The only way to explore historical Stone Town is on foot, windowing through narrow lanes lined with three-story buildings, the majority of them built in the 1800s when Zanzibar was the most important trading center along the east coast of Africa. It's a relatively small area and rather pleasurable to simply wander around getting lost: This way, you get to see the unexpected, and locals are almost always willing to point you in the right direction (ask for your hotel or the seafront). Should you prefer a more organized approach, book a guide, or vaguely follow the walking tour.
Zanzibar's old capital is centrally placed for all the island's excursions, from joining the spice tours that take place in the hinterland just northeast of Stone Town, to stroking the leathery heads of giant tortoises on nearby Prison Island. You can book any of these trips from any of the beach resorts, all of which have the exact same excursions listed, with small price variations usually related to distances traveled. If you are not overnighting in Stone Town, you should certainly book a half-day walking tour of the historical quarter. Tours usually last 3 to 4 hours and are undertaken on foot; for one person based in Stone Town, the cost is around $30 to $40. (Prices increase the farther away your resort is and decrease for larger groups.) Note that I have not included the sunset dhow cruise, though these are offered, as it is far better value to utilize a dhow experience in conjunction with an actual destination, such as a Safari Blue day trip or a trip to Prison Island. Other day trips from Stone Town include those to the coast, predominantly to Ras Nungwi via Mangapwani Slave Cave, where slaves were held illicitly by the sultan after slavery was abolished by the British in 1873, but I recommend you overnight on the north coast rather than spend a cumulative 2 to 3 hours (east and north, respectively) in a car for 1 day.
This is one of the most popular and recommended tours. You can be picked up from any place on the island (but it's senseless to do so if you are based in the far north or northeast, in which case the experience will be tempered by long transfers) and taken to one of two launching pads near the fishing village of Fumba, on the southwestern tip of Unguja (also known as Zanzibar main island). Departing at around 9:30am on a locally made traditional dhow, you'll take an intensely relaxing sail, exploring Menai Bay, a marine conservation area since 1998. After a 30-minute cruise looking for dolphins (which are spotted 9 times out of 10), you will lounge around on sandbanks (shade set up for you) and snorkel the surrounding waters (equipment provided and properly fitted; guides available). After refreshing yourself with a snifter of fresh madafu (coconut), you drop anchor at Kwale Island, where you feast on a huge Zanzibari buffet (predominantly seafood; vegetarian on request) under the tamarind trees. End with a fruit tasting (10-15 tropical fruits available); tide permitting, you will also swim in the island's mangrove lagoon. Head back with sundowner in hand (beers and soft drinks only) to disembark around 5:30pm. The cost for one or two persons from Stone Town is around $100 per person. For more, contact Eleanor Griplas (tel. 077/742-3162; www.safariblue.net).
In the central-east region of Zanzibar (40 min. from Stone Town), the 1,000-hectare (2,470 acre) Jozani Forest protects one of two last remaining pockets of indigenous flora (coastal bushland, mangroves, saline grassland, groundwater forest) that once covered the island. Unless you harbor secret desires to be a botanist, there is not reason enough to spend a couple of hours here; most people are hoping for a close encounter with the forest's red colobus monkeys (though you are just as likely to see these gregarious creatures from the road). Aside from this, if you have been on safari on the mainland, you are unlikely to be excited by the small game, such as Sykes' monkeys, small buck, and bushpigs, that call the forest home. There are three guided trails -- Paddock Forest, Monkey, and Mangrove -- each taking around 30 minutes. You may want to ask if a visit to ZALA Park (5km/3 miles south of Jozani entrance; same hours at Jozani Forest; admission $5) is included in your tour; the park has an interesting selection of reptiles including green tree snakes, mambas, pythons, chameleons, geckos, tortoises, striped lizards, and truly prehistoric-looking monitor lizards. Those with kids might also want a quick stop at the Butterfly Park (daily 9am-5pm), a few minutes' north of the Jozani entrance.
From Stone Town, the Jozani Forest trip costs around $70 for one person, $45 per person for a couple, $20 per person for a group of four, with discounts as group numbers grow. It can be combined with a dolphin tour into a full-day tour. If you travel on your own steam, entry is Tsh10,000. Jozani is open daily 7:30am to 5pm.
