An exotic paradise off the Tanzanian coast, Zanzibar beckons with its coral beaches, fragrant spices and azure waters. Most people think of Zanzibar as an island but, officially, it's an archipelago that's dominated by two main islands – Unguja and Pemba. Also off the Tanzanian coast is lesser-known Mafia – a castaway island with incredible scuba diving.
"Unguja" is the island we commonly refer to as "Zanzibar Island" or "Zanzibar". I visited Unguja back in 2001 and have been longing to go back ever since. Pemba sits to the north of Unguja, while Mafia is further south. Accessible by plane or boat, each island would be make an incredible holiday destination in its own right, or an add-on to an East African safari. Alternatively, you could combine two or three and go island-hopping along the Tanzanian coast.
To help you decide which to visit, here's a short guide to all three.
Zanzibar Island or Unguja
The most popular tourist island with the best beaches, plus fascinating history and lots to keep you entertained.
What to expect in Unguja
The largest of the three, Zanzibar Island is Tanzania's best-known and most developed beach escape. With a thriving tourist industry, it's well set-up for a full range of visitors, from backpackers and young families, to honeymooners and luxury travellers.
The beaches are dazzling, the water is crystal clear and there's so much to do here, from spas and beach parties, to kitesurfing and spice tours. The food is fantastic too – think fresh seafood, skewered meats, spiced rice and curries, all richly seasoned with Indian, Arabian and African flavours.
Historic Stone Town gives a fascinating insight to the region's past, and you can discover more about local life through cultural trips and tours. In some parts of the island, however, a boom in tourism has diluted the traditional way of life, which is more authentic in Pemba and Mafia.
What to do and see
The island's beaches are its biggest draw. Sparkling white sands are protected by a barrier reef on the east coast, with Matemwe, Paje, Dongwe and Kiwengwa beaches among the best spots. Nungwi beach in the north is another favourite, as is Kendwa in the west.
If lying on the beach all day isn't your thing, there's everything from surfing and kitesurfing, to jet-skiing and parasailing to get involved in. The snorkelling and scuba diving are world class, with safe spots for beginners, technical diving for the more advanced, plus lots of dives schools and guides to go around. Mnemba Island off the northeast coast has some of the island's best dive sites.
Back on land, Jozani Forest Reserve is the place to see monkeys, bushbabies, butterflies and around 40 species of birds.
Another big highlight is Stone Town – a famous historic quarter within Zanzibar Town (the capital), this UNESCO World Heritage Site has cobbled alleyways, Arabian palaces and huge carved doors. I based myself here when I visited and loved stepping out into the labyrinth of atmospheric alleyways each morning. East of Stone Town are the shops, slums and apartment blocks of modern Zanzibar Town.
Zanzibar Island is the best place to learn about the region's history as a slave and trading port. It was ruled by Portugal between 1503 and 1698, by the Omani Sultanate until 1890, and by the British until 1963. As you walk through Stone Town, you'll find evidence of each era in the colonial buildings, Arabian fortresses, former slave market and the Palace of Wonders. To delve deeper, tick off other important landmarks, like the Arab Fort, Persian Baths and Prison Island.
Bazaars like Darajani Market are a good place to experience everyday life, while cultural trips and spice tours reveal more about island life beyond tourism. Fishing, seaweed farming and spice exports are all still important to the island, and places like the Paje Seaweed Center give a fascinating insight.
In contrast to Mafia and Pemba, there's lots going on after dark on Zanzibar Island. At party beaches like Nungwi, Jambiani and Paje, sundown cocktails often lead to dancing and drinking at beach clubs, while Kendwa beach is famous for its full moon parties, and Stone Town has live music, lounge bars and late-night clubs.
Sleeping and eating
Zanzibar Island has a much bigger choice of accommodation and restaurants than Pemba and Mafia. You could spend a night or two in a historic Stone Town hotel, then head to a barefoot luxury lodge, a family-friendly beach club, or a decadent spa retreat.
Food is another forte – authentic biryani, octopus curry and Zanzibar pizza are just some of the dishes to look forward to at the island's night markets, rooftop restaurants and beach bars. The local "urojo" curry soup was my personal favourite when I visited.
Getting here: Ferries and flights depart daily from Dar es Salaam. You can also fly here from Nairobi, Kenya, and the Serengeti.
A beautiful island with traditional culture and world-class scuba diving, minus the tourist crowds and beach bars of Zanzibar.
What to expect in Pemba
Green, hilly and laidback, pretty Pemba is similar in size to Zanzibar Island but is far less developed in terms of tourism – this fertile island relies more on the export of cloves and other spices.
Surrounded by a coral reef, Pemba's scuba diving and snorkelling are the main reason to visit – the dive sites are incredible, so expect bottlenose dolphins, hammerhead sharks, and everything in-between.
Accommodation is simpler and less varied than Zanzibar Island but there's more choice than on Mafia, including some incredible one-off options like the underwater room at Manta Resort.
