Over the years, I’ve spent my birthday in beautiful cities and towns including Cape Town, South Africa and Vico Equense, Italy. I look for an international destination that checks all the boxes on my wish list — unbeatable luxury, personal attention, delicious fresh food, flowing drinks, a priceless view and being near the ocean.
But last year, I discovered a destination that may have previous destinations beat…a hidden gem in Zanzibar, Tanzania. The sound of ocean waves meeting the rocks on the side of the cliff, a seaside spa with a serene soundscape that complemented a relaxing foot massage and an indulgent and invigorating papaya facial are just a few of my memorable moments.
The pandemic has pretty much put my birthday plans on hold this year, but it has also provided plenty of time to plan my next two or three escapes (got to make up for lost time) for when I am ready to pack my bags and go again.
Until then, I will celebrate with some of my favorite memories that I hope will put Zanzibar on your post-COVID travel list.
Let Go and Go Solo
Zanzibar, affectionally known as the “Spice Island,” is an archipelago cradled by the Indian Ocean located just a short distance from mainland Tanzania. Zanzibar has an interesting history; its residents consist of several nationalities. However, if you ask them, they’d all say they are proud Zanzibaris. Perhaps, this is what makes this island so peaceful: operating as one people while also celebrating and respecting the various religions and nationalities that reside on the island.
As a solo female traveler, I often hear that certain places, including Zanzibar, are for couples or honeymoon destinations. Certainly, I can’t deny that places like Paris have been etched in the hearts and minds of many of us as a place for lovers in the same way that Bora Bora is known as a popular honeymoon destination. It seems a contrived notion that certain places are for certain people and not others. The warmth of the sun in these amazing places envelops all who have the opportunity to experience it, whether you are single or part of a couple.
I arrived in Zanzibar after an amazing and informative trip to Kigali, Rwanda and Moshi, Tanzania. My goal was quite simple: to relax and enjoy, as the Italians say, “la dolce far niente” or the sweetness of doing nothing. I didn’t have any intention of running around Zanzibar. I just wanted to be pampered.
Within 10 minutes of my arrival to the island, I heard what could be called the island's unofficial slogan, “Hakuna Matata,” which essentially translates into “no worries.” Hakuna Matata was uttered by nearly everyone I spoke with and it also became the theme of my stay.
By Air or Water: Getting on the Island
The main airport in Zanzibar is Abeid Amani Karume International Airport (ZNZ). It is a small but busy airport with flights arriving from other parts of Africa, the Middle East and Europe.
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As a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, a Tanzanian visa is required for entry. Before COVID, you could get this at the airport. I would advise checking with the airport to make sure this is still the case as well as the cost. Otherwise, you can go to the Embassy of the Republic of Tanzania’s website for information on how to apply online. I secured my in advance for USD$100 and it is valid for one year from the date issued. Securing it in advance allowed me to breeze through the airport.
Prior to arriving in Zanzibar, I was traveling in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Another way to travel to Zanzibar is by ferry from Dar Es Salaam. It is a cheaper option and I found the ferry to be very accommodating. However, the ferry terminal is hectic and I would advise this option for experienced travelers and those who speak Kiswahili. I was fortunate enough to have a friend help me navigate the terminal and call me an Uber. Uber is widely used in Dar Es Salaam, so you can use the app at the ferry terminal. However, keep in mind that it is a roll of the dice whether your driver speaks English.
Whether you are coming in by water or by air, I would recommend working with the property where you will be staying before you arrive to coordinate your transportation to get there. The more you can plan for in advance, the faster you can begin to enjoy your stay on the island.
Location, Location, Location
Within the Zanzibar archipelago are dozens of islands. Various sections of Zanzibar can offer different experiences. Those interested in sailing, snorkeling and diving may want to consider southeast Zanzibar, while Stone Town can be a great option for those who walk to get around on foot and explore.
Some coasts provide for great swimming and others may be better for adventure lovers. It is important to understand the features of the location you choose in Zanzibar to ensure you have easy access to the activities you most want to engage in.
Zanzibar is not without a variety of luxury accommodations to choose from. In fact, I went back and forth before making my final decision to stay at the Zanzi Resort. One of the best decisions during my trip.
Nestled against the Indian Ocean, Zanzi Resort is a boutique resort located less than 45 minutes away from the airport that is guarded by Maasai warriors who walk the grounds in their traditional attire. The extremely attentive staff is ready at a moment’s notice to provide as much assistance and guidance as you require.
The resorts can suggest various excursions options and work with guests to create a custom itinerary that best suits their needs. After closing in March due to the pandemic, the sales manager Emeline Malisa shared that the resort began accepting guests again at the beginning of August.
Without giving too much more away (you’ll have to stay tuned for an inside look behind this amazing property), what I loved about Zanzi Resort is that in such a short time, they got to know me, my likes and dislikes and advised me on suitable activities. The rooms are spacious and well-appointed and also offer ocean view and ocean access villas with a private pool. My villa was completely private which I loved.
During my stay, highlights include being pampered at the seaside spa and a surprise traditional song and dance by the Maasai guards, which was hands down the best birthday gift ever.
The location you choose will play a huge role in the experience you will have. In addition to excursions, properties can arrange airport transfers on your behalf and arrange for a private driver to take you around town. My advice is to let them do it all as that is one less thing you need to worry about.
Money and Weather Matter
The official currency of Tanzania is the Tanzanian shilling. You can obtain money from an ATM, currency exchange and at your hotel or resort. In Zanzibar's tourist areas, U.S. dollars are also widely accepted, as are Visa and Mastercard. American Express not so much.
The suggested time to visit Zanzibar is June through October, which is officially known as the dry season. As you can imagine, this is also the busiest. But because it was my birthday, I didn’t mind. This wasn’t an issue given the private and relaxing experience at Zanzi Resort which kept me away from the bustle of crowds.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still advise refraining from travel that is not essential, especially if leaving from the United States. With that being said, whether you are planning to go over the next couple of months or near future, be sure to check the advisory in your country and most importantly, any advisories issued from the Tanzanian government.
I have been planning my return since the day I left Zanzibar and Zanzi Resort and once you are able to travel and stay there safely, you will too.