Zanzibar: the No-Plan (Working) Holiday

My sojourn in Africa has been challenging to say the least, so when it was announced that our annual mid-year professional development conference would be held on the tropical paradise island of Zanzibar, I was hyped to get a chance to travel. Since the school was on break, I was able to get two extra weeks before the conference to spend being a frivolous tourist. Anyone who knows me, or has been reading this blog, also knows that travel for me is a well planned affair with color-coded spreadsheets and back up plans. Africa scoffs at my plans.

One of my regular pre-holiday activities is online research, reading websites like TripAdvisor but also smaller blogs like my own to see what people enjoy and why. There seems to be a lot out there about Zanzibar, and I quickly assembled a wish list of things to do and see, but the more I tried to find out details of quality, transportation, dates, and costs, the more it became apparent there was no easy way to turn my wish list into a plan.

The Wishlist

NORTH: Nungwi Beach

  • Baraka Natural Aquarium, swim with sea turtles
  • Zanzibar Horse Club, swim with horses
  • Mnemba Island – snorkeling, diving, swim with dolphins


  • Kizimkazi, swim with dolphins
  • Menai Bay, swim with dolphins

EAST: Paje Beach

  • Jozani Forest + Butterfly Center
  • Cuza Cave at Jambiani village*
  • The Rock restaurant

WEST: Stone Town

  • Nakupenda Sankbank
  • Prison Island/Changuu Island- giant tortoises
  • Safari Blue*
  • Spice Farm tour
  • Cheetah’s Rock
  • Forodhani Night Market
  • Anglican Cathedral
  • Freddie Mercury House
  • Zanzibar Doors
  • House of Wonders
  • a rooftop restaurant in Stone Town
  • Sultan’s Palace
  • Old dispensary

The Nope-List:

Swimming with Sea Turtles: The Baraka Natural Aquarium has a lot of reviews which indicate the turtles are not well cared for, and that swimmers are not really monitored, resulting in injuries to both animals and humans. It was further suggested that although the area may have started as a way to encourage fishermen to bring turtles caught in nets by offering a financial incentive, it has turned into a reason for fisherment to hunt and capture sea turtles for the reward. If all that isn’t enough to turn you off, these are not free wild turtles, they are stuck in the enclosed lagoon and have no way to get away from the humans when they need a break. To me, this was both unsafe and exploitative, so I crossed it off the list.

Swimming with Dolphins: I really enjoyed being able to do this in New Zealand, and meeting Fungie in Ireland, but one of the main reasons I was able to enjoy it was the environmental responsibility. Much like with the turtles, the tour guides and boat operators in Zanzibar are more interested in money than in environmental preservation, and there are reports all over the internet of boats with loud motors aggressively following pods of dolphins which can disrupt their feeding cycles and endanger any young present. In addition, there’s no regulations on the tourists behavior, so they enter the water in droves. Although the dolphins can arguably outswim these boats if they want to get away, it’s damaging to their feeding, breeding, and childrearing cycles to be chased around. And if for some reason you don’t care about that (yes, I’m judging), then beware that most tours don’t go out early enough in the day to actually see the dolphins during their most active time, so you may end up disappointed. Dolphins are magical, but they are more magical when they are treated with dignity and respect, so I crossed this off too.

Swimming with Horses: This sounded like such a cool activity, riding bareback through the surf of Zanzibar’s most picturesque beach on a beautiful horse, what could be better? An end to fat-phobia, that’s what. The Zanzibar Horse Club has a very strict weight limit for riders which I do not meet. I am a big proponent of treating the animals well, but I’ve gone horse-riding many times and often seen dudes bigger than me riding as well, so I was confused. Has new animal welfare information come to light that horses (which used to carry knights in full armor weighing in excess of 180kg) cannot manage 95kg tourists? No, nothing like that, although there are some good mathematical formulas to help people know what size of horse they should be riding based on weight. I could understand needing to know the weight of each rider to make sure the horses were a good match, but with a hard weight limit, it seems like the Horse Club simply doesn’t want to do the work of accommodating heavier clients and just picked the weight limit that their smallest horses are safe at. I’m torn between being happy they won’t overload their animals and being mad that they won’t do the extra math to let me ride on one that’s big enough for my size. Either way, it was no-go for me.

The House of Wonders: this building looks like it could be really cool, but it’s been closed for reconstruction more than it’s been open over the last many years. One of the big problems is that UNESCO sites must be restored using the materials and techniques they were originally built with and this house wasn’t built well the first time. Another issue is that most of the money for restoration comes in Euros, but the shifting exchange rates mean the purchasing power for materials and labor is a moving target. There’s nothing wrong with it other than the fact that you just can’t view it, so don’t bother including it in any plans.

Go With the Flow

With these things in mind, I decided against the northern area and booked hotels in Stone Town, Paje, and Menai Bay. I didn’t make any other reservations in advance because the online ticket prices are astronomical for solo travelers and every blog I read said there were better prices to be had upon arrival since lots of tours are happy to pick up an extra one person if they have room on the boat/bus. This advice was borne out on my first evening in town when I was approached by at least half a dozen guides who were very friendly and only slightly pushy. I was invited to schedule a snorkeling trip , a trip to Prison Island, and a sunset cruise while being advised that it’s cheaper to schedule with the boat operators directly because the hotels just charge extra for arranging the boat ride anyway.

There was only one place on my list that I ended really feeling like I missed out on because of lack of advance scheduling – Cheetah’s Rock. This place may be one of the only true animal sanctuaries on the island, and they are very protective of their charges which mainly consist of rescues. There is a strict limit of the number of visitors daily and visitors are monitored carefully by guides for everyone’s safety. They even have an otter swim experience which is booked out months in advance due to the extreme limits placed on the activity for the otter’s health. I could have gotten in for the regular animal visit, but I didn’t have the kind of clothes they wanted visitors to wear (again, safety of animals and humans in mind) and I wasn’t really in a place to take out all my piercings (a requirement since many of the animals love shiny things). I really appreciate the limits in place there and respect what they are trying to do. It was my own fault for giving up on advance planning for this trip before I discovered this one.

There were some other things from my wish list I didn’t get around to, but I’m not terribly upset to have missed, and there were two things I did that I wish someone had told me not to, but for the most part, I managed to have a nice time in Zanzibar by following the local advice of “Pole Pole” and “Hakuna Matata” – take it slowly and no worries!

The Zanzibar Series: coming soon!

Spice Tour & Swahili Cooking Class

On A Boat: Safari Blue vs One Ocean Dive

Stone Town: History, Culture, & Architecture

Paje Beach Bum & Maalum Cave Pool

Jozani Forest: Monkeys, Mangroves & Butterflies

The Two Economies of Zanzibar

Menai Bay & The Tides

Zanzibar Sleeps & Eats

Bonus Content: Two Overnight transfers in Ethiopia

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