Few places in the world deserve a name as exotic as Zanzibar. I couldn’t wait to get my toes in the white sand on this picture-perfect Indian Ocean island, but Zanzibar isn’t only about stunning beaches. This East-African archipelago represents a heady mix of cultures and history. You’ll sample Indian curries and samosas in Arab-style homes and restaurants. Drink Tanzanian coffee and (if you’re lucky) chew Khat from Somalia or Kenya. Hop a ride in a second-hand Chinese school bus and watch veiled women float by in their black bui-bui (head to toe cloak). And Islam, which is practiced by the majority of Zanzibaris, heavily influences the island culture.
Where to go in Zanzibar
Zanzibar is an archipelago of several islands off the coast of (and technically a part of) Tanzania. The main island, Unguja, is where all the action is. The capital ‘Stone Town’ is the gateway to dozens of beach villages spread across the island (but mostly on the East and North coasts). It’s often hard to predict the vibe you’ll find in beach resort towns. After (too many) hours of research, I decided to buy the Lonely Planet downloadable PDF chapter for Zanzibar (instead of buying a whole guidebook on Tanzania and using only the Zanzibar section). That really helped me narrow down my interest to three possible beaches in Zanzibar:
1. Nungwi/Kendwa – Good beaches in this area with a big party scene but lots of annoying ‘beach boys’. Also some big hotels (think DoubleTree Hilton Resort Nungwi) that don’t reflect the true spirit of Zanzibar.
2. Bwejuu – Quiet & breezy. Undeveloped beachfront, and mostly small independent lodges, mini-resorts, or guesthouses. There are basically no beach boys here. But expect huge tidal variations during the day (the water goes out far from the beach which makes swimming impractical for part of each day).
3. Jambiani – Just to the south of Bwejuu is the fishing village of Jambiani. This village has a similar feel as Bwejuu, and also has the identical issue of the low tide, which makes swimming all but impossible for several hours each day. Jambiani is a little busier than Bwejuu and has more options for lodging and restaurants (but with that comes more people on the beach).
When it’s tough settling on a destination, one tactic I like to use is to go where the best and most comfortable lodging is (within my limited budget of course). Beach accommodations can naturally range from grungy to ultra classy. I just wanted an affordable place that would also be clean, fresh, comfortable and ideally right on the beach. This short wish list doesn’t sound so hard to come by, but believe me, finding a place with these qualities can be quite a challenge in many beach towns around the world.
Upepo = Paradise
This time I got lucky: Upepo Botique Beach Bungalows in Bwejuu village more than satisfied every part of my wish list for a place to stay in Zanzibar. It’s a quiet, simple place with just 4 rooms. One room in particular though, is a masterpiece of beach font design. The second floor beach bungalow (there is only one) has windows on all 4 sides that let in a strong Indian Ocean breeze. The place is right on the beach, with a great balcony overlooking the water. And yes, the sound of ocean waves carry you to sleep at night along with the rustle of palm fronds. The white sand beach is exactly my idea of Indian Ocean paradise. Plus the local guys running the low-key operation at Upepo are genuinely friendly, smart and efficient.
This isn’t a big party spot though – depending on the time of year you might have Upepo all to yourself. In retrospect, the small population of tourists made it much more relaxing and peaceful. But if you need more action, a stroll down the beach will uncover several hang out spots where travelers meet up for beers with their toes in the sand. I could go on and on about why you should visit Upepo in Bwejuu village, but watch this video and you’ll see why this is my new favorite Indian Ocean beach hangout (and for only $45 per night)…
I suggest contacting Upepo to reserve a bungalow in advance through their website: http://zanzibarhotelbeach.com
(P.S. I got absolutely no discount, free room or anything else in exchange for writing this review of Upepo. It’s just a beautiful, small beach hangout spot that I loved and you will too!)