Trapped in Paradise on Kendwa Beach, Zanzibar

One of the many attractions that Zanzibar is known for is its beaches. And, while Stone Town is a fascinating place on its own, my hubby and I found it a bit overwhelming. So when our group tour included a few days exploring Zanzibar’s north beaches, we were all in.

Mind you, we aren’t really “beach” folk. While we love the sand and sea, we get twitchy if there’s nothing to do but lie around on towels reading and slathering on sunscreen. But we’d heard great things about Zanzibar’s beaches. And after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, followed by safari tours and bustling cities, a quiet beach sounded divine.

A one hours’ drive north from Stone Town brought us to Sunset Kendwa. This was our beach hub for the next two nights.

As we all filed out of the bus, but before checking into our rooms, our tour guide, Clara gave us a warning.

“When you go down to the beach, keep an eye on your shoes. They have a tendency to go missing here.”

We all flashed each other some side-eye like wayward teenagers. “Yeah yeah,” we all agreed half-heartedly. We were just anxious to get checked in and hit the beach.

The hotel itself had a warm, Arabic flair. This was the inner courtyard:

sunset kendwa courtyard zanzibar

The rooms had a rustic, beach-chic vibe.

sunset kendwa room zanzibar

We especially liked the little balcony. I could picture myself sitting here in the morning, drinking spiced coffee and eating fresh fruit picked right off the trees:

sunset kendwa balcony zanzibar

The first night was pretty laid back. Mark and I walked down to the beach and marvelled at the powdery, white sand and crystal blue waters. It looked spectacular and full of promise:

zanzibar kendwa beach

Mark decided he wanted to go snorkelling with a few others from the tour in the morning. Since I’m not much into water sports, I decided I would hang back with the rest and just enjoy the sunshine. I had already spotted a little tent on the beach offering massages, mani-pedis and henna tattoos. It was like my day had magically planned itself.

That night, we had pizza and drinks with the gang before going to bed. Island life was feeling pretty good.

sunset on kendwa beach, zanzibar

The next morning, Mark headed off on his snorkelling adventure. I chose to lie in the sun, read, and generally bum around, just to see what it was like.

kendwa beach zanzibar

I soon came to regret my choice. In an attempt to go for a beach-side walk along the water, I was immediately approached by a man. More specifically, a salesman. Did I want to go snorkelling? Sailing? Maybe scuba diving? He could sell me a tour, cheap cheap cheap. No, I said politely, I did not. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Surely, that’s why I was here, to enjoy everything the ocean had to offer? So I said no again, more firmly this time. He persisted and walked alongside me, trying to sell me any and every ocean excursion you could dream of.

Annoyed, I spun on my heel and walked back in the opposite direction. I walked by our hotel and down the opposite side of the beach. Within seconds, another man approached me with the same unrelenting spiel. Hello, nice lady. Would you like to take a tour? Or go parasailing? A boat ride on a dhow perhaps?

dhow on kendwa beach

I harrumphed in displeasure and turned back around. It seemed the only place the salespeople weren’t allowed to go was on the beach immediately in front of the hotel.

All I wanted was to explore the area a little and see what I could find. Maybe a fun bar, some cute beachside shops…but all I got was frustrated and irritated. You kind of expect to get harassed by shopkeepers in the city, especially in the touristy marketplaces. But naively, I wasn’t expecting to be bombarded by salespeople on the beach. And they seemed to appear out of nowhere.

I felt trapped and disgusted, and it wasn’t even noon. Suddenly, paradise didn’t seem so idyllic.

Resigned to just hanging out on the hotel property, I found an empty lounge chair, spread out my towel, and proceeded to get comfy. Looking out at the gorgeous teal-tinted water was definitely relaxing.

kendwa beach boats zanzibar

I vaguely recalled our tour guide telling us to keep an eye on our shoes. With all the salesmen skulking around, I decided to tuck my cheap $10 flip-flops under the beach chair, but within quick reach. If they came around again, I wanted to make a quick getaway with all my belongings.

After about a half hour of flipping between reading and staring out at the ocean, I was bored. How do people just lie on the beach all day doing nothing?

