Prison Island – Probably the best thing to do when in Stone Town, Zanzibar! (See the giant turtles, the old prison and snorkel the clear waters)
When staying in Zanzibar, you have two main choices – head for the resorts up north in Nungwi or east of the island, or stay in Stone Town (or mix these options of course).
I opted to stay in Stone Town (since I like cities!) and to get my ‘beach fix’ at Prison Island instead.
Booking a ride is as easy as showing up near the Park Hyatt beach and simply standing looking at the beach. The locals will not exactly ‘hesitate’ to send some offers your way. The DoubleTree Zanzibar quoted $50 for the 30-minute return boat ride and the ‘tour’. This was for as many people as I could line up – but given that I booked it just before midnight and wanted to go early in the morning, it was just me.
If you just show up at the beach, you should be able to get it for around $25 per person. Boats are going back and forth all the time, but the mornings usually have the best weather (and the most people).
I kinda enjoyed my ride in perfect tranquility – the seas were super calm. I really disliked some of the choppy boat rides in the Maldives with high surf in small boats. No such worries last week going to Prison Island.
My ‘tour guide’ showed me around once we arrived on the small island. If you’ve seen Groot, the linguistically-limited tree character in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, you have a pretty good idea of what my tour guide was like. He was equally eloquent in his descriptions of what we were about to see.
The island is small and only partially accessible. My guide took me to the turtle farm first. The state of affairs there isn’t too pleasant, as it isn’t very clean or pretty – it is a big muddy area with lawnmower-sized turtles. These turtles are a staggering 130+ years old and some of them have lived there since before the start of the 20th century! Amazing!
There is a large number of turtles (incl. little ones) left on the farm, so they must be doing something right. Otherwise these giant turtles are largely extinct.
While impressive, the whole area is very touristy, with noisy Chinese visitors and lobster-colored Europeans pushing each other around…
On we went on our ‘tour’ to the old prison. The prison burned down some time ago but it was rebuilt from those ruins. It has some interesting history, with the British using the prison and the whole island as a way to quarantine parts of the population before allowing them to go to Zanzibar.
Nowadays, the prison serves as a super-expensive restaurant and bar. There is also a hotel on the island (though it escaped me exactly where the rooms are, since only the pool was visible).
Lastly, ‘Groot’ took me snorkeling. The water is reasonably clear just off Prison Island. However, the coral reef does not have much fish left. I decided to swim for a couple of loops instead and got excited about the odd fish. I’ve had better snorkeling right off the main, touristy Hawaiian beaches (Waikiki or near the Andaz Maui).
All in all, this trip took me about 3 hours – time well spent, but I paid a bit too much for the pleasure. A rainstorm during the early afternoon hours is rather normal here and so it was this day – I just got back to the hotel to see the rain start. And rain here does not mean drizzle! So it’s a good idea to go around 9AM.