Just the name Zanzibar evokes images of a tropical paradise with white sand beaches, shimmering turquoise waters, beautiful sunsets, and palm trees swaying in the ocean breeze — all kissed by the spice-laden East African trade winds. And the “Spice Island” is all that, but it is also more. This is an island steeped in culture and history. With a mixture of cultures from African to Arabian, some Indian, Portuguese, and English are thrown in for good measure. Trade of one kind or another is an intrinsic part of the island’s culture and has shaped its history for thousands of years; from its dark past in the slave trade, to its position as a trading hotspot in the spice trade thanks to its abundance of valuable spices including cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. All this has culminated in an island that is a heady mix of sights, sounds, and smells.
When it comes to where to stay in Zanzibar, there’s something for everyone. If you like “castaway cool” then you’ve come to the right place, or if you’d prefer something more luxurious and special, then let me tell you about some of my favorite spots on the island for a truly memorable holiday.
Stone Town, Zanzibar Resorts
Stone Town, a World Heritage Site, is Zanzibar’s historical capital. No visit to Zanzibar would be complete without exploring Stone Town’s jumble of narrow, cobbled streets, its people, the mosques, churches, bazars, architecture, and food.
Photo Credit: Hilton Double Tree Stone Town
1. Double Tree By Hilton Hotel Zanzibar Stone Town
The Double Tree By Hilton is housed in the old court house, a building that had fallen into disrepair before being renovated and brought back to life to become a hotel. It’s perfectly situated in the heart of Stone Town, amongst the winding alleyways and historic buildings. Wake to the muezzin’s call to prayer as the day dawns and the town wakes up for the day.
The hotel is in my favorite part of Stone Town, hidden away in the maze of streets, with a feeling of old world timelessness. Breakfast on the rooftop terrace is a fabulous way to start the day. Looking out over the rooftops towards the beautiful blue of the ocean, you are bound to spot a white-sailed traditional dhow or two while you enjoy your morning coffee. As an added bonus, hotel guests have access to a beautiful indoor swimming pool, perfect for cooling down after a day of wandering through town.
Pro Tip: The slices of smoked tuna available on the breakfast buffet are delicious. Get some before it disappears onto someone else’s plate!
rooftop bathroom (Photo Credit: Zanzibar Palace Hotel)
2. Zanzibar Palace Hotel
The Zanzibar Palace Hotel, a boutique hotel located right in the heart of Stone Town, is a small and personal hotel with only three rooms on each of its three floors. The building was built between 1885 and 1890 by an Indian merchant and is still full of original features, including a solid wooden staircase that runs through the center of the building like a spine, to the thick walls, tiny wooden balconies, wooden shutters, and old hooks and pulleys left over from its trading past. Following the revolution in 1964, the building was abandoned for many years. In 1978, it was restored, ultimately becoming a hotel in 2005.
We stayed in a suite on the very top floor with a huge traditional wooden Zanzibar bed, so high off the ground that we had to climb into it using old wooden trunks positioned on either side of the bed, like a step ladder! Our bathroom was on the rooftop terrace and had views looking out over Stone Town and down to the port.
Pro Tip: With all the old world charm of an antique building, the Zanzibar Palace Hotel does not have a lift. So if stairs are not your thing, this is not the best place for you.
Emerson on Hurumzi rooftop (Photo Credit: Emerson Spice)
3. Emerson On Hurumzi
Rooftop sundowners are an essential part of a Stone Town experience in my opinion, and one of the best places to do this is at the beautifully restored Emerson on Hurumzi hotel. Come for cocktails and stay for dinner in the Tea House Restaurant with 360° views of Stone Town and across to the ocean. Arrive for cocktails at sunset and know that dinner starts promptly at 7 p.m. Remove your shoes and sit on the floor carpets and cushions to dine (or take your place at a table if you prefer). Dinner is a three-course set menu celebrating Zanzibari cuisine and combining Swahili, Persian, and Omani influences. Dinner is accompanied by traditional music and singing by musicians from the Dhow Countries Music Academy.
Pro Tip: Before dinner, call in at the Princess Salme Museum (beside the hotel’s main entrance) and learn about one of Zanzibar’s most famous women, Sayyida Salama bint Said (Salme), Princess of Zanzibar and Oman. Born in 1844, she was the youngest of Sultan Said’s 36 children. She fell in love with German merchant Rudolph Reute, becoming pregnant with his child and causing such a scandal that she had to flee Zanzibar and settle in Germany. She married Rudolph, bore him more children, and, after his death, wrote Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar, published in 1886.
Doorway to Heaven at Matlai Hotel (Photo Credit: Matlai Boutique Hotel)
Head To The Beach – Zanzibar Beach Resorts
Beautiful white sand, lapped by azure and turquoise waters, and fringed with palm trees swaying in the warm breeze, the beaches of Zanzibar are stunning, and equally stunning are a number of resorts found at these beaches. Whilst I’ve been visiting Zanzibar for more than 20 years now, on our latest trip, my husband and I left Stone Town behind and worked our way around the island clockwise, staying in a variety of special properties.
