Zanzibar is an archipelago (group of islands) in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Tanzania. Unguja, the largest island, is the place most people are referring to when they talk about Zanzibar Island.
But there is a series of smaller islands that offer a more exclusive, away-from-the-crowds experience and are perfect for honeymooners, couples, and romantics. In fact, the Zanzibar Archipelago seem like a simple place to visit for some relaxation, but our specialists have looked beyond the obvious and can help plan in lesser-known places to go on your Zanzibar holiday.
We take a look at where to go in Mnemba, Pemba, Chumbe, Mafia and Prison Islands below. First, a look at the different areas of Zanzibar (Unguja), where to go and what to expect at each:
Zanzibar Island (Unguja)
Widely known as Spice Island, Zanzibar Island or Unguja is by far the largest and most popular of the islands that make up the Zanzibar Archipelago.
Once ruled by Omani sultans, this tropical paradise boasts such a diverse coastline that there are plenty of different experiences across the main island, from vibrant culture in the south to idyllic barefoot luxury in the north.
There is plenty to see and do in Zanzibar beyond splendid palm trees and powdery sand beaches. In the interior of the island, spice farms and coconut plantations reveal its industrious side.
Cinnamon and vanilla waft from market stalls in Stone Town, where winding streets link tall houses and intricately decorated sultan’s palaces.
1. Zanzibar East Coast
Home to the Zanzibar Island’s best and most idyllic beaches, the east coast features a wide range of lodges, resorts, and hotels. However, the tidal aspect of the Indian Ocean on this side of the island may mean you have to walk to go swimming or snorkelling.
2. Zanzibar North Coast
As a rule, the further north on Zanzibar you go, the more private and less crowded the beaches are. The north coast of Zanzibar is also least affected by the tidal range.
3. Zanzibar North East Coast
Zanzibar Island’s prime location, most of Zanzibar’s high-end accommodation is found on the north-east beaches. Diving is excellent here. There is no much tidal variation. And the archipelago’s best reefs of Mnemba Island are located about a kilometre or half a mile offshore.
4. Zanzibar South Coast
The further south you go on Zanzibar Island, the more populated it becomes. And with people, comes culture. Head south for cultural and spice tours along with more opportunities to engage with the local people.
5. Zanzibar South-East Coast
There are a variety beaches and resorts on the south-east of Zanzibar but the tidal range is more marked than other Zanzibar areas.
6. Zanzibar West Coast
There are fewer lodges on the west coast of Zanzibar Island. And it feels a little more remote but it is, of course, home to Stone Town, located on the island’s central-west coast.
7. Zanzibar Stone Town
No visit to Zanzibar Island would be complete without exploring the narrow, cobbled streets of Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and former capital of the main island.
There are several places of interest scattered around town, not least the House of Wonders, a former sultan’s palace. Absorb the history, culture and cuisine of this former slave and ivory port on guided tours, or simply wander around at your own pace.
Zanzibar’s ‘Other’ Islands
Some of the best places to visit in Zanzibar take you even further into the African island experience. The Zanzibar Archipelago is dotted with small islands that have never made it onto the global map – we love sharing these secret treasures with clients who enjoy a genuine and laid-back beach holiday.
1. Mnemba Island
Located just 2.5km north-east of Zanzibar, the private Mnemba Island is one of Africa’s most romantic beach retreats. This tiny hideaway island is owned by andBeyond, a travel company renowned for its luxury properties (primarily safari and wilderness lodges in Africa).
It is also part of the Beyond Green Company, which represents eco-conscious hotels, resorts, and lodges across the globe.
To become a member of Beyond Green, properties must prove that their sustainability efforts go way beyond the usual eco-friendly practices like zero-waste and plastic-free policies.
There are no roads and no inhabitants on the island except for guests and staff of the AndBeyond Mnemba Island hotel and resort. The hotel is consists of 12 rustically chic beachside bandas, and a private butler will take care of your every whim.
Enjoy a walk on the cool powdery-white coral sand, a candlelit dinner served on the beach with the waves lapping on your feet, and a charming dhow cruise into the sunset. Most of all, explore the underwater world of the Mnemba atoll, a marine reserve teeming with marine wildlife including green sea turtles, dolphins and large schools of small fishes.
2. Pemba Island
Lying about 50km north-east of Zanzibar is a largely undeveloped and little-visited Pemba Island.
The island is home to small fishing villages, historic ruins, and miles of wild coastline. There is limited infrastructure and tourism still in its infancy but thanks to its pristine coral reefs, water temperatures and visibility, Pemba ranks among the world’s best sites for scuba diving.
There are plenty of other activities you can do on Pemba Island: water sports are on offer as are trips to mangrove forests, sunset dhow cruises and spa treatments.
A not-to-be-missed inland excursion is a nature walk through Ngezi Forest Reserve, a 1,500 hectare remnant of indigenous forest that once covered the entire island. This is the best place to see the 4 endemic species of birds that Pemba is famous for (Pemba white-eye, sunbird, green pigeon and scops owl) as well as a colony of Pemba flying foxes.
Pemba Island offers the discerning visitors, couples and honeymooners a large dose of privacy, a more laid-back atmosphere to Zanzibar, and it combines well with a mainland Tanzania safari.
2. Chumbe Island
Nature lovers will enjoy a visit to Chumbe, a small uninhabited coral island about 12 kilometers south of Zanzibar Town. The Chumbe coral reef, a protected sanctuary famous for its coral diversity, offers excellent diving and snorkeling opportunities.
On land, you can follow a walking trail circumnavigating the island through pristine forest, rockpools and secret beaches. About 60 bird species have been recorded, including breeding pairs of the rare roseate tern and you might catch a glimpse of the secretive Ader’s duiker.
Even more exciting are the giant nocturnal coconut crabs which crawl out of coral crevices at dusk. These endangered, slightly scary-looking creatures weigh up to 4kg.
You can visit the island on a day-trip, but an overnight stay in the zero-impact, eco-friendly Chumbe Island Lodge is highly recommended.
3. Mafia Island
A classic, off-the-beaten-track tropical island, Mafia Island is part of the Mafia archipelago. The island known as one of East Africa’s premier diving and snorkeling destinations.
An 820km² marine park protects the extensive reefs harbouring about 50 types of coral and 400 species of colorful fish. Turtles are often spotted too. This little-known destination is serviced by a small number of upmarket lodges catering to limited numbers of visitors.
Mafia is the perfect sand and sea destination, away from the crowds of Zanzibar. Visit from late May and mid-October for the best weather; there is rain between April and May and again in November while February and March can be very hot and humid.
4. Changuu Island (Prison Island)
A visit to Changuu Island, also known as Prison Island, is one of the most popular day excursions from Zanzibar. The best way to get here is on a traditional dhow; the trip from Stone Town takes about 30 minutes. The main attraction is a colony of Aldabra giant tortoises, imported from the Seychelles in the 18th century.
Several of these reptiles are over 150 years old and they weigh on average 200kg. A half-day trip also gives you the opportunity to swim in the crystal clear waters, snorkel along the reef with an array of colorful fish and relax on the beach.
Lunch is usually included too. Alternatively, you can book into the luxurious Changuu Private Island Paradise Resort for an overnight stay.
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