Portuguese invasion and control of the Swahili Coast in the late 16th century ended the golden age of the archipelago, although the Omani Arabs returned to power less than a century later. Today, many of the winding streets and high townhouses of old Stone Town remain unchanged and visitors can walk between the sultan’s palace, the House of Wonders, the Portuguese fort and gardens, the merchants’ houses, and the Turkish baths of the old city. Day-long spice tours to working plantations offer visitors the chance to observe the cultivation of cloves, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, and other spices that have made the island famous.
Zanzibar’s coastline offers some of the best beaches in the world, but sand and surf vary depending on what side of the island you’re on. On the east coast, waves break over coral reefs and sand bars offshore, and low tide reveals small pools of starfish, small minnows, and anemones. Up north, ocean swimming is much less susceptible to the tides, and smooth beaches and white sand make for dazzling days in the sun.
The port city of Stone Town dominates the west coast, and although the beaches of Mangapwani, where slave caves are visible at low tide and nearby Bububu are less than half an hour’s drive away, a night or two spent on the east or north cost is well worth the extra hour it takes to drive there. That said, the Chole Island Marine Park just off Stone Town – and nearby Prison, Grave, and Snake Islands – make a refreshing day-trip and a good break from exploring the winding passageways of the old city.
On the south coast of Zanzibar lies the Menai Bay Conservation Area, a sea turtle protection area for the endangered species that come to breed on the island. Roads to the southeast coast take visitors through the Jozani Forest, home to Zanzibar’s rare Red Colobus monkeys and a number of other primate and small antelope species
Traditionally part of the Zanzibar Archipelago, Pemba is fast becoming a unique destination in its own right. For centuries, Pemba’s clove plantations and spice fields provided the Omani sultanate in Zanzibar with money for trade and military dominance over the surrounding areas.
To this day, the island is still a major spice producer in the archipelago. Visitors flock to Pemba’s shores, dotted with desert islands and throngs of coconut palms, for some of the best diving in the Indian Ocean. The Pemba Channel drops off steeply just off the west coast and the diverse species of marine life and coral are truly exceptional. Because tourism is still in its early stages, a trip to Pemba’s unspoiled shores and pristine waters is the underwater adventure of a lifetime.
Mafia Island is a popular destination for visitors to relax after their safari and the island’s relaxed and secluded beaches offer privacy and comfort for discerning travellers. Mafia’s incredible and unspoilt dive sites have remained a well-kept secret of diving aficionados and beach recluses for years, but now the island is fast becoming a preferred destination.
For centuries, the island was a trading stop for Shirazi merchants travelling up towards Persia and under the rule of the Omani sultanate in Zanzibar, vast coconut and cashew plantations flourished. Today, all that remain of the island’s prestigious past are the coral ruins on Chole Mjini, the small island just off Hore from Mafia where the Arab landowners lived a sumptuous life removed from their plantations and slaves.
These days, Mafia’s remote location means it receives only the most selective visitors, but things are changing. The recent gazetting of Mafia Island Marine Park – the largest protected area in the Indian Ocean – to include surrounding villages in its conservation efforts means that the millions of fish and coral species that thrive in the warm waters of Mafia’s beaches will survive for decades to come.