Forget taking the dala dala, the Maldives-style beaches and vibrant culture of this pint-sized African island is best explored by car
Living in Tanzania, I’d been to Zanzibar, the little chunk of island just off its east coast, many times. Although part of Tanzania, it has a culture and attitude all its own. Like most visitors, I’d always hired a driver to get around, or hopped on a dala dala (a sort of open-backed minibus); I’d never explored under my own steam.
Gradually, the lure of leaving myself free to flit from beach to village as I pleased, whipping around its sand-fringed edges unhindered, began to bury itself in my consciousness until, eventually, I could resist it no longer.
So, on our most recent trip, my husband and I found ourselves in the seats of a dusty Toyota RAV4 outside a car rental shop in Stone Town, the old portion of Zanzibar City. We’d arrived the night before from Dar es Salaam on the fast ferry (a luxurious hydrofoil with air-conditioning so efficient I had to put my jumper on).
I clicked in my seatbelt as my husband fiddled with the air-conditioning, which coughed, cleared its throat of dust and spluttered to life. He opened and closed the windows a few times “just in case”, doubtful of the life left in the vehicle’s vaguely asthmatic ventilation system.
Ali, the friendly proprietor of the care-hire company, patted the roof above my head so vigorously I jumped. “Have a good trip,” he said cheerfully. “Call me if you have problems”.
Stone Town to Nungwi
Our goal was to circumnavigate the island in three days – which sounds more impressive than it is. Zanzibar is tiny. The drive from Stone Town to Nungwi is just 30 miles, and we’d arrived by lunchtime.
A knot of hotels and restaurants at the northernmost tip of the island, Nungwi makes up for what it lacks in its long, beautiful beach. Unlike elsewhere on the island, the sea doesn’t retreat several hundred yards at low tide here, so you can swim at any time of day.
The main event is Nungwi Beach, a swathe of soft sand that wraps around the headland for close to a mile. It gets rather crowded, however, so we were grateful when our host, Max, directed us down the coast to pretty Kendwa – an hour away on foot, but just 15 minutes by car.
Max and his wife, Elena, once spent three weeks in Matemwe – our next stop – where their tour guide told them: “Please invest in Zanzibar, it is cheap and easy.” They did, and three years later, their little hotel, Babaleo, has taught them there’s nothing cheap or easy about starting a business here. Nevertheless, Max says: “We love it here with our hearts and souls.”
Where to stay: Babalao Bungalows in Nungwi has doubles from £119
Nungwi to Paje
The next day, we headed to Matemwe, a 30-minute drive south-east, but light years away in terms of the beach crowd. “There will be cows,” Max had warned us. “Just chilling.” And there were.
While Nungwi’s sand is Ariel-white, this fishing community lies on a powder-pale curve of caramel, where village life spills onto the beach in football matches. There were several teams playing along the shore when we pulled up, the players – baby Beckhams to teenagers and every age in between – wearing a rag-tag collection of knee-high socks and Man U shirts.
After a few hours spent idling over coconut curry at a tiny beach shack, we hit the road again, driving south to Paje, snaking into the interior of the island, the sound of surf and scenes of bone-white beaches and turquoise sea giving way to the hiss of crickets and a tangle of dense, deep-green jungle. I spied peppercorn vines strung with tiny kernels clambering up trees.
This so-called Spice Island, seasoned with old faiths and modern accommodation, boasts a history as complex, multi-layered and turbulent as it is unique – particularly when it comes to the influence of trade. More than 2,000 years of cultivating and commercialising spices began here in AD 975, when the Persian sultanate traded with the Chinese and Arabs.
The value was such that the Portuguese, who arrived in the 16th century, launched wars with the battle cry: “For Christ and spices.” In 1840, Sultan Seyyid Said moved his capital from Oman to Zanzibar and, using huge numbers of slaves – thousands of whom were trafficked through Zanzibar throughout the 18th and 19th centuries – created plantations, which established the island as the clove capital of the world. At one time, cloves were literally worth their weight in gold.
Today, large commercial spice farms dot the island, with a crop of smaller versions offering tours. We dropped in on one, where our guide peeled back turmeric to reveal its saffron flesh, and told us that it’s said if you stand still long enough, a pepper vine will use you to grow upwards.
In Paje, the tide goes out for what seems like miles, returning slowly as gin-clear shallows, all paintbox-perfect blues and greens. During low tide, the wide beach lends itself to kitesurfing, with schools dotted along its edge – and when the horizon is not strung with kites like enormous, exotic butterflies dancing across the water, the beach is covered in them, bright wings resting on white sand.
Where to stay: Villa Huruma in Paje has doubles from £110
Paje to Stone Town
It was time to head back to Stone Town – but, with the freedom of our trusty RAV4, the route was up to us.
“I want to go here,” I told my husband, jabbing a finger at the southernmost tip of the island on our map.
“Is there… a road?” he asked, squinting at the track I’d pointed at.
“Sort of,” I replied.
And there was. Sort of. Gradually, the asphalt gave way to dirt, which gave way to a rocky path down which cyclists pedalled ahead of us to buy fish, looking faintly startled to see a small car bouncing down this road less travelled behind them.
We were somewhere just past the tiny village of Mtende; any evidence of small guesthouses had ceased, and now it was just us, the sand, the sea, and a group of women wearing colourful local khangas, who giggled at us as they headed into the water to harvest seaweed. We sat for a moment and just listened to the hush – the deepest quiet we’d heard yet.
Eventually, we trundled back up the track and rejoined the tarmac, driving beneath the shade of the longest avenue of trees I have ever seen – the sunlight filtering emerald through dense foliage. And then we were back on the main drag, joined by endless taxis racing tourists from one beach hotel to another.
I called Ali as we neared Stone Town. “Where shall we meet you?”
“Just drive to your hotel,” he replied. “My man will meet you there.”
And he did. He didn’t check the car and I’d no idea if the air-con was still working – we’d wound down our windows long before, listening to the bubble and boil of those cicadas and feeling the wind in our hair.
Where to stay: Mizingani Seafront Hotel in Stone Town has doubles from £67
Alternatively, fly to Dar es Salaam, then take the two-hour Azam Ferry to Stone Town, or a 20-minute flight with one of the small charter companies available, including Air Excel and Coastal Aviation.