Travel Diary: Zanzibar Day 0 – Stone Town and First Impressions

So, here I am – the trip of a lifetime! I decided to grab life by the horns and take myself on an incredible holiday to Zanzibar, for just over a week. I’ll be travelling by myself, but am of course assuming I’ll meet fellow travellers on the way.

I’m typing up these blog posts at the end of my holiday, taking certain bits out of my travel journal. Of course, most of that is private but this is the best way for me to share my thoughts and experiences as they happened.

I normally wouldn’t blog about a trip, but I’ve already lined up some wonderful tours and experiences I know should be publicised, for the causes they support. A close friend from home has a good friend living in Dar Es Salaam, who has recommended some incredible activities and people to meet.

I’m ecstatic for the chance to discover a new country, a new continent – this will be my first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa – and a set of cultures unfamiliar to me. There are so many wonderful things for me to do here and I can’t wait to learn more.

Besides all of that, this will also be my first solo adventure. I’ve been travelling around Europe and the UK by myself of course, either for long weekends or adding a few days after a work trip – but I grew up here, so none of those count as an adventure. I’ve always wanted to, but never had the money, to leap on a plane and run away somewhere beautiful and exotic. This year, my Christmas bonus took me on an incredible journey rather than going straight into savings, for the first time ever.

I wonder what it will be like. This is the beginning of the tourist season in Tanzania, and I know there will be a lot of interesting travellers for me to befriend. But I’ve never spent so long in a brand new country, completely alone. As one of life’s natural extroverts and positive people, I know I will be fine and am highly unlikely to get lonely, but I’m intrigued about how solo travel will be in Africa.

I’ve read a lot of blogs and spoken to enough people that I feel prepared for it in terms of safety, cultural knowledge and all of those more practical matters – but I mean in terms of my spirituality. I hope I take to it, and enjoy the experience of solitude. I’m sure it will lead to a great deal of emotional and spiritual growth, and I look forward to learning more about myself through the process.

I had a very messy and complicated break-up last year, from a long-term relationship. I wasn’t treated properly at all, and had to deal with more negativity and heart-break than I thought humanly possible. It took its toll on me physically as well as mentally, and I hadn’t really had the chance to get away from it all – quite literally. I moved into my own flat, which has been wonderful – but I’m still in the same city as him, though it’s no longer associated with the relationship. This trip is, among many other things, my reward to myself for making it through this time so strong and intact, more self-assured and powerful, and more sure of who I am and what I want from life. I needed some space to mark this process, and some time to reflect on it and the next chapters of my life. And I promise, that’s as personal as I will get – but just to give you some idea of how much I wanted this break and how important it was for me!

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The flight from Doha stops at Kilimanjaro airport for an hour to refuel, and to my great annoyance, they won’t let us disembark to get photos of the breathtaking mountain. This is the best photo I could get, of the peak through the clouds. 

It’s quite a breathtaking sight, even though you can’t see much besides clouds. This is the tallest peak in Africa, and it’s quite a sight.

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I landed in Zanzibar in the afternoon, and it’s already 35 degrees. I could get used to this! Zanzibar airport is tiny, with a small terminal. There are about half a dozen forms to fill in, and you have to pay $50 for a visa. But it’s one of the quickest airport arrivals I’ve ever encountered, and I’m on Tanzanian soil half an hour after I land!

My first impression of Zanzibar is incredible – it feels very familiar, and it’s also like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s extraordinarily green and sunny – and hot! There are no pavements, but the roadside from the airport to Stone Town is full of fruit stalls, cafes and bars.

Twenty minutes later and I’m in Stone Town, at the House of Spices. 

Here’s another thing about Stone Town no one will tell you: none of the streets have names.

Initially I think this will be great fun, but I soon learn my lesson!

The hotel is incredible. It was built in the 18th century, and has three floors, built around a central courtyard. The rear of the House was the receiving point for deliveries as well as the production area, while the front of the house was for the day-to-day sales.

The second floor, where many of the rooms – including mine – are, also has two terraces (now converted to a bar and restaurant) which were used to dry and pack the spices.

All the rooms are air conditioned, with en suite bathrooms, and have their own spice name and ‘personality’. Mine was Ginger, and I got a ginger soap with it! Every room comes with original Zanzibari furniture, which is mostly hand-carved mahogany, in a setting of authentic Swahili architecture.

Cesare, an Italian immigrant, owns this gem of a place and his helpful staff are on hand to offer advice on where to eat and what to explore – but at this time of day there isn’t a great deal to do besides shop, so after exchanging some US dollars for Tanzanian shillings, I buy myself some flip flops and sunglasses from the market and go for a walk.

Something useful to remember – make sure you take US dollars in cash with you, since ATMs are few and far between (I heard there are less than half a dozen in Stone Town) and the commission is exorbitant.

The exchange rate to USD when I went was about 2,160 shillings, so exchanging even $100 makes you feel like a bit of a squillionnaire.

Stair landing

Courtesy House of Spices

My room is on the other side of those doors – how cute!

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courtyard

Courtesy House of Spices

stairs

Courtesy House of Spices

I forgot to take photos of my room, so here are some from the hotel’s website:

Ginger bedroom

The Ginger Room, courtesy House of Spices

Ginger bedroom

The Ginger Room, courtesy House of Spices

On my first night, I walk around Stone Town a little, down to the beach and along the coast. The air is humid and smells so fresh, and the breeze is more than welcome in this heat.

Stalls selling grilled seafood and kebabs are lined up on the beach, and I enjoy a nice fresh mango juice while walking. I could get used to this kind of serenity.

No one has heckled me so far, which I’d been warned about, and though the beach is studded with visitors, we’re able to enjoy this incredible atmosphere and view in our own little universe, with nothing but our thoughts to interrupt us.

Something to note, especially if travelling alone – electricity is scarce, so many streets are unlit. I wouldn’t recommend walking around by yourself unless you’re completely sure where you’re going. No one looks threatening though, but it’s always better to err on the side of caution.

So I return to the hotel for an incredible dinner of lobster in a gently-spiced sauce, after a refreshing walk along the beach. The hotel’s restaurant is on a terrace and though the air is hot and humid, the fans and the ice cold G&T help sort that out! I could get used to this…

 

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