Often referred to as the “Spice Islands”, the archipelago of Zanzibar is made up of a necklace of islands that bead their way down the shore of East Africa, off the coast of Tanzania.
There’s the main island, which has a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its capital, sister island Pemba, with its extensive clove plantations and the neighboring Mafia Archipelago, known for its majestic coral reefs and whale sharks.
Others offer luxury retreats, diving adventures and secret sea life.
Here are six of the best islands in and around the Zanzibar Archipelago.
The largest island in an archipelago of dozens, Zanzibar is actually named Unguja but referred to as Zanzibar colloquially.
Located 35 kilometers from Tanzania’s mainland, it’s 85 kilometers at its greatest length and 39 kilometers wide.
Several islands hug its shores tightly including Chumbe and Mnemba, and while it’s laced with many beautiful salt-white beaches, Nungwi, Matemwe, Jambiani and Bwejuu are considered the loveliest.
The island holds dozens of hotels that cater to every penchant and pocket.
In Matemwe, there’s the Asilia Africa-owned Matemwe Retreat, on Nungwi, right on the northern tip of the island Flame Trees Cottages may suit yoga bunnies with less deep pockets whilst the stunning Essque Zalu Zanzibar offers the ultimate in tropic island exotic luxury.
There’s also the high end Park Hyatt Zanzibar, which serves the best breakfast in town, the atmospheric Emerson Spice and the cheap and cheerful Stone Town Cafe, an excellent B&B.
The exotic extends in the island’s ancient and prodigious spice trade – lush little farms flourish here, while vanilla and pepper vines clamber into clove and cinnamon trees.
No trip to Zanzibar would be complete without a visit to its capital Stone Town, a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The island’s flamboyant capital is imbued with cultural piquancy and chock full of glorious old buildings, testament to its colorful history. The House of Wonders, or Beit-al-Ajaib, stands majestic on the waterfront, its impressive facade standing sentinel over the shore.
Meanwhile the Slave Market is a harrowing reminder of the horrors of human trafficking while The Old Customs House, built in 1865, serves as a memento from the island’s time as a busy trading post.
As for eateries, The Taperia is a cool verandah tapas bar above the old Post Office, The Tea House at Emerson Spice is a glorious rooftop restaurant with views at minaret height across Stone Town towards the sea. Indulge in the specialty dégustation menu, and last but by no means least, dinner at The Secret Garden, tucked into a courtyard of an old Omani palace, is about as special as it gets.
While Zanzibar’s famous clove industry is commonly associated with the main island, Pemba produces the lion’s share of cloves in the region today.
Nicknamed the “The Green Island” as it’s hillier and more fertile than its sister island, Pemba is a 40-minute flight by light aircraft from Dar es Salaam. It’s 48 kilometers north of Zanzibar and smaller in size.
It’s also much quieter, with far fewer tourists and only a handful of hotels.
Manta Resort, based right at the northern most point of the island, boasts a unique underwater room that floats offshore, with its own rooftop deck and lounge at sea level.
Its showpiece is a glass-walled bedroom submerged four meters beneath the surface of the sea and complimented by the marine protection area the hotel has created around it.
And this is part of what makes Pemba a truly tropical paradise – its astonishing underwater seascapes and prolific, brilliantly colored marine life and as such, it offers some fabulous diving.
Misali, a marine conservation area just eight kilometers off Pemba’s west coast, provides some of the best diving in East Africa, as well as a turtle nesting sanctuary.
The Zanzibar Ocean Panorama Hotel in Mkoani in the southern reaches of the island will arrange tours.
Meanwhile the Kidike Sanctuary houses a spectacular colony that holds some 4,000 of island’s flying foxes, a large bat indigenous to the island.
The population of the sanctuary is allowed to thrive peacefully as a local burial site nearby keeps human traffic down.
Taking its name from the Arabic word “morfiyeh,” which means “group of islands,” Mafia is the third biggest of the isles that dot the Tanzanian coast.
Although many assume it’s part of the Zanzibar archipelago, Mafia is governed from the mainland and forms part of another small cluster of islands and atolls in the region.
It lies to the south of Zanzibar and was once an important stop over for the trading vessels – from Egypt, Rome, Portugal and Greece – that plied these waters centuries ago.
Like Pemba, Mafia is far less busy than Zanzibar and has some of the best diving in the world.