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Zanzibar, my $50 island paradise

Travel
Just mentioning the name Zanzibar immediately conjures up a vision of languid beaches, coconut palms and an exotic laid-back tropical paradise nestling in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Zanzibar is all this and more, far more than just another paradise island. Full of history and intrigue, the magic of the island captures you from the instant you gaze out of your aircrafts window to the ocean below. The flight into Zanzibar is nothing short of spectacular! Amid +the deep, deep indigo of the Indian Ocean, you catch a glimpse of splashes of impossible turquois surrounding tiny islets scattered around the main island, I have flown into many islands in my time, but the approach to Zanzibar must be the most breathtaking of all, and you start to feel that relaxed island mood beginning to creep over you.

First you have to negotiate the Zanzibar International Airport, which is a mission in itself, and would test the patience of a saint! Once you have disembarked from your aircraft, you have to stand in a long line in the hot tropical sun on the tarmac, waiting to enter the airport building for immigration and customs formalities. This takes quite a while as all visitors must have their thumb prints and photo's taken for visa purposes, and for you to be relieved of $50. The whole process takes about an hour and a half, then you are finally released to collect your luggage. 

Now in most airports, luggage collection is normally a simple thing, but not in Zanzibar! Luggage from your 'plane is merely thrown through an aperture in the building wall and ends up in a massive, cluttered pile on the floor, through which passengers rummage to find their bags. Once located, a customs official in a brown uniform with a bright yellow "Customs" badge on it, kindly moves your bag 3 inches, then demands $50 ! After you manage to get rid of him, you make it out to the car park where your hotel transport is waiting. There the driver greets you, loads your bags onto the bus, gives you a bottle of water, then asks for $50! 

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There is so much to be discovered in Zanzibar.

On the road to the hotel, you are stopped by a man in plain clothes at the side of the road. He has a heated debate with your driver and eventually he waves you on. Asking the driver what that was all about, he tells you it was a police check-point, even though they were no uniforms or police cars around, and that he wanted $50! If we had paid $50 to everyone who asked for it, it would probably be the GDP of a small country! But this is Zanzibar, one of the poorest countries in the world, and the locals try to scrape by on $1 a day, so when they see "rich" tourists, you can't really blame them for trying.

Our hotel is on the east coast of the island, near Pwani Mchangani, and is an absolute sight for sore eyes. Set in a massive coconut plantation, right on the beach, our accommodation was in stand-alone cottages which were neat, clean and in the most fabulous position. Room facilities were more than adequate, but one strange thing- the bathroom lock, a rustic wooden beam affair, was on the outside of the bathroom door, not on the inside! Walking down onto the beach, when you look to the left or right, there is just mile after mile of unspoilt beach stretching as far the eye can see either way. Absolute paradise!

When we woke in the morning and looked out across the beach, we were alarmed to see that the tide had receded about a mile out away from the shore. Remembering the recent Asian Sunami when witnesses reported the tide went out into the distance before that tragedy struck, we soon realized all was well when we saw the seaweed farmers going out across the sand, planting the seaweed strands on wooden stakes in the seabed. To walk out across the sand where the sea had receded gave you a massive feeling of space and relaxation, and the opportunity to see brightly coloured starfish in the pools of seawater. Back on dry land and walking down the beach, you can see huge cliffs of petrified coral along the beach, some with precariously built beach cottages on top. Look closely at the coral, and you will see fossils of many types of sea life etched forever into the coral. Peace and relaxation, that's what it says on the tin, and Zanzibar certainly gives you that and a whole lot more.

Tips: 

Apart from taking plenty of $50 notes with you, normal commonsense practices would prevail, Zanzibar is a Muslim country, so if you respect them, they will respect you. Cover your legs and shoulders in Stone Town, and nudity on the beaches is a no-no! Islamist Fundamentalism exists here, and is on the increase, so be warned. There was a recent attack on British Tourists in Stone Town, so again, use commonsense. Stone Town, as with the beaches even outside your hotel, are not places to wander after dark. Take plenty of mosquito repellent!

WHEN TO GO.

Zanzibar is tropical, so hot and humid is the rule. There are two rainy seasons, the big rains between March and May, and the shorter one between October and December. I visited in September, and the weather was perfect!

WHERE TO STAY.

I stayed at Mapenzi Beach Hotel on the east coast, a fully inclusive 3 star establishment which was perfectly fine. Zanzibar is blessed with a plethora of 5 start hotels of international standard, the best of which would be in the Nungwi area in the north. There are numerous B and B's and cottages around, but the infrastructure is difficult for a proper "shop", so choose wisely.

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