Photo Credit: Chuini Beach Lodge
4. Chuini Zanzibar Beach Lodge
Our first stop was the island’s west coast. There are fewer lodges here and it feels a little more remote. The west coast is home to Stone Town, so we only had to travel for 20 minutes for our first night out of town.
In 1873, the second Sultan of Zanzibar — and brother to Princess Salme mentioned above — built the Chuini Palace, perched on the rocks right on the very edge of the island. The palace was an impressive complex that occupied both sides of a small protected bay. Mysteriously, most of the buildings burnt down in 1914. Chuini Beach Lodge is built amongst the ruins of the royal complex, giving it a rather unique outlook and feel. There’s a small, private beach beside a tiny working bay where local fishermen moor and repair their boats.
Nungwi pool patio (Photo Credit: Nungwi Dreams)
5. Nungwi Dreams
An hour’s drive north, we reached Nungwi Beach, and Nungwi Dreams exceeded my expectations. Our room was modern, sleek, bright, and positioned just a few feet from the beach. With two swimming pools to choose from, and the beautiful warm ocean just steps from our room, we were spoilt by a choice. At low tide, I walked along the white sand and had it pretty much to myself, except for a few friendly fishermen striding along the beach and chatting as they went. My husband spent a day scuba diving at nearby Mnemba Island while I relaxed at the spa. They had great food and a great atmosphere. I particularly enjoyed all the seafood while cocktails on the hotel’s rooftop “Sky Bar” were delicious.
With 56 rooms and one villa, this is a modern resort-style place, with all the comforts you’d expect from a luxury resort, yet it’s still small enough to feel friendly and personal.
Pro Tip: As a general rule, the north and northeast coasts tend to be the island’s prime locations, and most of Zanzibar’s high-end accommodations are found here. The diving is also excellent here, there’s not much tidal variation, and the archipelago’s best reefs (around Mnemba Island) lie not far offshore.
villa pavilion with a pool at Elewana (Photo Credit: Elewana Kilindi)
6. Elewana Kilindi Zanzibar
Just a short drive away — nestled in a tropical garden on a secluded stretch of beach on the northwest coast of Zanzibar — is Kilindi. This is an oasis of luxury. Fifteen white-domed, multi-story villas set in 50 acres of natural bush and tropical gardens, this is a haven of tranquility in what has become a rather too busy northern part of the island.
Originally designed for Benny Andersson, of 1970’s pop group ABBA, the architecture is dramatic. Wooden shutters and arched glassless windows look out over the ocean. With our private plunge pool, rooftop verandah that overlooked the ocean, and a private butler, we rarely needed to leave the villa. The open plan rainfall shower room, combined with visits from brightly colored geckos, bushy tailed squirrels, and the rare Sykes’ monkeys really had us feeling like we were a part of the surrounding nature. This really is a special place.
Asili Villa at Matlai (Photo Credit: Matlai Boutique Hotel)
7. Matlai Boutique Hotel
The next stop on our circumnavigation of the island was Matlai Boutique Hotel on the northeast coast. There are two villas at Matlai: the four-bedroom Asili House and the two-bedroom Villa Kidosho, both of which have beautiful views out over the beach and ocean. Each villa has its own beautiful private pool, as well as well-positioned hammocks and sun loungers. There’s also a spa and a private open-air cinema — all this just a few steps from the beach.
A short wade and then swim off the beach lies a small but gorgeous patch of coral, complete with tiny bobbing seahorses, colorful fish, and tentacle waving anemones — we had it all to ourselves. Dinner on the beach with warm sand underfoot and the gentle sound of the waves just a few feet away was a perfect end to our stay.
Photo Credit: Le Mersenne
8. Le Mersenne
A couple of miles further south on the Michamvi Peninsula is Le Mersenne, a larger style resort with a variety of different sized rooms to choose from. Ours was spacious, airy, and modern. Up on the rocky cliff overlooking the water, Le Mersenne has views out over the seemingly endless ocean. Being on the east coast, the views of sunrise were spectacular and definitely worth waking up for, though luckily we could see it from bed and didn’t need to actually get up.
The hotel has a long pier that stretches out over the water with some innovative villas currently under construction above the water. We borrowed masks and snorkels and went down the wooden steps, directly into the water, and a short swim had us amongst colorful clumps of coral. After our swim, a long beach walk at low tide kept us busy until the early afternoon.
Zanzibar can be the perfect destination, perhaps as an add-on after a safari, or maybe as a place to recover after a challenging climb up Kilimanjaro, or just as a stand-alone destination in its own right. This is a beautiful island with fabulous people, fantastic food, terrific sights to see, things to do, and if you choose the right place to stay, you will really enjoy the barefoot luxury of this destination.
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