When it’s time to rinse off the dust of the plains, there is really no better place to be than the tropical Swahili Coast and Zanzibar island, infused with natural beauty and a heady mix of African, Arabian, Persian and Indian cultural influences.
The shimmering coastline of palm-fringed white beaches and reefs is indented with creeks and mangroves while the warm aquamarine waters are beaded with tropical islands. Baobab, cashew and mango trees and fragments of ancient coastal forest colour the narrow strip between coast and uplands green. When palms and casuarinas frame your view of sand, sea and lateen-rigged dhows, it is time to breathe out and relax, soothed by the balmy onshore breeze.
Number of islands and islets making up the Zanzibar archipelago
28.4°C / 83.1°F
Average sea temperatures off Zanzibar
The length of each day and night here on the equator
With miles of soft white sand and clear turquoise waters, Zanzibar is a tropical idyll where days can be lost to its laid-back island rhythm. But don’t think you are the first to fall for its exotic charms: prevailing trade winds have brought travellers to the exotic Zanzibar Archipelago for a thousand years and more. Step away from the sun-stroked beaches and evidence of its vanished past and melting pot of cultures is clear. It is this rich heritage that sets Zanzibar apart as a fascinating destination.
The archipelago is made up of over 50 palm-fringed islands and islets, some hardly more than white sandbars or coral reefs. The four main islands – Unguja (also known as Zanzibar), Pemba and Mafia Island – are inhabited, while uninhabited Latham Island is an important breeding ground for birds. The archipelago protrudes from the Indian Ocean: underwater, world-famous coral reefs teem with marine life. The warm water is usually so clear that visibility is often 30 metres or more – no wonder that Zanzibar’s islands are a mecca for snorkellers and divers.
Whether you are looking for beachside bling or just the simple serenity of a hammock strung beneath the coconut palms, there are plenty of options. Accommodation offerings on the islands range from basic backpacker to simple, secluded elegance to knock-your-socks-off ritzy resorts. Whichever category you fit into, when you float weightlessly in warm tropical waters – swimming among bright, darting reef fish or being inspected by curious dolphin – you experience a profound peace that is the real reason a tropical beach holiday is one of life’s necessities.
From Mombasa south, a string of resorts offers a range of holiday options for couples and families, the well heeled and the budget traveller. Visitors take their pick of pastimes – cultural visits to community villages, slavers’ caves and Swahili ruins, kitesurfing and underwater safaris, leisurely beach walks and meditation.
Your safari does not end where land meets sea – the Kenyan and Tanzanian marine parks and reserves protect a rich diversity of aquatic life, from corals and tropical fishes to turtles and the mighty-yet-mild whale shark.
Diani Beach, regularly nominated one of the world’s best beaches, is the most famous of the coastal resorts scattered between Mombasa and the Tanzanian border. However Tiwi (just a creek away), Chale Island, Msambweni and Funzi Island, too, offer a range of accommodation options, from self-catering chalet to luxury villa, family-friendly resort to exclusive lodge. There is plenty to rock your boat, be it diving, kitesurfing or skydiving onto Diani Beach – to be met with a glass of your favourite cocktail – or visiting Diani’s Colobus Trust primate sanctuary and Kaya Kinondo, the only kaya or sacred forest of the Mijikenda people to be open to visitors. A day trip from Shimoni to Wasini Island loops through the Kisite Mpunguti Marine Park and Reserve, passing dolphins, pausing for a spot of diving and stopping for a crab feast on the island.
The monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean have shaped the history and culture of this sparkling coastline, carrying traders and seafarers from Arabia, Persia, India and even China to and from Africa on their seasonal routes.
Swahili language and culture blend African and Eastern influences in a fusion that is both exotic and easy on the senses. The Kilwa Sultanate that once ruled the coast from Kenya to Mozambique fragmented into several city-states that flourished with the trade winds. The breezes of the fabled island of Zanzibar still carry the heady scents of spices, while Swahili culture infuses Stone Town’s winding alleys with taarab music, magnificent carved doors and hospitable people. Echoes of a sadder history linger in the ruins and caves once used by slavers all down the coast.