In its heyday, Zanzibar was regarded as something of an island paradise. Exotic and removed from the mainstream, it was an unspoilt draw for the rootless wanderers of the world.
Benefiting from a bewildering array of influences, epic monuments to colonial vanity rubbed up against medieval medinas and ramshackle hovels. With a small population and a dynamic and vibrant cultural stew—resulting from it being a major trading hub for slaves and then spices for much of recent history—it really could claim to be what it was, a perfect escape.
Then the story got out, however, and as the island was added to more and more bucket lists it fell prey to the worst impulse in the tourism industry—unrestrained development, meaning that some of the most opulent hotels on the island are cheek by jowl with some pretty desperate poverty. The result is that these days Zanzibar is a shadow of its former self. A favorite of backpackers and package tourists for years, a great deal of its authenticity has been commercialized and lost as quality has been systematically eroded by quantity.
As far as hotels go, there is a plethora of the average, with a small helping of the scarily bad just to keep things interesting.
Having said that, there are some real gems to be found. In Stone Town, the hotel with the best location (and the safest bet) is probably the Serena, while the Mashariki Palace Hotel is slightly more upscale and definitely more interesting. Stone Town holds some appeal but a day wandering around the narrow alleys and looking at the ancient doors (and the house Freddie Mercury was born in) will probably be enough before moving on to the beach.
Speaking of the beach, in the north you’ll find places like Kilindi and the very cool Essque Zalu. Further south along the east coast of the island you get the likes of Matemwe Retreat and Baraza. All are very well managed, have great food, and are located on the nicer beaches on the island.
At the top there’s The Residence which is beautiful, well run, and about as secluded as Zanzibar gets. In all honesty though, if you have the money to go, a far better spend is the superb Mnemba Island Lodge, located on a small private island just off the north east coast of Zanzibar itself.
In fact, the best beaches and places to stay are on the smaller islands surrounding Zanzibar and one of our favorites (along with Mnemba of course) is Fundu Lagoon.
Zanzibar is an imperfect offering. Value can be hard to come by and the romantic allure that the name conjures is rather faded these days, but there are some genuinely great places to stay if a bit of beach and sunshine at the start or end of your safari is what you’re after.
Dan Achber daydreams of deserted island paradises during every Canadian winter.