ocean on the East African coast, the Zanzibar archipelago lies adrift from the Tanzanian mainland embracing its true calling as a paradise retreat. While Tanzania lures millions through the gates of its world-famous Serengeti National Park, Zanzibar island offers a worthy break from wildlife watching as the perfect addition to your Tanzania vacation. In addition to basking in the sunshine on Zanzibar’s bright white beaches, uncover the centre’s intriguing colonial and trade history, sampling fine cuisine and authentic local customs before boarding a traditional Dhow boat for the sunset cruise to end them all.

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Gay Zanzibar

Distinct from the African continent, Zanzibar locals are largely of Swahili origin, though Arab and Indian culture also is a strong influence on the land. Islam is the main religion practised in Zanzibar and along with it there’s the need for visitors to dress modestly and be discreet about drinking alcohol in public. Sad to say, homosexuality is still illegal across Tanzania and prosecutions are not uncommon. Even as recently as 2017, 20 people were arrested at an HIV/AIDS education session on Zanzibar island following the government’s suspension of national AIDS programs.

While you should know that homosexual behaviour in public could lead to arrest and possible imprisonment, non-African visitors to the island who practice caution and discretion are unlikely to experience any problems. Refrain from public displays of affection regardless of orientation and you should be fine. Staff within the tourist industry are used to dealing with international clientele and little fuss should be made regarding orientation or sleeping arrangements.

Photo: Brian Wangenheim

Photo: Ben Koorengevel

Travel tips

What with April to October being Zanzibar’s rainy season, the best time to visit Zanzibar is earlier in the year, between the months of November and March. For the best Zanzibar weather, December reigns supreme. Rainy season accommodation may come cheaper but there is a higher risk of storms and less than favourable beach conditions. Regardless of when you travel, there is always the risk of malaria in the region. Visit a travel clinic before travelling, choosing a malaria tablet suitable for diving if needed. Vaccinations and certifications against yellow fever may also be needed depending on your origin country.

There is little public transportation offered in Zanzibar and walking is the preferred way to get around for short journeys. For day trips across the island, visitors can ride in a taxi or dalla-dalla (minivan), moving to the port for boat services between Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam on the mainland. For taxi rides, prepare to haggle forcefully with your driver for a fair deal or inevitably pay inflated prices. Otherwise, booking a shared shuttle ride through your hotel may allow for an easier experience. This need to haggle is just one pointer of the social inequalities at play on the island; in truth, around half of the population live below the poverty line, most notably in rural parts.

The currency used in Zanzibar and across Tanzania is the Tanzanian shilling, which is best bought before travelling or at the airport on arrival. There are just two ATMS on Zanzibar island and your hotel is likely to charge exorbitant exchange rates. Though most shops and tour operators will only accept shillings, many hotels will only accept US Dollars or Euros, leading to a bank fee if paying your balance by credit card. As little as four to five days will be enough time to cover the majority of main attractions on Zanzibar, but if there’s no rush, consider spending longer on the island, relaxing into the easy-going atmosphere with a week to ten days.

Photo: Klimentgrozdanoski

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As well as a number of ancient ruins propped up by bordering residences, Stone Town also holds former palaces, Persian bathhouses and stone mansions of ornately carved design

1. Stone Town

Stone Town towards the west of the island is the most developed area in Zanzibar but gladly still maintains its old-world magic. Most famed as the birthplace of Freddie Mercury, Stone Town is actually more accurately known as Zanzibar Town, divided by Creek Road into two equal parts; Stone Town to the west being the oldest part and the newer developments of Ng’ambo (literally meaning ‘the other side’) off to the east. Surrounding, you’ve also got the ever-growing suburbs of Amaani, Mazizini, Magomeni and Mwanakwerekwe, hosting a contrast of both slums and middle-class neighbourhoods.

Like the rest of the island, there is little public transportation in Stone Town and so walking is the way to go. Thankfully, the centre is easily walkable allowing for long meandering strolls through maze-like streets that pass through hundreds of years of history. As well as a number of ancient ruins propped up by bordering residences, Stone Town also holds former palaces, Persian bathhouses and stone mansions of ornately carved design. Lose yourself to the streets for a while, sampling the strong local coffee and crafts, following the spires of St Joseph’s Cathedral and the Old Fort for direction. Towering above the rest beside the fort is the Palace of Wonders; the main point of interest in Zanzibar holding a whole load of incredible history and firsts for the island, such as its first elevator.

Photo: Cody Mclain

2. Forodhani Market

Sticking to Stone Town for the time being, we arrive hungry at Forodhani Market, one of the top things to do in Zanzibar for foodies. Immerse yourself in the energetic throng to get a taste of local produce and hot-off-the-grill meat and seafood. As an island market, seafood is the top pick, served up alongside fried potato, naan bread and samosa, though other Swahila and Zanzibari dishes such as Biryani, Zanzibar ‘pizza’, mishkaki and mandazi are also must-tries. Forodhani Market opens in the afternoon and runs late into the evening at the centre of Foradhani Gardens beside the main sea walk.

3. Spice Tour

In addition to sampling local dishes, embarking of a spice tour of Zanzibar will better acquaint you with the unique local palette. Being Zanzibar’s most profitable industry, the spice trade has historically brought much wealth to the island. Follow its origins on a guided walk through the old centre, learning of the heady variety of spices grown and traded in the area as well as their culinary and medical applications. As well as buying spicy souvenirs in town, visitors also have the option to visit a working spice plantation, for cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla and pepper to name just a few, in a more rural locale.

