“Are you ready for the best food in all of Zanzibar?” – wasn’t that what Mark had asked me in the afternoon? Then, why am I sitting on the floor of a candle-lit living room, with my dad on my left and a bunch of expats living on the island completing our circle? Fair enough, the smell coming from the partly inside, partly outside kitchen is amazing and my tummy is jumping with excitement to see which delicacies the scent comes from. Let’s just trust Mark on this one – after all he has lived on the island long enough.

Needless to say just HOW good the food we were served a few minutes later was indeed. Different kinds of meat, fruity chutneys, coconut-battered spicy fish, rice, salads roasted veg – everything you could dream of. It should be our last evening in Tanzania and to celebrate this, Mark and Kristine (our hotel’s managers and a lovely expat couple) took us and a few of their friends to Mr Okala’s Restaurant – allegedly the favourite among the Zanzibari. Sadly, the restaurant was destroyed by the monsoon a few days prior, so Mr Okala welcomed us in his living room and cooked up a storm of coconut-flavoured everything. It was the most local foodie experience of our time in Tanzania and symbol for just how authentic cultural experiences can be, even if you travel with your old-school tourist dad.

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After climbing and failing to climb Mt Kilimanjaro respectively, my dad and I wanted to spend the final days of our Africa journey on an exotic beach with white sand and palm trees swaying in the wind. The decision was easy, as the dreamy island of Zanzibar is just off the coast of Tanzania (roughly one hour flight from Arusha airport with great views of Mt Meru and Kilimanjaro, or 30 minutes flight from Dar es Salaam) and easy to get to (with any national airline like Precision Air or Coastal Aviation, but also directly from Nairobi, Dubai or Doha).

To keep our journey to paradise as short as possible, we decided to stay on the main island of the archipelago in the popular beach town, Jambiani. It’s an hour’s drive from Stone Town and the ride with our pre-organised local taxi was the first experience of local Zanzibar. The car decorated with carpets and flowers, the driver laid back, on his phone, speaking only broken English; the markets we zoomed past bursting with more-or-less fresh fish (better stay away), carpenters and mechanics in workshops, lime stone which is used for building houses on the island, all sorts of fruit and of course coconuts everywhere. We drove through the bustling centre of Stone Town, through the suburbs and across the countryside, along the Jozani Chaka National Park and finally hit the coast of the Indian Ocean.

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Staying at Red Monkey Lodge

There are heaps of beach resorts and lodges in Jambiani, which is a very long-stretched village on the south-eastern coast of Zanzibar. The thing we were after though, was not isolated peace, but more of a local experience to get a glimpse of what island life is like. We found the perfect lodge in Red Monkey Lodge – here is why: imagine, you wake up in a spacious room with beautiful hand-made furniture and light coconut shutters instead of glass windows, you hear the swell come in or draw back with the tides, the ocean is just outside your room, the beach only steps away – sounds like a luxury paradise, yes? Then you get up, wave at the local kids playing down on the ‘open hotel beach’, watch a woman prepare her sarongs to offer massages and walk to the beachfront restaurant barefoot – no dresscode required. Sounds pretty laid back, right? That is exactly what Red Monkey Lodge is – a self-proclaimed ‘antithesis to mass tourism’; an exclusive inclusive lodge integrated in the village life rather than creating a golden cage for tourists. Everyone is welcome at the hotel beach, you get to talk to the neighbours who are always interested in the new guests, and you get to help kids search for clams and crabs, or play soccer at sunset. There are no TVs or entertainment programmes – you live life the Zanzibari way!

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Mark and Kristine took over the lodge a few years ago, and made it their aim to give people all the comfort they need and let them be part of Zanzibari lifestyle at the same time.

My favourite place to hang out was the beachfront bar and restaurant, because that’s where you could watch the name-giving red monkeys play around in the trees above you. Mostly shy, there were a few animals whose curiosity was stronger than their fear. Some were outright posers, like this little fella, who basically stole my seat to leisurely pose for photos for 20-30 minutes:

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The restaurant itself was great too though. The food is typically Zanzibari with a few international alternatives – a lot of flavours and spices (like coconut or chili) and always fresh fish purchased in the morning from the local fishermen (early risers can see them bring the fish in). The menu changes everyday according to the catch of the day and what’s available on the market. The staff at the hotel is all local, and it was particularly beautiful to see that they were allowed an hour off work to go home and celebrate the breaking of the fast with their families (it was Ramadan at the time we visited) – which resulted in later dinner times and the bar being closed for about an hour. This way, guests are fully integrated rather than isolated from the local culture.

PS: All bookings for November and early December of three nights and over get a free upgrade to half board!

