Zanzibar — the very name brings to mind salty sea breezes that carry the taste of exotic spices. Floating in electric blue waters off the east coast of Tanzania, this island has become synonymous with divine honeymoon hideaways. So wide is the appeal of this beach paradise that few people ever pause to consider that there might be more to Tanzanian beach life. But for those in the know, the southeast coast of the country has everything that Zanzibar has, minus the tourists.
When it comes to blissful hammock-lounging beaches, the mainland can teach the spice island a thing or two. Pretty much every coastal town and hamlet fronts tropical turquoise waters and crystal-white sands, and in between are hundreds of other beaches known only to the odd passing fishermen. The resort of Ras Kutani, just a short, easy hop from Dar es Salaam, has that ideal combination of a dreamy Indian Ocean vibe, luxury accommodations and utter tranquillity.
If the crowds of Zanzibar are too much for you, head 160km south to Mafia Island – it is a fraction of the size and has a fraction of the tourists. This luminous green wedge of baobab trees and mangrove forests — interspersed with slips of pure white sand, sparkling offshore sand islets and a smattering of old ruins — has a go-slow vibe that will seep under your skin.
The history of the Swahili people is seen up and down the East African coast in the slowly decomposing ruins of ancient Swahili towns and mosques, the dank prisons used to store slaves and in the mildewed colonial relics. Southeast Tanazania’s best-preserved example of a Swahili city state is Kilwa Kisiwani, but for something that combines all the essentials of the Swahili experience look no further than laid back Mikindani near the Mozambique border. Here you will find reminders of the city’s slave trading past, leftovers from the European colonial experience, and traditional Swahili houses by the dozen, as well as a beautiful beach, fish suppers under the setting sun, a small port packed with dhows, dancing palm trees, offshore coral reefs and a surfeit of happy, smiling locals.
People come to East Africa to see the Big Five. But how about turtles lumbering up moonlit beaches? Rainbow clouds of tropical fish? Or teeth-gnashing sharks and flocks of gaudy birds? With world-class diving, a fantastic roll call of birds and a couple of marine national parks (Mnazi Bay-Ruvula Estuary Marine Park and Mafia Island Marine Park), coastal Tanzania is no slouch in the wildlife department. However, if nothing but a lion or elephant will do, then venture a few hours inland to the Selous Game Reserve. This is one of the largest protected areas in Africa at 48,000sqkm, or 5% of the country, and its vast acacia-speckled savannas are the very definition of East African wilderness. Despite only the northern tip of the reserve being open to tourism, safari bus congestion is low enough to make you sometimes feel as if you are the only human in a world dominated by mega fauna. Well, that is until you retire at the end of the day to one of the reserves luxury tented lodges for a sunset gin and tonic.