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While beaches are not hard to find on Zanzibar, Nungwi Beach on the northwest tip of the island is a favourite thanks to its stunning sundown views

4. Nungwi Beach

A top choice of what to do in Zanzibar on an afternoon is undoubtedly a beach visit. While beaches are not hard to find on Zanzibar, Nungwi Beach on the northwest tip of the island is a favourite thanks to its stunning sundown views. Found to the edge of Nungwi Village, the beach has long been used as a launch deck for local fishing boats putting in and out of the bay. The only change these days is the string of hotels now overlooking the shore. Rather than being a negative, however, these resorts ensure the beach’s white sand and turquoise water stay looking their best. Kendwa Beach is another nice alternative to view the sunset in the north, around 10 minutes away by car (or water taxi) from Nungwi, and, though slightly more secluded, also offers its fair share of restaurants and things to do.

Nungwi Beach, Zanzibar | Photo: Teodor Kuduschiev

Photo: Riitou

5. Jozani Forest

Inland of the shore, Zanzibar has much more to offer in the way of natural scenery. Jozani Forest to the eastern side is a top draw, the world’s only remaining sanctuary for rare Zanzibar red colobus monkeys. Begin early in the morning or in the late afternoon to catch to tree-dwellers at their most active, following any of the nature trails through indigenous forest before ending at the mangrove forest opposite. As well as a high likelihood of encountering monkeys, you’re also sure to spot butterflies, birds and unique plant life too, all for just $8 USD entry fee. Though it’s easy to spend a full day within the reserve of Jozani Chwaka National Park, try combining the forests with a trip to Paje Beach, travelling by chartered taxi, bus or as part of an organised tour.

6. Kitesurfing in Paje Beach 

A convenient addition to your Jozani Forest excursion is the adventurer’s paradise of Paje Beach, arguably the best beach on the southeast coast. Windsurfing is the go-to activity on Paje thanks to reliable winds and choppy surf, with newbies, also catered to. Take advantage of the many kitesurfing trainers operating along the beach, learning the ropes alongside other backpackers and laidback locals. After riding the waves, refuel at any of the bohemian cafés or burger bars dotting the shoreline, opting to stay over at a hostel to better hone your kitesurfing skills over a few days. The best time for kitesurfing is between January and February or June to September, but the area is both affordable and fun most of the year-round.

Photo: Kitereisen

7. Prison Island

A firm favourite on our Zanzibar itinerary is a day trip to Prison Island (otherwise known as Changuu Island), a small outcrop just 30-minutes’ boat ride from Stone Town. Showcasing Zanzibar’s somewhat darker past, Prison Island was formerly a slave detention centre in the 1800s before becoming a quarantine camp for those with deadly diseases following abolition. Nowadays, however, with both slavery and the Yellow Fever camps long gone, the island serves as a nature reserve and sanctuary homing a number of giant Aldabra tortoises. One of the best activities on the island is snorkelling a little way from the shore to catch the century-old tortoises swimming in the shallows. Opt for either a private tour combining all the best bits of Stone Town and Prison Island in just one day or take it slow on a solo trip, arriving anytime between opening hours of 9 am-4.15 pm, paying just $4USD to enter.

8. Dhow Cruise

There’s no better symbol of Zanzibar’s Arabic influence than the dual-sails of Dhow cruise ships navigating the waters surrounding. Board one of these luxury vessels for an experience to remember, heading out into open water for peachy sunsets peeking through bright white sails. Beside the romantic sunset views, a Dhow Cruise allows visitors to find a moment of tranquillity when the engines are swapped for manual sails and the wind takes over. At any other time of day, however, a Dhow cruise is still a good choice, allowing for snorkelling stop-offs before disembarking at Kwale Island for a seafood buffet lunch. As the snorkelling here is not the island’s best, opt to stay on Kwale a little longer to properly explore the local beaches and shops in the shade of huge baobab trees.

Photo: Олег Дьяченко

9. Snorkelling at Mnemba Atoll

To make up for the damaged reefs near Kwale, Zanzibar offers the underexplored alternative of Mnemba Atoll. Charter a Dhow sailboat from any of the island’s northern beaches (for as little as $25 USD if you don’t mind bartering with the captain), looking out for dolphins during the journey to the edge of the atoll. Though Mnemba is actually a private island, most boats will dock close to shore and allow for snorkelling and swimming in the shallows where yellow snappers, barracuda and eels can be found in the nearby reefs. If sold as part of a tour, Mnemba Atoll is a great addition to the itinerary, often ending in a barbeque seafood dinner on one of the many remote islands in the vicinity before sailing back to the mainland amid vivid sunset vistas.

10. Escape to a Private Paradise

While admittedly Zanzibar gay life is not as open as we’d like it to be, there’s the decent alternative of veering from the beaten track to find a secret retreat, just for your lover and you. Two such beaches are Matemwe and Pingwe, both edged by private luxury resorts where pampering and honeymooning is the call of the day. Both lie hidden along the east coast, with Matemwe the most tranquil of the two offering fishing, snorkelling and diving in utmost peace and quiet. Slightly further south meanwhile is Pingwe, a great spot for sunset views with its own selection of laidback bars and restaurants, such as the exclusive Rock Restaurant lying literally on a small rock just off the coast. While you’re in the area, try nearby Michamvi Kae for its paddle-boarding excursions among mangrove forests or take it easy in Jambiani fishing village, the heart of the island’s seaweed farming industry.

Photo: Akil Blanchard

Photo: Andre Abreu

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