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The hotel works with local organisations and individuals to offer all kinds of excursions, like bicycling through Jozani Chaka National Park or Swahili cooking classes. Mark and Kristine are super helpful in arranging a schedule, so do take advantage of that. They also encourage guests to engage with and support some of the well-established local NGO’s. A full list of projects they work with can be found here.

If you are particularly sporty, you could sign up for a kite-boarding course with Kite Worldwide right next to the lodge. The centre is run by two expats, Nick from Germany and Gui from France – both super-experienced kite-boarders and certified teachers. They moved here, because the windy season in Zanzibar is one of the best in the world and Jambiani one of the best beaches for kite-boarding. They offer week-long courses with theoretical and practical classes at any level. The winds were only just picking up when I visited in the end of June, so I didn’t get the chance to try it myself, but it did look like a lot of fun watching some of the more skilled guests try their kites in the shallow waters.

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But for now, let me tell you about my favourite local experiences arranged through the lodge:

Meet the Locals: Jambiano Eco Tour

The Jambiani Eco Tour is a local initiative to show guests the traditional life in the village. Guided by a young man from Jambiani we visited a school (one of the few open during Ramadan), learnt about the traditional way to build a Zanzibari house, walked through the public herb forest and met a whole bunch of locals. Suleiman, Jambiani’s Medicine Man is famous across the entire island and people come from afar to get treated by him. He showed us which herbs he uses, his picture in a travel guide and his adorable grandson. We were invited into a local family’s home where I learnt how to get the fleshy white bits out of a coconut with a traditional rasp. A woman showed us how to make rope out of coconut hair and gave us two bracelets as presents. As you can probably tell by now, palm trees and coconuts are two of the most essential resources on Zanzibar. Every part of the tree and the fruit are used – for scaffolding, thatched roofs, ropes, jewellery, pottery, food and drink, decoration and crafts; you get the idea.

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Our guide picked us up at the lodge and was working with a driver – very convenient because Jambiani is a very long village and it would have taken forever to get to the starting point of the tour by foot. What I enjoyed most was, that there was still a lot of walking involved and we got a good feeling of the structure of the village. It also gave us the chance to meet some of the kids running around, who were really curious. I never felt like being shuffled from one staged display of culture to the next, but actually witnessed daily routines and ‘normal’ life in the village by walking past it.

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The fragile eco-system: Snorkelling with Mr Okala

Most tourists on Zanzibar take a Sundowner Cruise on a Dhow boat because, well, it’s beautiful and the boats are comfortable. I also wanted to go out on a boat, but in a more local way. That’s why Mr Okala picked us up one sunny afternoon and led us to a boat that looked hardly wide enough to fit my modest bum… The most basic boats of Zanzibar, mostly used by fishermen, are carved out of one large tree trunk, balanced by two levers and steered with a massive triangular sail – they look a little bit like DIY catamarans. The trunk in which you sit is not the most comfortable, but sailing this way was definitely the most interesting way I’ve ever done it. The water of Zanzibar is gorgeous and clear as glass. During low tide it retires several kilometres until it hits the coral reef which surrounds the island. That is why you can only really go out in high tide, otherwise the walk to and from the boat will be a long one…

Mr Okala and his first mate took us out to the deeper spots, rather close to the coral reef. So close actually, we could hear the tremendous sound of the waves breaking out there – so loud!

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When it was time to snorkel, put on our fins and jumped right off the boat into the waves. If you decide to do a similar day trip, be aware that deep-water snorkelling off a boat is way more demanding than when your starting point is on a beach. Mr Okala and I snorkelled for a little while, always staying close to each other and the boat. The reef was not our point of interest though, but rather the sea sponge and coral farms which were established by marineculture.org, a Swiss NGO working very closely with Zanzibari locals on sustainable and ecological aquaculture development. Mr Okala is part of the advisory board and very proud of contributing to creating a sustainable local economy. Here are a few photos of the project:

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photos via marinecultures.org

Dinner at Mr Okala’s restaurant

Finally, I can tell you more about our dinner at Mr Okala’s restaurant – yes, the same Mr Okala who took me snorkelling. He is potentially one of the best chefs in Jambiani, of not even Zanzibar – I’ve been assured of that. And indeed, the food we ate by candle-light in his living rooms was incredible. As far as I know, Mr Okala had rebuilt his restaurant a few days after we left Zanzibar, so definitely head there too!

 

In conclusion…

If tropical beaches, delicious food, barefoot luxury and welcoming cultures are your thing then Zanzibar definitely belongs on your bucket list. Whether you go just for some winter sun and relaxation, active kite-boarding holidays or as part of a big Tanzania journey, I can only recommend to stay at Red Monkey Lodge and live life the Zanzibari way.

Have you ever been to Zanzibar? Or is it a new addition to your dream list?

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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner, except stated otherwise.

Disclaimer: Red Monkey Lodge invited me and my dad to stay in Jambiani free of charge.
All opinions are my own.