Pick a beach, any beach ya want… Part 1

Categories Travel

We had major rainstorms in Dar es Salaam yesterday and it evidently knocked out the power early in the morning.  Air conditioners don’t run off the generators, so got quite steamy in my apartment!  It was only about 80 degrees, but you need the AC to keep it dry enough for comfort. One more factor of rainy season, along with roads that seem to disintegrate from normal potholes to car-sized chasms from one day to the next!  The rains started in late March, but have been more serious and more frequent though April, and will continue through May before clearing into the cooler, drier lovely summer, which I will not get to enjoy, since I’m headed home to DC at the end of this week.

My skin apparently hates rainy season, as I find my face oilier and more breakout-prone than I’ve ever been in my 38 years, and I’m a super frizzball (not a new phenomenon). But rather than dwell on the downsides, I’m going to give you a review of the beach hotels (and the beaches themselves!) I’ve visited in Zanzibar and Mafia! A friend recently asked me if I always vacation this much.  The answer is definitely a resounding “No!”  I’ve never vacationed this much in my life, but with this much tropical paradise so close to hand, and comparatively affordable, I’d be crazy not to soak it up!


Getting There: To get to Zanzibar from the mainland, you can either take the ferry from downtown Dar (~2 hours), or fly from the airport (20 minutes). Coastal Airlines and Auric Air use the 12-seater planes and fly from the domestic terminal. I prefer these, because there’s less hassle, and it’s more like a big flying taxi than your usual flight. Precision Air uses a larger plane, and stops in Zanzibar on its way to Nairobi, so it flies from the international terminal.  I usually flew, just from familiarity, but don’t think assume it’s faster! On a Friday at mid-day, it easily takes an hour to get to the airport from the peninsula, plus your time sitting at the airport. Getting to the ferry terminal only takes 20-30 minutes, but the travel time is longer, so your total time in transit is basically a wash.  The ferry IS cheaper – $80-100 roundtrip where the flight will be $130-160.

On island transport in Zanzibar is a captive market for tourists. Arranging through the hotel will run a minimum of $50, and trips to the popular beach regions are about an hour. The most expensive I was quoted was $70 for  the 1 hour and 15 minute trip to Michamvi, but I got them to knock it back to $60. If you’re feeling really savvy and really cheap, you could figure out which local dala dala to take for just a couple dollars, but 99% of tourists won’t do that, myself included.

Things to Know:

  • Hotel options are available from $50 all the way up to $1,000 per night and everything in between.  Know your price range, do some research about the different parts of the island, read TripAdvisor reviews, and double check whether the cited price is per person or per room, and whether any meals are included.
  • Local culture – As I’ve written previously, Zanzibar is a fairly conservative islamic local culture. You will not see many women with hair uncovered or arms and legs visible.  Be respectful and dress somewhat more conservatively if you go into towns and villages.
  • Tides, beaches and swimming – Most of Zanzibar is subject to dramatic tides. The pictures you will see on hotel websites are universally high tide pictures. At low tide you may be able to walk out a kilometer or more from shore in ankle deep water (wear reef shoes!), and coral and seagrass are exposed, making for an interesting, but not always very attractive landscape.  If you want to be able to swim all day, be sure to choose a hotel with a pool. You can find a good summary of the phenomenon and different beach conditions around the island here
  • Eating – It depends on where you choose to stay, but in most cases you will be eating exclusively at your hotel, or at another resort nearby if they are large enough to accommodate outsiders.
  • Toiletries – If you use conditioner, always pack your own just in case. I assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, that shampoo, conditioner and soap were all standard hotel offers. I learned this lesson on safari, and had it reinforced other places. In 6 months and several hotels in Tanzania and South Africa, just a few hotels had it. Conditioner is not guaranteed, and my head is NOT happy for any length of time without a nice, thick, quality conditioner. Can we say knots, tangles, and frizz??
  • Clothes –  Don’t overpack! Bring just enough that you have a (mostly) dry bathing suit and coverup each day, and something to wear at dinner time.
  • Bug repellent – bring it! You may not need it if the coastal breezes are strong enough, but if you don’t have it, you’ll want it. The mosquitos don’t leave terribly itchy bites, but they turn into hard little red bumps that last a week or more.

Pongwe Beach Hotel 

This was my first sojourn, at Christmas time. Pongwe village is about halfway down the east coast, in a small private beach cove.  It’s a bit generous to call the lane from the remain drag to the hotel a road, as it is rocky with coral, quite bumpy, and meanders around larger outcroppings.  Pongwe Beach Hotel has 20 rooms in a series of bungalows spread out down the beach. Reception is pretty basic, but friendly, and then you walk down the hall into the cavernous, thatch-roofed main bar and restaurant area.  The airiness and shade are key in the heat! Go straight through and down a few steps and you’re on the beach! The staff will schlep your bag(s) to your bungalow, which is key, since you’re probably struggling a bit to wade through the deep white sand if you have any kind of real shoe on.  (Pro tip: don’t wear real shoes. Flip flops and bare feet will suffice quite nicely at the hotel).   

