Nungwi - Beach Life in Zanzibar
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
During our safari, we both took time off work - couldn’t realistically support clients during nine full days of game drives, post-drive drinks, and - as the buzzwords go - trying to just be present. So, we wanted a place to relax and catch up on work afterwards. We’d get that in spades in Nungwi, northern Zanzibar’s beach paradise.
“Good Afternoon, Mr. Tenenbaum - Welcome to Highland Bungalows”
Minus the strange family dynamics, our stay in Nungwi felt a lot like Royal Tenenbaum’s hotel living arrangements.
For three weeks, we stayed at Highland Bungalows - a dozen little cottages surrounding a pool, with an outdoor bar and restaurant connected. A lot of Zanzibar resorts are like beach resorts throughout the tropics - completely walled off, all-inclusive jobs that may as well be anywhere in the world. At Highland, we actually felt part of the local community. The place was down a back street about 200 yards from the beach, just outside of the center of Nungwi.
Nungwi itself is a beach town nestled into the far north of Zanzibar, with a mix of tourists and locals - mostly involved with fishing or tourism - all in close proximity. When we wanted to stroll out from Highland, we were right in town - local markets, restaurants, cafes, and just, well, community. And, the reverse was true as well. On any given afternoon, you could grab a cold beer at the Highland bar and were just as likely to strike up a conversation with a local swinging by for a drink as a British tourist.
But, back to Royal Tenenbaum. Restaurant, bar, laundry service - you could do it all right on site, and you just threw it “on the room.” This hotel-style living arrangement had two major benefits: 1) we didn’t need to keep a ton of cash on us walking around in bathing suits, and 2) every transaction became a problem for “future Jenna and Chipp” - we’ll deal with this when we leave in a few weeks...
Work… and a Beer?
Having a bar on site definitely had its perks, but it also made work an interesting experience (mostly for Chipp, as Jenna had the discipline to just knock her stuff out in our room). Here was Chipp’s daily work routine:
7ish: wake up, grab a coffee, open the laptop and VPN, and start work in the restaurant area
9ish: Jenna joins for the Highland breakfast - some eggs, toast, and fresh fruit
10ish: Already coated in sweat, hop in the pool then rinse off in the outdoor shower
11ish: Back in the bar area to continue working
Anytime between 11ish and 1ish: fellow long-term resident, also working, interrupts with a “buy you a beer, Chipp?”
Immediately following the above interaction: naturally, Chipp needs to reciprocate…
TBD: finish work for the day and head out for a bite in town and dip in the ocean
Was this an efficient system? Yes. Was it the most efficient system? Debatable. But, no clients fired Chipp during this beach sabbatical, so it obviously worked!
Nungwi Culture, More Russian Tourists, and Jenna’s Puritanical Side
We touched on it, but Zanzibar’s 99% Muslim. Despite the island’s laid back, beach vibe, it remains a fairly conservative culture. As we’d quickly learn, this conservative nature clashed with the Russian tourist approach to beach life.
Traditionally, Russian tourists take their winter beach vacations in all-inclusive resort hotspots throughout southeast Asia - places where they can eat and drink heavily, lay out at the beach, and never need to leave the comfort of the resort’s walls. This system fell apart with COVID-19 travel restrictions, with those places closed.
Instead, Russians flocked to Zanzibar. And, they came in such waves that the local street vendors adapted, which Chipp quickly saw when, confused for a Russian tourist, a guy hawking coconuts let out a “Da! Alexander Pushkin!”
Regardless of this entrepreneurial initiative, Russian tourists apparently couldn’t care less about local norms. More precisely, Russian tourists couldn’t care less about local clothing norms, something that infuriated Jenna to no end.
Men wear speedos - small ones. Women wear bikinis - smaller ones. Zanzibar’s government’s pretty clear that it supports tourism, so wearing this attire at a beach is fine. But, the local community also asks - quite explicitly on signs - that foreign tourists cover up while strolling through town. Seeing a Russian guy in a loin cloth and his wife wearing some dental floss in Nungwi’s town square, Jenna harrumphed: “Russian tourists! No respect for local culture!”
Was she right? Yep. Was it still hilarious for Chipp seeing such a puritanical rage coming from Jenna? Absolutely!
“Influencers in the Wild”
Another Russian tourist story - bit of a theme here.
Accompanying many of the big-bellied, sunburnt-slightly-more-red-than-a-lobster Russian guys, Zanzibar has plenty of beautiful model- / Insta-fluener-type gals. While a mild stereotype, here’s kind of how the days go:
Russian guys - wake up, drink, pass out at the beach, catch the all-inclusive lunch, and repeat the process in the afternoon
Russian Insta-models - wake up, bring a bag of a dozen different bikinis out, and rope a friend into taking hundreds of glamour pictures “for the Gram” all over the island
For us, it was quite the experience seeing the latter group “in the wild,” giving us a behind-the-scenes view of this lifestyle. Slightly ironic, as we certainly took our fair share of pics, but it becomes a matter of intensity. For instance, we never rented a horse to accessorize photo shoots - apparently something one can do in Nungwi. And, we never risked our lives for the perfect shot…
On many stretches of Zanzibar’s beachfront, sharp coral walls rise up from the sand. At low tide, you just skirt by them. At high tide, you risk waves smashing you against these barriers. Fortunately, Jenna speaks Russian, as it gave us insight into the lengths one will go for the ideal Insta-shot. Wading through waist-deep water against these coral walls, we rounded a bend to find an interesting situation.
On top of the coral wall, one girl had her iPhone. In the water, another girl - clearly terrified - was taking instructions, apparently looking for that perfect swimming-under-crystal-clear-water-picture-taken-from-above photo.
Girl in the water, nearly in tears: “Every time I go under, the water throws me against the coral.”
Girl with the iPhone: “Just do it!”
Hey, anything for that perfect shot!
Another [Konyagi] Happy Little Accident
The servers in the Highland restaurant and bar were unbelievably sweet, fun, and helpful. But, they also didn’t speak great English, leading to some confusing interactions. One night at the bar, Jenna ordered a gin and tonic. Apparently, they didn’t have gin, but they certainly had Konyagi.
Jenna: “Okay perfect - can I please have a Konyagi and tonic?”
A couple minutes later, our server brought out A) a can of tonic water; and B) a fifth of Konyagi.
Jenna: “Oh I’m sorry - I meant just a shot of Konyagi.”
Server: “Just bottles.”
Jenna: “Okay… How much does the bottle cost?”
Server: “Same as one drink.”
What a system!
Local Seafood and an Obsession with Octopus
We’d be remiss to talk about Nungwi - and Zanzibar, in general - and not discuss the incredibly delicious seafood. Before dawn every morning, local fishermen would head out in their ungalawas, a traditional canoe with a double-outrigger set-up. Every afternoon, they’d come back with tons of fresh seafood, which quickly made its way to the local restaurants.
In Nungwi, a place may just look like a little shack. But, if you see a chalkboard out front with a hand-drawn menu of fresh seafood, you want to eat there. Actually, it’s a little like roadside BBQ stands all over the South. It may just be a corrugated tin shed, but if you can get a loaf of Wonderbread, a few glass-bottle Cokes, and a plate of BBQ, you’re in heaven!
But, rather than BBQ pork, Chipp fell in love with BBQ octopus at these little Nungwi joints. If you see octopus on a menu somewhere, it’s usually pretty chewy - more rubbery than anything. Fresh from the morning catch and thrown on the grill, octopus, Zanzibar-style is some of the most delicious, tender seafood you can have. After that first eight-legged treat, Chipp was hooked!