The propagation of spices is, of course, integral to what became known as the Spice Islands, and while a spice tour doesn't sound like the most exciting way to spend a morning, it is surprisingly enjoyable -- and hugely popular. None of the spices are indigenous. Clove trees were introduced only in 1818 but flourished in the tropical climate and fertile soil of both Zanzibar and Pemba, and it took less than 40 years for the archipelago to become the world's largest producer of cloves. Other spices, such as cinnamon, cumin, ginger, pepper, and cardamom, were gradually introduced but not as avidly propagated as cloves. A spice tour will take you to one of the Kizimbani plantations (around 30-40 min. drive from Zanzibar town), often via Maruhubi Palace, one of the best-preserved ruins on the island, built by Seyyid Barghash for his concubines, and the Persian baths at Kidichi, built by Seyyid Said for his first wife, Princess Shehrzard, in 1850. Both are in a state of ruin but provide some insight into the lifestyle of the sultanate. If you'd prefer to skip these, simply push on to the spice plantations, where, accompanied by a local guide, you will learn to identify the plants that provide such intense culinary and olfactory pleasure, as well as their cosmetic use and health benefits. This is also the cheapest place to purchase spices and spice oils. Most tours also include a tasting of the many exotic fruits (such as jack fruit, custard apples, and soursop) often produced alongside the spices. Spice tours cost around $50 to $20 per person, depending on group size (set aside a small amount to tip the guide who takes you through the plantation, too) and can be organized by every operator on the island or through all beach resorts and Stone Town lodgings (who then subcontract to the tour operators they trust or have arranged a good commission with). Given that the exact same excursions are listed everywhere, with small price variations usually related to distances traveled, you may choose to arrange this once you are ensconced in your chosen lodging.
The Islands: Prison (Changuu), Bawe, Chumbe & Grave (Chapwani)
About 20 to 30 minutes by boat or dhow from Stone Town, Prison Island (the middle of the three islands you can see from Stone Town's oceanfront; known locally as Changuu Island) is a worthwhile half-day trip, particularly if you feel like combining your sightseeing with a bit of snorkeling. The island was apparently first used by an Arab slave trader to contain and punish the most troublesome slaves before auctioning them in Stone Town's slave market; after this, the first real recorded usage dates back to 1893, when a Mr. Lloyd Mathews, under the orders of the British administrators, was commissioned to build a prison, the ruins of which can be seen today. Like Robben Island and Alcatraz, the island was thought to be an ideal place to contain serious criminals deported from the mainland, but it was never used as such and instead became a quarantine center for yellow fever patients from Kenya, Tanganyika, and Zanzibar. It is worth a visit to encounter the giant Aldabra tortoises (thought to have been imported from the Seychelles by Barghash during the 19th century) and spend some time snorkeling the coral reef that fringes the island: The best snorkeling lies 35m (115 ft.) northwest of the main beach. This half-day tour costs around $25 per person. Note, however, that the resort on Prison Island (currently closed until further notice) has detracted a little from the experience, with the conversion of the former 1930s Quarantine Area into 12 rooms exerting a less-than-benign influence on the historic and natural atmosphere; if you're looking for a more laid-back island trip, Bawe Island (where the tiny resort has also been closed till further notice) sees virtually no day traffic and has a lovely sandy beach and reasonably productive snorkeling reef. But there's no doubt that the best snorkeling to be had is along the reefs surrounding Chumbe Island, home not only to one of the most famous eco-lodges in the world (www.chumbeisland.com), but surrounded by the first marine park in East Africa, with pristine coral reefs home to an incredible diversity of species. A permit is required for day-trippers to snorkel in the park (no diving is allowed), which any of the operators in Stone Town can arrange; boats also depart from Mbweni Ruins Hotel. The only drawback of actually staying at Chumbe Island lodge is that, like Chole Mjini, which is my favorite eco-lodge island in East Africa, there is no soft, sandy beach; if this is important, it's a better bet to transfer back to Mbweni Ruins Hotel, which is a charming little resort, and overnight there. Time allowing, another island excursion you may want to look into is Grave Island. Also known as Chapwani Island, this is a pretty little place, home to an atmospheric cemetery reserved in 1879 by Sultan Barghash for the burial of the English colonists; it also offers a good snorkeling site 35m (115 ft.) northwest of the main beach. Note: Keen snorkelers may also want to inquire about Nyange, an unbuoyed dive site near Stone Town, said to offer some of the best snorkeling outside of Chumbe Island and Mnemba Island in the north.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.