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Beaches: the compass points north

Crowning the northern coast of Zanzibar, Nungwi Beach is the stuff that desert-island dreams are made of. While it doesn’t pull the same numbers as Thailand, the area immediately around Nungwi Town is a bit of a magnet for backpackers looking to relax and revel in equal measure. For somewhere more serene, go west towards Kendwa Beach.

Sailing: travel by dhow

Forget speedboats – with a breath of wind in their shark fin-shaped sails, historic dhows zip gracefully across the waves. Climb aboard for dive trips and sunset cruises out of Stone Town harbour. Or, if you’re feeling lucky, follow the lead of local fishermen and mirror their traditional techniques to try landing a Yellowfin tuna for dinner.

Culture: get crafty on an artisan tour

With wooden gateways at every turn and ornate Arab chests a popular (if heavy) souvenir, it’s no surprise that woodworking is one of the island’s main crafts. A ‘handmade Zanzibar’ tour is the ideal way to get a behind-the-scenes look at the workshops of greater Zanzibar city, and watch talented artisans create beautiful objects and colourful fabrics.

If you’d like to have a go at making something yourself, pay a visit to the MOTO Museum and Workshop in Pete, on the fringes of the Jozani National Park. Here a local women’s cooperative will show you how to weave ukili strands into traditional baskets. And you can also try your hand at batik. 

Scuba diving: go beneath the waves from Nungwi

Colourful coral reefs, lazily drifting sea turtles and water so clear it’s like you’re swimming through air – Zanzibar is a diver’s dream. A cluster of wonderful sites surrounds the northern tip, with trips running from Nungwi Beach. It’s possible to dive all year round – but if you happen to be here in March you might spot humpback whales in the distance. 

History: spellbinding Stone Town

The historic heart of Zanzibar once beat to the rhythm of merchants, explorers, slavers and settlers from countless cultures – and they’ve all left their mark. Today’s Swahili city is far from a museum piece though. Cobbled streets are filled with market stalls, local boys practice capoeira on the beach and the call to prayer rings out over the rooftops.

If it's a tad overwhelming, the best hotels in Zanzibar can put you in touch with local experts for private guided tours of the city. Learn the stories behind the Portuguese colonial forts, Ottoman mosques and Indian spice mansions. Or you could easily spend a day photographing the monumental carved wooden doors alone.

Wildlife: island paradise

If you have a day to spare, try an eco tour of Uzi Island – a small, tidal isle in the protected Menai Bay, about an hour to the south of Zanzibar City. Travel by canoe through peaceful Mangrove forests, listening out for the call of the African Sea Eagle. Visit rural villages where life is much the same as it was one hundred years ago. And, if you time your visit to Uzi right, you may be able to watch sea turtles hatch beside the lagoon.

Food: cook up a Swahili feast

Take a local cooking class or leave it to the masters and hop between food stalls in the Forodhani Gardens night market. Queue behind the locals for the most popular dishes that have taken a dash of inspiration from Portugal, India, the Middle East and – more recently – China. They include:

  • Seafood in a spicy broth, such as Pweza wa nazi – octopus cooked in coconut milk with cinnamon, curry powder, cardamom, garlic and lime
  • Date and hazelnut bread, which is popular for celebrating the end of Ramadan
  • Zanzibari pizza, a speciality of the island, which is stuffed with a sweet or savoury filling and best served with sugar cane juice infused with fresh ginger.
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