What to do and see
As with Mafia Island, scuba-diving is the main draw on Pemba. The entire west coast is a protected area known as the Pemba Channel Conservation Area (PCCA) and is blessed with big visitors like whale sharks, hammerheads and manta rays. Strong currents mean it's best for experienced divers, while beginners can head to less challenging locations.
Pemba's terrestrial wildlife is fascinating too. The indigenous Ngezi Forest Reserve has a rainforest feel, with vervet monkeys and Pemba flying foxes – to see more of these big bats, visit Kidike Sanctuary where 4,000 or so hang in the trees.
Although Pemba has some lovely beaches, they aren't a patch on Zanzibar's. Wimbe beach, Vumawimbi beach and the strip at Manta Resort are some of the best, but the most idyllic are found on off-shore islands like Misali and Shamiani. For an amazing view across the Indian Ocean to these islands, head to Ras Kigomasha Lighthouse.
Traditional culture runs strong in Pemba. You'll notice it in everything from the colourful kangas worn by local women, to their mud houses, ox-drawn carts, and the aromatic fragrance of spices. The main town of Chake Chake is home to around 70% of Pemba's population. Its historic port, colonial-era old town and traditional coral houses in the Muslim Quarter are worth visiting.
Far less dependant on tourism than Zanzibar Island, Pemba's main industries include fishing and clove exports. Tumbe Fish Market is the place to see fishermen selling the day's catch, and you can learn about the clove trade with a spice tour or a trip to the ZSTC Clove Buying Centre and the ZSTC Clove Oil Distillery.
You can learn about the island's history at several sites. Pemba Museum, built inside an 18th-century fort, is a good place to start before moving on to Mkame Ndume ruined palace, the home of former ruler Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman, and the Ras Mkumbuu Ruins, an 8th-century settlement that was once one of the most important cities on the East African coast.
Sleeping and eating
Pemba has a selection of lodges, hotels and B&Bs. Luxurious retreats have opened-up in recent years, including the rooms at Fundu Lagoon, the villas at Constance Aiyana and the underwater room at Manta Resort. Most accommodation includes full-board dining, or Pemba also has simple "eating houses" and a few restaurants serving curries and fresh fish.
Getting there: Flights to and from Dar es Salam take just over an hour, or it takes thirty minutes to fly to and from Zanzibar Island. The ferry from Zanzibar Island takes around seven hours.
Off-the-beaten track, with pristine nature, traditional villages, incredible scuba-diving and complete seclusion.
What to expect in Mafia
Serene, lush and unspoilt, the Mafia Archipelago consists of Mafia island and its surrounding atolls, sandbars and islets. Much of Mafia is a designated marine park, which makes it the best option for scuba diving and snorkelling.
Less developed than Zanzibar Island and Pemba, Mafia has no tarmacked roads, no ATMs and few tourist facilities – most are located within the island's alluring tourist lodges. The best way to travel about is by jeep, bike, foot or public "dhow" or local boats.
If scuba-diving and sheer seclusion are top of your list, then Mafia is for you. Party-goers will be disappointed with the lack of nightlife, while fans of barefoot suppers, night-dives and stargazing are in for a treat.
What to do and see
With some of the world's richest reefs, scuba-diving and snorkelling are the top attractions. The marine park boasts a mind-blowing array of aquatic life that includes dugongs, sea turtles, whale sharks (October to March) and humpback whales (August). There's diving for all abilities, from sheltered bays and shallow spots, to challenging walls and muck diving.
The small white beaches that dot the coastline are interspersed with mangroves and coastal forests. While it doesn't have the wide expanses of Zanzibar, Mafia's small beaches and bays are unblemished and more secluded, with no hawkers or tourist hoards. For the best beaches, it's worth hopping over to smaller off-shore islands, like Bwejuu.
Pristine wildlife is another feature of the Mafia archipelago, with its endemic butterflies and more than 120 bird species. Hippos inhabit the main island's reed-fringed lakes, and monkeys swing through lush forests like Chunguruma and Mlola – for an amazing view over Mlola Forest, head to Ras Mkumbi Lighthouse.
Mafia also gives you a rare taste of rural island life. Its 24 villages are home to traditional craftsmen and fisherman, and the small capital city of Kilindoni has a bustling local market, while neighbouring Jimbondo island is famous for its boat-builders, octopus fishermen and seaweed farmers.
Sleeping and eating
Accommodation options include a handful of boutique hotels, luxury tented camps and low-cost B&Bs. Most have on-site restaurants and are concentrated around Chole Bay – Mafia's original harbour and most popular dive spot.
Getting here: Flights operate daily from Dar es Salam (45 minutes) and Zanzibar Island (60 minutes). You can also fly here directly from Arusha in Kenya, as well as Selous Game Reserve and the Serengeti, making it perfect as a safari add-on.