How I Went to Zanzibar and Found My Happy Place

In Zanzibar, 'Hakuna Matata' is more than a saying, it's a lifestyle.

Most of my trips start off with me wanting to eat something. So when I heard that Zanzibar, a small island off the coast of mainland Tanzania, had a version of one of my favorite Trinidadian dishes, pelau, that was all I needed to start planning a trip. What I didn’t expect as I embarked on the 24-hour-plus journey that included three flights, was that finding this dish would end up being the last thing on my mind.

The journey was a long one – what felt like forever from NYC to Amsterdam, followed by a five hour layover at the crack of dawn in a part of the airport where everything was closed until normal business hours and the worst part, there were no outlets to charge my dying phone. Next up was another ‘this flight is too long to be doing it in economy’ journey to Nairobi, Kenya, where I had an hour layover in another terminal stuck in 1981. Finally, the last flight – a small plane to Zanzibar.

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Everything was worth it the second I exited the plane and saw a sign that read “Karibu Zanzibar. Roam with the locals.” I was home, and totally in love. I headed to customs, and after assuring a very surly woman that my Yellow Fever card had a current date on it (You need a Yellow Fever shot for Tanzania, particularly if you are traveling from or transiting through a high risk country like Kenya, for example), I met up with my driver and made way into Stone Town.

Fortunately I sleep pretty well in crappy economy seats, so I was able to hit the ground running in the morning. From the moment I stepped outside the Park Hyatt Hotel and into the winding alleyways, Stone Town captured my heart. The bustling markets, vendors selling handmade goods, men selling fresh sugarcane juice, women carrying groceries and kids rushing off to school filled me with a relaxing vibe reminiscent of the Caribbean. The massive, ornate doors that line the streets speak to the island’s Arab, Indian, and European heritage.

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It may have been a bit touristy and stereotypical of me, but I made sure I had a beautiful African print skirt made (with pockets because…duh!) and my curls were popping, so I could glide through the rugged streets feeling like a queen, taking photos in front of every gorgeous door I could find.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Stone Town is full of history, so taking a tour is almost necessary. Grassroots Traveller is a great local tour company founded by a Zanzibari woman named Hafsa Mbamba, and thanks to her I had an amazing guide for exploring the last open slave market, presided over by Arab traders until it was shut down by the British in 1873; the oldest building in the city, and the Old Fort and the House of Wonders — a former palace of the sultan of Zanzibar.

One of the first things I noticed about Zanzibar aside from the laid-back vibe was the abundance of color. Coming from New York City, a literal concrete jungle, I rarely see bright, vibrant colors that aren’t on a billboard in Times Square. People joke that the official uniform for New Yorkers is anything black. Not in Zanzibar. From the multicolored tin roofs to the gorgeous kangas local women wear, the island is full of bright colors that play a supporting role to the natural beauty and make you feel you’re enveloped in pure sunshine.

I was all set to head back to my hotel for a meal, when Hafsa convinced me that I had to catch a must see show in the city. Just before sunset, everyone gathers in Forodhani Gardens to watch an amazing spectacle — the sunset jumpers. These local kids compete to see who can do the best flips into the water, and with the sunset as their background, the results are nothing short of amazing. Once the show was over, it was time to eat, so we watched as the gardens transformed into a foodie lover’s dream. The Night Market is the perfect place to get a taste for Zanzibar’s cuisine, with everything from seafood straight from the ocean to fried cassava chips and the island’s famous Zanzibar pizza. Before you think, “I’m not going to fly all the way to Zanzibar to try pizza,” know that this is no ordinary pizza. Zanzibar pizza is more of a delicious crepe filled with whatever sweet or savory topping your heart desires. Trust me — just eat it.

Photo Credit: Nasrin Suleiman

While we’re on the subject of food — because who doesn’t love to eat — make sure you don’t leave Zanzibar without eating at the Rock Restaurant. Just looking at this restaurant is an experience. It literally sits on top of a rock in the Indian Ocean. During high tide, a small boat carries you to the restaurant steps; during low tide you can simply walk. Either way, the views are spectacular. Make reservations in advance because seating is limited and spots fill up quickly!

After spending a few days in the city, I headed out to the coasts to experience Zanzibar’s beaches. Most people head north to Nungwi, which boasts amazing beaches and a more personal view of Zanzibari life. You can watch local women cast nets for fish along the sandbanks or watch children play soccer along the shore as the sun sets. A great place to set up camp in Nungwi is the Doubletree Resort Nungwi. I, however, opted to go slightly off the beaten path and head southeast on the island to Paje.  Part of the Michamvi Peninsula which is lined with some of the most beautiful beaches on Zanzibar, Paje is a quaint coastal town most people skip. From your home base at Upendo Zanzibar you can explore Prison Island, Jozani Forest or swim with dolphins.

However, what I loved the most about Zanzibar — and what I know you’ll love the most about Zanzibar — are the people. Every single person I encountered in Zanzibar was happy. Even if they were explaining to me some hardship they were experiencing, they did so with a smile. Everywhere I went, people greeted me with, “Hakuna matata! Welcome to Zanzibar.” No worries indeed.

My favorite part of each day was watching the local men play soccer on the beach with the sunset as their backdrop. As a child of the Caribbean, this felt so familiar because there’s not a Carib island where you won’t find men watching or playing soccer. The more I walked around, the more I let go of my Brooklyn grouch face and found myself smiling and talking to everyone as well. The children played with each other, not apps on their phones. I zipped through streets on the back of motorbikes, sang Zanzibari songs with taxi drivers and had coffee on a street corner with elders. I learned to fish from local women and swam in water so blue, I made Zanzibar blue my new official color. It was like a Pharrell video, and I wanted to bottle it up and take it home with me.

I did find the pelau I was looking for (Zanzibari people spell it pilau), and it was delicious, but more than that, Zanzibar stole my heart. Just like the sign said, I was welcomed and roamed with the locals. I found more than I was looking for in Zanzibar and it changed me. As I boarded my flight home, I carried the spirit of the island with me and knew I would be back.

Asante (”thank you”) Zanzibar, asante.