I got up, collected my things, and almost immediately bumped into a couple of gals from the tour group. They had been talking about going to the spa tent, and it was starting to tempt me as well. One lady wanted to get a massage, and the other wanted to get a pedicure. I decided to go with them, though I didn’t know what sort of procedure I wanted. I mean, it sounds all luxurious to get a mani-pedi on the beach, but then you wonder how do they sanitize their equipment between customers? I’m not a germaphobe, but I’ve read enough stories about nail fungus to deter me from taking any chances.

In the end, I decided on a henna tattoo. I’d never had one before and it sounded like a nice little souvenir of the trip.

It was relaxing, for the five minutes it took my skilled henna tattooist to do her thing. But it also took a half hour to dry, so I sat in the tent with the gals as they continued to get rubbed, exfoliated, buffed and polished.

My henna tattoo came to 15,000 TSH (Tanzanian shillings), or roughly $10 CDN, and looked pretty fabulous, if I do say so myself.

henna tattoo zanzibar

About five minutes later, boredom was setting in again. Luckily it was getting close to lunchtime, so the ladies and I headed to the bar to grab some food. The fare was slim pickings here: primarily burgers and pizza, and not very tasty ones at that. But this was when I noticed another interesting trend – the staff’s lack of spare change. The evening prior when we had supper here, the wait staff had no spare change to give back. We had shrugged it off then.

But we quickly realized that this wasn’t a one-time thing. Once again, they seemed to have run out of small change. “We’ll bring it out to you later,” they assured us when we pressed the matter. They never did. Simple, yet effective. Who were we to belabor the point? Were we, the customers, going to insist they open the cash register to prove that they only had large bills? I’m sure most people didn’t quibble over the extra dollars, and that’s why the staff were able to get away with it time after time.

Not a half hour later, one of the ladies from our tour group came back from sunning herself on the beach. She ran up to where we were sitting and announced, “someone stole my shoes!” Apparently, she hadn’t heeded our tour guides’ warnings the day before. Luckily she had a spare pair. But everyone started to keep closer watch over their belongings.

Paradise, it seemed, was a relative term.

kendwa beach bikini bar sign

By the time my husband returned from his snorkelling excursion, another pair of sandals had gone missing. It was a curious thing. Nothing else was going missing; only shoes.

As we watched the sunset in the distance, my husband and I both noted that beach holidays weren’t for us. They’re nice for a day or two, but we were itching to get back to civilization, culture, and a wider variety of food options.

Kendwa beach sunset

The next morning, we headed back to the beach restaurant for breakfast. Oh, no change for large bills again? Lucky for us, we had exact change with us this time. It was a fool’s game, and a petty one at that, but one that we were determined to win at least once before we left.

As we ate, a few people from our tour group trickled in and joined us. A few had gone for a walk along the beach, farther than I had been willing to venture the day before. And you know what they discovered? Kiosks, selling all manner of shoes, sandals, and flip-flops! Almost new, barely worn, would you believe it? I asked, half-jokingly if there was an exact match to the pair that the lady who’d had her sandals stolen the day before had lost. No one knew for sure, but suddenly the Case of the Missing Shoes made sense. Someone would come along and steal unattended sandals/shoes/flip-flops, then re-sell them to the same people who were suddenly short a pair. It was a strange business venture, yet no doubt lucrative.

After breakfast, Mark and I decided to take one more stroll down to the beach. The sky was bright, the salesmen weren’t around, and we had a little section of white sandy beach to ourselves.

dhow off of kendwa beach zanzibar

Now this is what paradise should feel like.

beachcoming on north beach zanzibar

We strolled, hand in hand, wading in the warm water and chasing pure white sand crabs across the beach:

white sand crab zanzibar

Oddly, we were starting to wish we had one more day here. It was hard to believe, given our initiation and first impressions. But how could we harbour bad feelings about a place that offered views like this?

kendwa beach zanzibarIn the end, we left the north beaches of Zanzibar with mixed feelings. The weather and location were spectacular, but the salespeople and wait staff left us with a bad impression. But if you are planning a trip that includes Zanzibar, a day or two at the beach is worth adding to your itinerary. Just remember to bring a variety of small change for incidentals, and pack inexpensive clothing/shoes that you won’t feel bad about losing if they happen to go missing. And if something does go missing, just walk to the nearest beachside kiosk. I bet they have something in just your size.

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