Accommodation: Each bungalow has shaded porch loungers, a mosquito net-canopied queen bed, and lovely terrazzo style floors.  Coffee or tea is delivered to your porch early in the morning. Not fancy, but cute and well-suited to the climate. 

Sadly, there is no AC on the property.  My room had something called a “Night Breeze,”   a contraption that sucks room temperature air in under the bed, cools it, and then lets it fall over the bed. Apparently they are far more energy efficient than AC, but I’d never heard of it. It  definitely lowered the temperature inside the mosquito netting relative to the rest of the room, and made sleeping reasonably comfortable.

Food:  Very good! A mix of western and African options. Breakfast buffet, lunch a la carte, choice of dinner entrees registered with staff during the day (some nights buffet).   A small snack menu and the bar are available all day.

Beach/Activities: You’re in a small cove with a private white sand beach and Maasai guards at either end; I encountered zero touts or outsiders, which made my solo Christmas lounging quite pleasant.  Sea kayaks were available for use, and you could make arrangements to go sailing, snorkeling or diving from a nearby property. An infinity pool and a deck with a mix of shade, sun and loungers perches at one end of the beach and provides a lovely respite and place for a cool dip when the tide is out. 

Cost/Value:  $253/night with breakfast at Christmas, $190-220/night other times.  You have also have the option to book at half board or full board.  Considering the absence of AC and the relative simplicity of accommodations, I found the price a bit high.  That said, the location and beach quality can’t be beat and the service and staff were personable and attentive, calling guests by name.  I was traveling alone, but splitting the price between two people would make it more reasonable.  For the sake of exploration, I elected to visit other parts of the island on my subsequent two trips, but I would go back without hesitation.  

Check-out time of 10:00am (eek!) was strictly observed due to continuing full occupancy, but Pongwe does have a shower and changing room available to guests who would like to continue enjoying the pool and beach before catching taxi back across the island for to the airport.  I took advantage.

Matemwe Lodge  

The second time to the island, I came with friends after a hot, dusty safari. Matemwe village is pretty far north on the east coast of the island is one of several jumping off points for snorkeling and diving companies that aren’t associated with particular hotel properties.  We were glad we arranged transport with the hotel instead of just picking a taxi in Stone Town because we would never have found the place.  We got to Matemwe village easily enough, but then turned left and kept going and going up the coast, winding through villages on little more than a sand track. Lodge after guest house after lodge and glimpses of turquoise water, but we eventually found Matemwe Lodge. The property sits atop short coral cliffs looking out over a lagoon inside a reef wall that was passable only at high tide.  The resort property is a long and skinny piece of coastline, with the restaurant, pool and bar all at one end of the property and the bungalows strung out along the coast. Depending on the luck of your booking, you may find yourself walking back and forth a great deal!

We stayed in mid-February, and it was pretty damned hot at 90-100 degrees, blazing sun, and humid. Access to shade and cold drinks are critical!

Accommodation:  Spacious bungalow with a loft. Very cute. Comfortably sleeps four adults with two queen beds, but the open shower and sink set-up with a large mirror in the bathroom don’t allow for much privacy.  Go with good friends and/or make agreements about whose husband has to stay out on the patio during shower time!  The toilet, thankfully, had its own room with a door.  Ceiling fan, but no AC.  I had the loft bed, and I stifled, sweated, and slept poorly the whole time.  A separate (rickety) standing fan was provided up there, but mosquito netting is surprisingly good at blocking out air as well as bugs.  


Food:  Pretty good.  Breakfast a la cart, and lunch and dinner were a choice from three options for starter, main and dessert. When the number of guests increased past a certain point, they switched over to buffet style lunch and dinner, which provided more variety and seemed to be a bit higher quality. The Swahili buffet on our last night was definitely the best meal.  A big plus was that the daily house cocktail, beer, wine, rail liquors and soft drinks were part of the all-inclusive price.  It’s quite pleasant to sip on ginger beer and rum all afternoon, if I may say so.

Beach/Activities:  Access to a public beach is at one end of the property with a few loungers and the water sports bungalow. The sand was an incredible sugar/floury soft texture, but the beach not super attractive, particularly at low tide.  It wasn’t very good for swimming, either, thanks to a combination of seaweed, coral and sea urchins underfoot, and the number of boats moored.  We spent more time by the pool, but did take advantage of excursions – going snorkeling one day and sailing in a local outrigger sailboat called a ngalawa the next day.  The color of the water was exquisite, varying from deep blue beyond the reef, to turquoise to a vibrant translucent green and aqua.  This property offered great people watching, as the locals walked through gathering sea urchins, crabs and fish at low tide and came in and out on boats at other times.

Cost/Value: ~$450/night in February, all-inclusive (food and most booze).  The rate advertised on the website was higher, but we got a bit of a discount booking through Hotels.com.  For three adults sharing, it hit about $175 per person per night, including taxes and fees.  A splurge made affordable by sharing among three.  It seemed like there were options to NOT do all-inclusive, but we didn’t look into it. Since alcohol was included in the price, we probably drank a bit more than we otherwise might have. We saw a few single travelers while we were there, but for me, the price was definitely too high warrant a solo return visit.

Next up: Michamvi Sunset Bay Resort and Mafia Island Lodge!

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