Why we like it
- The wonderful cultural and historical tours on Zanzibar.
- Zanzibar’s safe and welcoming atmosphere lends itself to exploring from one beach resort to the next.
- Mafia Island is lesser known and untouched, perfect for secluded island getaways.
- The whale shark viewing and interactions on Mafia Island.
- Some of the best diving in the Indian Ocean at Mafia Island.
The perfect combination along with an East African safari is a stopover at one of the region’s tropical island getaways. Where postcard-perfect sandy beaches extend as far as the eye can see, palm leaves flutter in the breeze, and crystal-clearwater beckons.
There may come a time towards the end of your East African safari, with a glorious list of animals sightings under your belt but a deep desire for something utterly peaceful to end your trip, that your mind begins to wander – to beautiful beaches, cocktails, and that wonderful feeling of knowing that you don’t need to do anything that day.
There are many islands off the east coast of mainland Tanzania, but in our opinion, two really stand out: Zanzibar Island, also known as Spice Island, and Mafia Island further south, where marine life is protected and plentiful.
Zanzibar is a place of exquisite beauty and also a rich, complicated history. People have lived on this island, with a landmass of 2,461 km², for at least 20,000 years and was controlled by first the Portuguese, then the Omani, and finally the British, before achieving independence in 1963 only for a revolution to erupt almost immediately, ending with it formally joining the new country of Tanzania.
The capital, Zanzibar City, lies to the west of the island with its centre, known for obvious reasons as Stone Town, a world heritage site full of excellent historic attractions. Many of the narrow old winding streets and tall townhouses have remained untouched and visitors can explore the atmospheric labyrinth alone or on guided tours.
The Old Slave Market, somewhat ironically situated next to the Anglican Cathedral, provides a sombre reminder that Zanzibar was once key to a thriving slave trade in the region, which saw an estimated 50,000 slaves pass through the island each year.
Acknowledging the past is important, but not something to dwell on for too long while on holiday. By far the main attraction to Zanzibar is its world-class white sandy beaches, lined with palm trees and with sumptuous coral reefs lying offshore.
The east and northern coasts of the island have many fine hotels and smaller accommodation options. A great way to enjoy this tropical paradise is to walk along the beach and visit other lodges for meals or midday cocktails.
Some of the best swimming can be found in the north of the island where the access isn’t as restricted by tides as on the eastern coastline. The greatest part about Zanzibar is there are plenty of activities to keep one busy, such as scuba diving, chartered boat trips and snorkelling in the water, walking tours, buggy adventures, and hiking routes on land.
And you don’t need to limit yourself to Zanzibar. Neighbouring Chole Island, Pemba Island, and Chumbe Island, a protected sanctuary with simply stunning coral gardens, can all be reached from Zanzibar, either by boat or plane.
But, of course, you don’t need to cram things in. Zanzibar is also the perfect location to do absolutely nothing but relax before or after a safari.
While Zanzibar is certainly fantastic, mass tourism has very much arrived and it may not be for everyone. This is where Mafia Island, and its excellent Mafia Island Marine Park, really shine. Quite unbelievably, it has managed to remain virtually unknown and is the SAFARI FRANK recommendation for anybody wanting to experience the tropical beaches of East Africa.
This is a little island with a big history and has been visited by traders, buccaneers, and explorers from the Gulf, Egypt, Oman, Greece, Rome, China, Portugal, Turkey, France, Britain, and Germany over the past 2,000 years.
With a population of just over 40,000, its economy is based mainly on fishing, subsistence agriculture, and the market in Kilindoni, the island’s capital. You won’t find the same kind of sprawling five-star resorts that you see in Zanzibar, and on Mafia, smaller lodges, homestays, and simple bungalows are often the name of the game. Mafia provides a tantalising glimpse of island life, but be warned, it may be difficult to drag yourself away.
A mere 160km south of Zanzibar, Mafia is extremely safe and there are virtually no hustlers to bother you, unlike the more popular Zanzibar. Without question, the greatest attraction of Mafia Island, apart from its timeless peacefulness and retained charm, is its marine-based activities.
These include some of the best scuba diving on the planet, snorkelling, and viewing whale sharks. The island is home to a critically important protected marine park, the first of its kind in Tanzania when it opened in 1995. It is home to some of the most pristine and diverse underwater habitats in the Indian Ocean and water-based exploration here is simply astonishing.
How do I choose between Zanzibar & Mafia Island?
Unless you are thinking of visiting both – and why the hell not if you have the time – you’ll probably have to choose between these two beautiful islands.
As mentioned, we generally recommend Mafia Island if we have to pick one East African beach destination. It’s smaller, quieter, and feels much more authentic than Zanzibar with its steadily rumbling tourist trade.
But for some, Zanzibar is certainly going to be more of their vibe. If you’re looking for something busier, with a thriving nightlife and plenty of space to hire a jeep and go exploring, Zanzibar is a perfect location. While Zanzibar City is far from a major metropolis, it certainly feels like it when compared to Kilindoni on Mafia Island. Stone Town also offers an entirely different kind of adventure as you weave through the narrow alleys, steeped in history.
Which island you choose will usually come down to a simple question: do you want somewhere quiet and peaceful with far fewer tourists and better marine exploration, or somewhere busier, more lively, with plenty of old crumbling architecture and more expansive activities on offer?
Whether you choose Zanzibar or Mafia Island, you really can’t go wrong. Both are outstanding destinations to either kick off or close out your safari experience and will both leave you with that healthy glowing exuberance that tends to come from spending time on small tropical islands without a care in the world.
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