The narrow, bumpy streets of Zanzibar City are an assault on the senses after a five-and-a-half-hour flight. But then, kaleidoscopic markets, speeding mopeds and unruly riders on crotchety bikes slowly make way for lofty coconut palms, swaying calmly as if to welcome us to their exotic home.
For those looking to escape the UAE's summer heat, Zanzibar is a tonic. Proximity to the equator means both main islands forming the Zanzibar archipelago – Unguja and Pemba – have temperatures ranging from the mid-20°C to the low-30s year-round and, as you’re never far from the coast, humidity is tempered by a refreshing sea breeze.
A reliable rainy season from March to May nurtures lush, green vegetation and abundant wildlife.
We hadn’t allowed ourselves to get too excited about our Zanzibar trip until we had two negative PCR results in hand, the new norm for overseas travel. Dubai International Airport was eerily quiet and any queues moved fast. Before we landed in Abeid Amani Karume International Airport, five kilometres south of Zanzibar City, we had to fill out a travel visa document and a Covid-19 health form. Zanzibar visas cost $50 (Dh180) per head.
It’s a 90-minute drive from the airport to The Residence Zanzibar, near Kizimkazi on the south-west coast. Steeped in spice-scented sea air, our European-style villa comes with indoor and outdoor rain showers and a private pool.
Bikes are parked outside. I strap in my son, 2, and cycle through tropical gardens that are home to wild red colobus monkeys, a Zanzibar native. They dance through the palms overhead, delighting our children. One scampers over to snatch a banana from an outstretched hand.
Both boys happily ensconced in the kids' club, we explore the mile-long beach. It's too shallow for swimming so instead, we paddle in a glass-walled infinity pool. There’s also an on-site spa, gym and open-air yoga studio.
Boasting coconuts, cloves and cardamom, mangoes and mangroves, lobster, lemongrass and limes, these Spice Islands may seem worlds from the UAE, but their intertwined trading histories explain the startling similarities. As well as Swahili and English, Arabic is spoken here and 95 per cent of the island’s 1.5 million residents are Muslim.
A 40-minute drive takes us east to Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa, the only Relais & Chateaux property in Tanzania, on the kitesurfing haven of Paje beach. This boutique hotel offers 11 luxury villas; ours is beachfront with its own dining lounge, sun deck and pool. We’re invited to WhatsApp our private butler Joseph with any requests and so, when our youngest has a fever, we ask for a doctor, who arrives in 20 minutes. Harvey is fine after a good sleep and a dose of Panadol.
No expense has been spared in the rooms, which are fitted with Bosch speakers, a Smeg kettle and designer fittings. The hotel sits on four hectares of plush gardens – 100,000 tropical plants planted only six years earlier are thriving. There’s a spa and gym, a games room, a shaded outdoor playground and a zoo where my boys lose themselves, plus babysitting for $15 (Dh55) an hour that gifts us a modicum of peace. European-trained chefs serve a bounty of local seafood.
It’s almost possible to forget about Covid-19. Masks are compulsory only for staff, temperatures are generally not recorded.
“It’s difficult to put a finger on why Zanzibar has escaped the brunt of Covid,” says White Sand Villas' general manager, Adriaan Erasmus. “We closed for four months in 2020 but not due to Covid; instead because of a lack of tourism. Tanzania never went into lockdown. The hospitals show no strain. Vaccinations are rolling out now with frontline workers.”
The all-inclusive Baraza Resort & Spa is one of four private resorts that make up The Zanzibar Collection along the eastern coastline. Staff are preparing to host Tanzania’s president in the royal villa as we depart.
Here, white stone arches and billowing curtains contrast with majestic carved hardwood doors, brass lanterns and antique coffee pots that hark back to an Omani sultan’s palace.
The five-star resort is opulent but also welcoming for a young family. Our sweeping two-bedroom villa is one of 30 set among seven hectares of gardens, rich with jasmine, frangipani and bougainvillaea. We have a garden and plunge pool, a day bed and two bathrooms.
It’s a two-minute walk to the beach where kayaks and stand-up paddle-boards can be borrowed, and kite and windsurfing lessons are an option. A shallow reef stretches 1km from the shore, so it’s safe for my toddler in the gently lapping waves.
Hesitantly, we all venture out on a catamaran. This small, wide-open boat is a little confronting with children in the face of a strong sea wind, but our confident Swahili captain, Moussa, ensures a smooth 45-minute trip. So smooth, in fact, that my 2-year-old falls into a deep sleep.
I sample an early-morning reef walk at low tide. Donning reef shoes to protect my feet from cactus-like sea urchins, I become transfixed by a coral display that’s normally camouflaged by deeper waters: cucumber snakes, giant clams, blue starfish, spider fish and purple urchins. Zanzibaris are bent over the same waters as they attempt to catch octopi nearby.
We take our boys to the well-equipped kids' club after breakfast. There’s a splash pool and mini foosball, as well as pool and air hockey tables for shorter legs. A babysitting service and daily itinerary are on hold owing to Covid-19. We’re invited to cooking and craft workshops. I try both, weaving my own bag from coconut palm fronds, now my most prized souvenir, and preparing a local fish curry.
Before departing, we must again present two negative PCR tests and register them on a government app 72 hours prior. Our resort handles all this; a doctor visits and our results are printed out for us. The test costs $120 (Dh440) per person. My sons aged 4 and 2 are exempt, as are all children under 10 in Tanzania.
I am keen to visit a turtle sanctuary on the north coast, but we decide against a four-hour return drive with little ones. We also miss exploring the labyrinthine alleyways, forts, museums and Portuguese churches of Stone Town, a Unesco World Heritage Site on the west coast, established by Sultan Said as the capital of Oman in 1840.
Stone Town also serves as a reminder of Zanzibar’s scarred history as the centre of the East African slave trade for 200 years. We vow to return to this spice-scented idyll for more adventuring when our children are older.