Travel: Zanzibar the perfect setting for a relaxing group sailing holiday
A group sailing trip to the islands of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, proves to be a very relaxing and surprisingly sociable African adventure for Johanna Carr
"QUICK, look! The sky is on fire," says our skipper, pointing to the horizon. Although this will soon become a familiar refrain, we are repeatedly in awe of the wild African sunsets that bathe our 55-foot catamaran, Julia, in golden, pink and scarlet light.
We're anchored in the mirror-still waters off the sheltered west coast of Pemba, the second-largest island in the Zanzibar archipelago, which lies five degrees south of the equator off the east coast of Tanzania. It's around 80km north of the main island, Unguja, the place most tourists are referring to when they speak about Zanzibar.
Smaller, greener and less-developed, Pemba attracts just a fraction of the region's visitors and is the focus of Australian adventure travel company Intrepid's new Spice Islands sailing tour.
I'm initially nervous about spending seven days on a boat with strangers, but shortly after boarding in Kendwa, in the north of Unguja, it becomes apparent this trip is going to be different.
Skipper Caio Rinaldi, a charismatic Brazilian with years of experience captaining yachts in Asia and Europe, welcomes us with a briefing that starts with the important stuff – the honesty bar. He assures us we will be well looked after by himself, chef David Mandara, who is half Tanzanian and half Welsh, and the two local crew members, Khamisi Omazi and Omari Juma.
He makes it clear to all six passengers (Julia sleeps up to eight in twin share rooms) that our only job is to relax, have fun and polish off David's generous, freshly prepared meals.
My fellow sailors include an American and four Australians, ranging in age from around 30 to 60, and to my surprise and delight, we quickly become friends. There is teasing, debating and lots of laughter.
Usually a budget solo traveller, I realise that sharing the journey (and holiday expenses) with these people not only makes it better – it's more economical, too, meaning I am able to do and see things I normally wouldn't even consider.
Daily ship life involves relaxing hours spent watching the world go by, interspersed with bursts of activity; diving off the back of the boat for a refreshing dip, watching David reel in a massive yellowfin tuna following an epic 40-minute battle, and feeling giddy with excitement when dolphins appear at the bow.
We use kayaks and paddleboards to explore otherworldly mangrove forests and deserted picture-postcard beaches.
We also make a trip to Omari and Khamisi's hometown in northwest Pemba, where fishing and farming are the main sources of income for the local community, and where "the boys" as everyone affectionately calls them, drop off bags of dirty washing with their mothers each week.
According to Google Maps, there's nothing here, just a blank space. In reality, Mkia Ya Ngombe, which means 'tail of the cow', is home to 900 people.
When we arrive, dozens of kids follow us Pied Piper-style along the dirt tracks between houses and vegetable patches. The younger ones, fingers yellow and sticky from the turmeric and sugar-covered baobab seeds they chew on as sweeties, greet us with "Jambo! Jambo!" before squealing and running away.
The longer we spend in the village, the more confident they become, edging closer to us, but it's not until I take out my camera that I really win them over. They love having their picture taken, and I end up at the bottom of a pile with 10 children climbing on my back and crawling under my arms in an effort to see themselves on the back screen.
We are ushered into first Khamisi's and then Omari's family homes, where female relatives have prepared food and spiced tea. Sitting on colourful, woven mats in front of a large silver platter, we wash our hands using water poured from buckets, and taste locally grown roasted sweet potato and cassava, cassava leaf stew and fried tuna.
Saying asante sana (thank you very much) to the women doesn't feel like enough, but Caio says they don't do it for money, and Intrepid doesn't want to alter and potentially harm the local economy by allowing tourists to hand over cash.
Responsible tourism governs most of our trip – from the cassava crisps and Bombay mix made by David's neighbours that we snack on before dinner, to the careful way Caio chooses where to anchor, avoiding delicate reefs.
In fact, most of the food – apart from the imported Welsh cheddar served with toast at breakfast – is bought locally from the markets in Stone Town on changeover day.
David, who doesn't know the meaning of a light meal, really cares about the quality of his ingredients and getting people to try new things.
The last stop on our trip is Misali Island, part of a marine conservation area, which is inhabited only by a ranger and visited by passing fishermen. Just half a square kilometre in size, Misali is ringed by pristine coral reefs and white sand beaches, and covered in dense, green vegetation. Pirate Captain Kidd is reputed to have used it as a hideout in the 17th century, and legend suggests his treasures are still buried here.
We arrive early – waking up with the sun at 6am and going to bed shortly after dark at 6.30pm has become our routine – and have the island to ourselves all day.
And what a day it is – multiple snorkelling expeditions, a hike across the island, all topped off with a beach barbecue and beers in the sun. As we weigh anchor the next morning and get under way for our return to reality, I realise I've been converted, and that my solo travelling days might very well be over.
Intrepid Travel (intrepidtravel.com; 0808 274 5111) offers the seven-day Zanzibar Spice Islands Sailing Adventure from £1,295 per person, including six nights' accommodation on a boat, six breakfasts, four lunches, five dinners and boat transportation. Excludes flights.