Eight Tanzanian Post-Safari Seaside Destinations That Aren’t Zanzibar
By Philip Briggs | Updated August 27, 2021
The phrase ‘Tanzanian beach holiday’ is practically synonymous with Zanzibar. And understandably so. Lapped by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, this idyllic tropical island presents a perfect smorgasbord of sandy swimming beaches and diveable coral reefs, all capped by the cultural delights of the labyrinthine old Stone Town. To some extent, however, Zanzibar’s most popular beach resorts have also become victim to their popularity, growing ever more crowded – and disconnected from their Swahili cultural milieu – with every passing year.
Which isn’t to say that I’d advise against a stay on Zanzibar. Despite the growing tourist numbers, the so-called Spice Island is still a magical place. But those who prefer to avoid the crowds needn’t to look far to find other, more offbeat venues for a post-safari Tanzanian seaside sojourn. Boasting almost 1,000 miles of tropical Indian Ocean frontage, East Africa’s largest country is lined with lovely palm-lined beaches, pristine coral reefs and ancient ruins and towns reflecting more than 1000 years of Swahili culture. Here, running south from the Kenyan border to the distant boundary with Mozambique, is our pick of Tanzania’s other top coastal attractions, most of which remain staunchly off the beaten track.
Tanzania’s second-largest seaport, situated 60km south of the Kenya border, was never much of a tourist hub, and it fell right off the travel map when passenger trains from Moshi and Dar es Salaam were suspended in the 1990s. This is a shame. The old city centre has a distinct sense of place, with its landscaped seafront gardens and grid of roads lined with crumbling relicts of a colonial-era sisal boom. Tanga also forms a great springboard for some excellent excursions: visit brooding mediaeval Swahili ruins at Tongoni, explore natural dripstone sculptures in the limestone Amboni Caves, or look for avian rarities – notably green-headed oriole, Amani sunbird and long-billed tailorbird – in the forests of Amani Nature Reserve.
Pangani and Ushongo
An absorbing coastal backwater set on the mouth of the eponymous river, Pangani is dotted with time-warped Omani- and German-era buildings, most notably an Old Boma, complete with original wooden Zanzibari doors, constructed in 1810. Pangani’s historical aura is amplified by the realisation it quite possibly stands on the site of Rhapta, a maritime trade metropolis described in Ptolemy’s 2nd Century Geography as being 25 days trek downriver from a snow-capped mountain (presumably Kilimanjaro). Even if historical speculation leaves you cold, the port serves as a launch point for boat trips in search of the hippos, crocs and aquatic birds that inhabit the forest-fringed Pangani River. A short drive to the south, Ushongo is a low-key resort village where a clutch of chilled boutique resorts lines one of Tanzania’s most eye-catching swimming beaches.
Saadani National Park
Now slowly recovering after decades of neglect, underrated Saadani – which extends across 425 square miles of coastal bush between Pangani and Bagamoyo – largely lives up to its billing as the East African safari destination where the beach meets the bush. Game viewing is low-key compared to Tanzania’s best reserves, but elephant, lion, buffalo and giraffe are encountered with varying frequency, and it’s probably the best place in Tanzania to see greater kudu, sable antelope and red duiker. Game drives are supplemented by riverboat trips in search of hippos and other aquatic creatures, while guided walks focus on the prolific birdlife. Or you can just relax on a lovely beach that doubles as the only Tanzanian turtle-nesting site north of Dar es Salaam. Serviced by just three small lodges, Saadani feels very uncrowded compared to most better-known reserves or beach destinations.
Mainland Tanzania’s closest approximation to a bona fide resort town, Bagamoyo lies 70km north of Dar es Salaam on an irresistible white beach that arcs southward as far as the eye can see. The old town’s shape is little changed since the 19th century, when it served as the terminus of a slave caravan route to Lake Tanganyika. The Holy Ghost Mission, where David Livingstone’s embalmed body was interred after his death, now houses a museum documenting the port’s ignominious role in the slave trade. The nearby Kaole Ruins are an intriguing relic of Bagamoyo’s mediaeval precursor.
Dar es Salaam
Tanzania’s former capital and busiest port isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Certainly, this city of six million no longer lives up the alluring name (literally ‘Harbor of Peace’) coined by its 19th century founder Sultan Majid. Still, the timeworn city center possesses a strong Swahili identity and offers some worthwhile historic sightseeing, including a Bavarian-style Lutheran Church built in 1898, and the excellent National Museum. Nicknamed ‘Bongo’ by locals, Dar es Salaam also lies on a lovely stretch of coast; nearby Ras Kutani, a luxury resort whose ‘bush chic’ suites fringe a beautiful lagoon, is an ideal springboard for safaris into southern Tanzania.
Separated from the mainland by a sheltered mile-wide channel, island-bound Kilwa Kisiwani was once the most important gold-trading centre on the Swahili Coast. In the 14th century, the globetrotter Ibn Buttata described it as ‘one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world’, and so it remained until 1505 when its decline was triggered by a brutal Portuguese naval assault. What remains, four centuries later, is a compelling inventory of mediaeval Swahili architecture. The exquisite domed Friday mosque stands out, but there are several other mosques and palaces, as well as an old well system that’s still used by the islanders, and a seafront fort dating to the Portuguese occupation. Kilwa was inscribed as Tanzania’s second UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, yet the haunted ruins still remain almost totally neglected by the travel industry. If you’re one of the fortunate few to make it there, do check out Kilwa Kivinje, a surreally time-warped mainland village that seems to sprout organically from the crumbling Omani and German mansions built during its 19th century heyday as the terminus of a slave caravan route to Lake Malawi.
A relatively undeveloped southern counterpart to Zanzibar, Mafia offers the usual hedonistic seaside pleasures to sun-worshippers, but the archipelago is better known for its offshore attractions. These include some of East Africa’s finest snorkelling and diving reefs, while the surrounding waters have acquired legendary status in game fishing circles. Culturally, Mafia lacks for any equivalent to Zanzibar’s Stone Town, but several old Swahili ruins dot the archipelago. Lodges on Mafia tend to be small, exclusive and dive-oriented.
Mikindani is a traditional fishing village separated from the Mozambican border by 30 miles of patchy roads and the modern harbour town of Mtwara. David Livingstone spent two weeks here in 1866, declaring it ‘the finest port on the coast’, prior to embarking on his final ill-fated journey into the interior. The Old Boma, a meticulously-restored 19th-century German administrative building, has been converted to a tourist lodge – one of the most characterful anywhere on the Tanzanian coast – by a charitable trust called Trade Aid. Further afield, diving trips can be arranged to Mnazi Bay-Ruvuma Estuary Marine Park, an intertidal biodiversity hotspot abutting the Mozambican border. Further inland, the Makonde Plateau is the birthplace of Makonde sculpture, East Africa’s most acclaimed school of contemporary art.