It's almost two decades since I first visited the island of Zanzibar, or "Unguja" as its officially known. I was on a gap year, travelling around the world in 2001 after my A-levels. I'd already toured through Asia and Australia, and was working my way overland from South Africa to Kenya. After a fantastic few weeks in Tanzania and the Serengeti, I took the ferry from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar.
With its relaxed island vibe, Zanzibar felt like a complete contrast to mainland Africa. Perfect beaches with powdery white sands, winding alleyways full of history, and delicious spices that danced on my tongue – I was in heaven!
A lot has changed since then. Zanzibar's annual tourist arrivals have gone from 70-thousand in 2001 to 350-thousand-plus, and infrastructure has boomed alongside this demand. I've changed too: now in my mid-thirties, I'm not on such a tight budget, and I've got new hobbies like kitesurfing that travel with me.
Both intrigued by the changes and nostalgic over my gap year days, here are five reasons why I want to go back to Zanzibar:
Zanzibar's exotic cuisine is reason enough alone to visit. Influenced by its African roots, Arab traders, European invaders and Indian immigrants, it showcases the island's multicultural mix. I was a backpacker on a budget when I travelled there last, so street-food was my staple.
I'll never forget my first taste of "urojo" – a spiced curry soup served with crispy bhajis, coconut chutney and mashed potato. I bought a bowl from a street vendor in Stone Town and sat on the beach to savour every mouthful. With its perfect balance of Indian, Arabic and African flavours, urojo is, for me, the essence of Zanzibar.
Chapattis, biryani and "Zanzibar pizza", fried dough parcels stuffed with veggies, egg, meat and more, are other foods I fell for, along with local octopus, coconuts and "Zanzibar chai", a blend of milky tea, honey and spices.
For a return trip, I'd love to hunt down these favourites again, as well as delve deeper into the island's burgeoning restaurant scene. Top of my list is The Rock – a seafood restaurant set on a rock in the Indian Ocean – as well as one of the rooftop restaurants in Stone Town – Emerson on Hurumzi is said to have incredible panoramas and great seafood. I'd also like to experience more street food at Stone Town's famous night market.
When I visited the island in 2001, I'd never heard of "kitesurfing." Neither had Zanzibar. Years later, as the sport developed and gained mainstream momentum, a few pioneering kitesurfers discovered that Zanzibar had the perfect conditions: 16-knot winds, flat lagoons for beginners, waves for the more advanced, and beautiful long beaches to launch and land on.
The first permanent kitesurf centre, kitesurfcentrezanzibar.com, opened on Paje beach in 2006, and several more followed suit. Today, you can base yourself at one of these "kitesurf camps," hire the latest kit and get expert tuition from International Kiteboarding Organization (IKO) qualified instructors, or travel independently with your own gear and ride at famous spots like Dongwe, Paje and Jambiani.
I started learning how to kitesurf a few years ago and am eager to test out my skills in Zanzibar's beautifully warm waters – no wetsuit required! There are two main wind seasons – December to March and July to September – so if I don't make it out there this summer, I'll be planning a winter trip.
With soft white sands and crystal clear waters, Zanzibar's beaches have a reputation as the world's best. My memories are of powdery stretches, with only a handful of locals or other backpackers for company. Nowadays, empty beaches are no doubt fewer and farther between, but I'm keen to find out if they do still exist. The quieter spots at Matemwe and Kiwengwa sound like they could be good places to start searching.
And, while busier beaches may lack privacy and seclusion, they do have other advantages. The boom in Zanzibar's beach tourism means that it's now far easier to find shore-side accommodation, rent watersports equipment, eat lunch by the ocean and sip sun-downers in beach bars. Nightlife is another bonus: Nungwi Beach has a reputation as the most happening place on the island, Paje is particularly popular in the December to February kitesurf season, and the full moon parties at Kendwa are legendary.
Zanzibar's history adds depth to any holiday here. A major spice trading port, and the biggest slave trader in East-Africa, Zanzibar loved through centuries of Portuguese occupation, Omani rule and British domination before it became independent in 1963. This turbulent past altered the island's original Swahili culture and created the multicultural identity of modern-day Zanzibar.
Stone Town is the best place to immerse yourself in the island's past, with historic highlights like the Arab Fort, Stone Town's oldest building, the House of Wonder, former palace of the Sultan of Zanzibar, the Old Dispensary, built to celebrate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee and Christ Church Anglican Cathedral, which commemorates David Livingston's role in abolishing the slave trade. Winding alleyways, cobbled streets and art stalls add to the appeal, and I can recall many happy afternoons getting lost in these beguiling backstreets.
When I visited in 2001, Stone Town had just gained, since year 2000, UNESCO World Heritage status. To experience as much of the island's history and culture as possible, I based myself there for my first few nights on Zanzibar. Now an established World Heritage site, I'm curious to know how Stone Town's buildings and atmosphere have been affected by almost two decades of global recognition, conservation efforts and international funding.
The scuba diving
I was a qualified PADI diver when I first visited Zanzibar but, I'm ashamed to admit, I didn't go diving. After more than six months of continuous travel, my gap year funds were running low and, back then, there were only a handful of dive schools on the island.
Today, Zanzibar is well known as one of the world's top scuba destinations. Its coral reefs have a reputation as some of the richest on the planet, attracting more than 500 marine species. From shallow sites for first-timers, to deep dives, wrecks and muck diving, there's literally something for everyone. Even better, the water is bath-tub warm and visibility can reach up to 30-metres.
A coral reef runs along the length of the southeast coast, and common species include crocodile fish, rays and ribbon eels, as well as barracuda, reef sharks and the full cast of Finding Nemo. In the north, Mnemba Atoll is visited by dolphins, turtles and migrating whale sharks, while Levan Bank is the place to see big game fish like tuna, trevally and kingfish. After dark, there's even more to see on a night dive. A return trip to make up for my loss is definitely in order!
My Zanzibar gap year adventures feel like a lifetime away. At the time I had no digital camera, no smartphone, no job and no responsibilities. I'd love to go back and relive my gap year memories, discover what's changed and, with any luck, fall in love with Zanzibar all over again.