Who doesn’t dream of an exotic tropical island holiday? For adventure-seekers based in Southern Africa, there’s a perfect palm-fringed, white-beach destination beckoning – and it’s just a relatively short hop away: Zanzibar!
This vibrant Indian Ocean archipelago off the coast of East Africa has a colourful history – through the centuries it has been a Portuguese trading post, an outpost of the Sultanate of Oman and a British protectorate. It has also been at the centre of slave trade in the region, and has experienced a violent revolution.
Visitors tend to focus mainly on the main island, Unguja, but there are several more worth exploring on a trip to the Spice Islands. Here’s your quick guide to seven Zanzibar islands:
Unguja (more commonly known as Zanzibar) is the Zanzibar archipelago’s biggest island, about 35km from Tanzania’s mainland. The island is perhaps most famous for its ancient centre of Stone Town, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Many of this characterful area’s alleys and buildings date back to the 19th century, when the island was a commercial hub for spice and slave trading.
Of course, you will find yourself sprawled on an Unguja beach sooner rather than later – be it for a dip in the ocean, or for sundowners to toast your holiday.
But do make time for the main sights: the old Sultan’s Palace, the 15th-century Malindi Mosque with its cone-shaped minaret and fascinating architecture, and the Old Fort (Stone Town’s oldest building). The area’s historical Hamamni Persian Baths were built for a sultan and used as public baths until 1920.
Also take a walk through Stone Town’s vibrant Darajani Market, selling mainly food, including fruit, fresh seafood and spices, but also various consumer items.
No trip to Zanzibar is complete without a spice tour to learn more about the island’s historical and current-day spice trade.
Mnemba is also known as “millionaire’s island”. This tiny paradise (just 1.5km in circumference) is less than 5km and a 20-minute boat ride from Unguja’s north-eastern tip and surrounded by a pristine reef that is a protected area.
You will likely only visit here if you’re lucky enough to be booked into the &Beyond Mnemba Island resort for an indulgent, five-star stay.
If sheer tropical luxury is on your bucket list, this resort boasts 12 beachside bandas (bungalows), an accredited scuba-diving school and everything from private beach dinners and dhow cruises to tours to see annual turtle hatchings, and more.
Another miniscule island (just about 800m long by 230m wide) is Changuu island (also known as Prison Island) with its sad and violent heritage. Rebellious slaves were locked up here in the 1860s. The isle later housed a more formal prison under the British in the late 1800s, and eventually it became a quarantine station for yellow-fever patients.
Fortunately, all this lies in the distant past and the island – a 45-minute boat ride from Unguja – is now a tranquil getaway and marine conservation area, with a lovely beach and good snorkelling. It is also home to some gentle giants: huge tortoises, some weighing up to 200kg and said to be more than 100 years old.
There’s some rustic accommodation and a restaurant on Changuu, so it’s a good place to kick off your sandals and relax.
You can’t miss the tall century-old, British-built functioning lighthouse on your arrival at Chumbe island, about 6km from Zanzibar (Unguja) island.
In 1994, the island and surrounding ocean were declared a marine protected area, the Chumbe Island Coral Park. This comprises the coral reefs around the island, as well as a forest reserve.
Visit here to spot the massive resident endangered coconut crabs (they weigh up to 5kg), the rare, threatened Ader’s duiker, turtles and – around August and September – humpback whales.
In keeping with its conservation ethos, the island only allows a certain number of visitors at one time, and proceeds from tours go to environmental programmes.
Ever dreamt of getting your hands on your own private uninhabited tropical island? Well, a couple of Swedish entrepreneurs have done just that through a contract with the Tanzanian government.
Thanda island – also known as Shungi Mbili – is set in the waters between Mafia island and the Tanzanian mainland. Dan and Christin Olofsson “discovered” it in 2006 after hunting for an island to set down roots and build an intimate luxury retreat.
The 8ha island, 30km east of mainland Tanzania, is now an exclusive getaway destination, but with an environmental focus, including conservation projects involving sea turtles, dugongs and whale sharks, and the preservation and rehabilitation of the surrounding Shungi Mbili coral reef.
Fertile Pemba – or the “green island” – is nearly 50km north of Zanzibar and separated from mainland Tanzania by the Pemba Channel. It is a major producer of cloves. Rice, coconuts and other small-scale crops are also grown on this secluded, largely undeveloped island, of which the capital is Chake Chake.
The island is a lot quieter than Unguja, with far fewer tourists and a limited number of places to stay – head here if you’re looking for great diving spots, pristine coral and abundant marine life. There is also a fascinating sanctuary for the enormous, indigenous flying fox, a kind of fruit bat.
One of the bigger islands off the Tanzanian coast, Mafia island, with its splendid coral reefs, is actually not part of the Zanzibar archipelago, but governed from the mainland.
It was on the old trade route hundreds of years ago, and there are ancient ruins, a beautiful 15th-century mosque and architecturally interesting 18th-century buildings to explore.
While Mafia is less well known than Zanzibar, it is known for spectacular scuba diving – some say among the best in the world. This is also the place to go if you enjoy snorkelling, guided walks and nature trails.
Mango flies regularly to Zanzibar from OR Tambo International Airport and Lanseria International Airport in Johannesburg. What are you waiting for?