Stone Town is wonderful but it’s not a place to relax. For that, you best go to Zanzibar’s east coast, to Jambiani, for example.
The beach is seemingly endless, the sand whiter than anywhere else (in the world!), and the water shades of blue and turquoise you can’t even imagine. In short, it looks a lot like paradise.
Finding a place to stay
Jambiani’s (very long) beach is lined with hotels and guesthouses. Behind those, there’s the village. Then there’s some bushes and trees and then the main road. That means, that from the main road, you can’t see the hotels and you don’t see them when you’re in the village either. This can make finding a place a little bit tricky.
The bus – called dala-dala – will drop you somewhere in the village. A private taxi (more expensive but it drives even when not full) will bring you to the hotel. If you booked, that is, and can call the hotel, because some places are very hard to find. Otherwise, the taxi driver will most likely take you to two or three places he knows, you have a look at them, and choose to stay or not. For us, that worked out pretty well.
The driver took us to Stonehouse, a lovely small hotel run by two amazing guys. Since it was low season, we were the only guests for the whole four days we stayed there. Right in front of the beach, with a good restaurant and with reggae music all day long, it was the perfect place to relax.
Snorkeling, swimming, walking
The reef is a few hundred meters from the coast and right up to the reef, the water is very shallow. At low tide, it’s even possible to walk all the way to the reef, the guy from the hotel told us. We didn’t try it, though. But even at high tide, the water’s almost too shallow to swim close to the beach. There’s a lot of seaweed in the water, which doesn’t look very nice but is otherwise not a problem. Under the seaweed however, on the ground, sea urchins hide and they can inflict bad injuries, so it’s best to wear water shoes.
For better swimming and snorkeling, you can take a boat out to the reef (at high tide only). The most common type of boats on Zanzibar are small dhows made of wood. Every afternoon, the fishermen set the sails and head out to go fishing.
Stonehouse has its own dhow. The boat is slow and quiet and allows you to really enjoy the ride (although we did get a bit sea sick). The boat ride was the highlight of our snorkeling trip; there aren’t many fishes or colorful corals.
At low tide, it’s possible to walk along the beach all the way to Paje to the north of Jambiani. Paje is kind of a kite surf center, and almost all hotels offer lessons and equipment for rent. There are also more tourists; the atmosphere in Jambiani is much more relaxed and quiet (the people as well).
Seaweed and mangoes
One of Zanzibar’s main exports, today, is seaweed. For Zanzibaris of no value, they grow and harvest it to sell it at very low prices to Chinese companies that export it directly to China. Once a day at low tide, the women of the village harvest the seaweed from patches only visible when the water is very low. It’s a lot of work in the hot sun and the revenues are very small.
Nevertheless, people depend on the little money they can earn with the seaweed. The villagers are very poor and the difference between the hotels at the beachfront and the villages is huge. Most locals don’t profit in any way from tourism since most hotels and the land at the beach are owned by foreigners, most staff are not locals, and the hotels have their own restaurants.
Some locals try to make a living organizing trips around the island, or offering massages and henna tattoos, while kids sell mangoes or shells. Young Maasai, in traditional costumes and with sunglasses, sell jewelry. The seem out of place at the beach, and they are. Poverty, loss of land, and the climate change – and therefore droughts – are pushing them out of their lands in search of new ways to earn a living.