Zanzibar: paradise found?

by Michael.Scott

Zanzibar is way up on the list when it comes to thinking of dream destinations - even just the name is magical. But does the reality of this legendary tropical paradise live up to expectations?

Zanzibar. The name itself had always conjured up images of the exotic in my imagination, having once been a centre for spice, ivory and more infamously slave trade, so with a few weeks at my disposal I wasted no time in taking a short diving holiday there with a couple of friends.
Type the name of this little East African island into any internet search engine and its appeal is obvious - countless images of picture-postcard palm-fringed beaches, vibrant turquoise waters and deeply coloured sunsets. A real paradise. But I had come across these tropical clichés many times in the past, often to be disappointed. How would Zanzibar shape up?
At Nungwi, our base for a few days on the northernmost tip of the island, Maasai in full traditional shuka paraded the beaches, happy to engage in a bit of frisbee or dancing in the bars late at night. Amaan Bungalows was the ideal spot from which to enjoy the surrounding area – friendly, affordable and located right in the heart of the action looking out across the warm Indian Ocean. There were a number of bars and restaurants on the beach where we could relax and watch the sun go down – Cinnamon was a particularly chic little spot in comparison to most, serving great food and a satisfyingly long list of cocktails.
Sensation Divers, the on-site dive centre, was very professionally run, with the boat picking us up every morning virtually from our doorstep to some excellent dive sites. Although we missed out on some of the larger pelagics, we were more than compensated by large schools of many varied and colourful fish as well as vast forests of pristine coral. There was plenty for those not so scuba-minded as well: sunset cruises, a wide range of beach sports or a day’s sizzling in the sun to name but a few. Deep-sea fishing was also an option, with outfits such as Fishing Zanzibar offering day trips into the ocean in search of big game.
Nungwi was perfect for people like us looking for more than just a hammock and a piña colada. Our days were filled with some fantastic dives, and come the evening there was an irresistible blend of fresh seafood, warm local hospitality and a few lively waterside nightspots for those with a little excess energy. Cholo’s bar, right next to Amaan Bungalows, is famous in the local area for being the place to go out. Certainly the beach parties it served up on a regular basis, with its mixture of tourists, locals and high-flying acrobats, were a highlight for us.
But Nungwi was still quite well developed, albeit not in a bad way. The indication from the few construction sites that we could spy a bit further down the coast was that this development was likely to continue, however. Was this a case of paradise lost? Did the Zanzibar of my imagination, that sandy sliver of true escapism, actually exist?
Mnemba Island
Absolutely. It is called Mnemba Island, a small atoll lying off Zanzibar’s eastern coast, a place described by Condé Nast as one of the top three most romantic beach getaways in the world. My only regret was that I was travelling with two other men! A short trip in a local fisherman’s dhow (a traditional wooden sailing boat) brought us to this exquisite hideaway, isolated amidst the purest aquamarine water of the Indian Ocean, which we discovered, while diving, contained an abundance of tropical flora and fauna.
A stay in the exclusive lodge tucked away among Mnemba’s dense vegetation is unsurprisingly pricey but worth every penny. It is tastefully understated – you can barely see that there is a lodge at all when you approach the atoll from the sea – but there is a faultless attention to detail that will ensure a state of utter relaxation and comfort. Just a few hours spent drifting and diving around this pristine white spit of sand was enough to spectacularly bring the paradise of my imagination to life.
I am sure that there are many more gems like Mnemba lodge for travellers to experience in future, particularly further south along its eastern coast. A couple of nights spent in Pongwe, for example, were in stark contrast to Nungwi – we stayed in simple yet comfortable wooden huts set back amidst the palm trees at the very hospitable Santa Maria Coral Park. With only a handful of huts along the entire bay, I often found myself the only person walking across a wide expanse of white sand. Nightly beach bonfires there under a canopy of stars were in all honesty some of the most peaceful moments I have ever experienced.
Zanzibar is as picturesque a location as I have ever visited, despite the development that is rippling outwards from Nungwi. It is certainly not a case of paradise lost; right now there is something to suit all tastes. But I sincerely hope that places like Pongwe and Mnemba, as well as the many other idyllic spots that I certainly missed, are kept as pristine as they now are.