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The undiscovered islands of the Indian Ocean

All you need to know about Mafia and Pemba island

If you’re looking for an African island escape or planning to tag a little beach time onto your safari, then the Indian Ocean is probably calling to you. But where to go? Of course you’ve heard of Mauritius and the Seychelles (and both are stunning), but what about somewhere a little off the beaten track, more specifically Mafia island and Pemba island? These two beautiful isles are just off the coast of Tanzania and are exactly what you picture when you imagine a Robinson Crusoe-style escape: swaying palm fronds, white sandy beaches and gin clear waters – heaven on earth. As they’re both so beautiful it can be tricky to pick which is right for you. Roll up our handy guide that might help you make a decision…

Undiscovered Indian Ocean - fundu lagoon
Take a trip out to sea to meet Pemba’s inquisitive pods of dolphins. Credit: Fundu Lagoon

What to do?

You might think that because Mafia island and Pemba island are so small, they offer nothing more than lazy beach days… But whilst you can certainly get your fill of those here, these havens are more than just somewhere to top up your tan. Both Mafia and Pemba are world renowned dive spots and divers come here from far and wide in search of pristine reefs, crystal-clear waters and an abundance of incredible sea life.

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Explore the vibrant corals surrounding Pemba on a snorkelling safari. Credit: Manta Resort

Pemba is probably the most famous of the two when it comes to diving. The west coast is known for its steep drop offs and coral reefs, making it a veritable playground to spot tropical schools of fish. As well as observing Nemo and his friends, you can expect to dive alongside napoleon wrasse, barracuda, reef sharks, spotted eagle rays and always spectacular pods of dolphin.

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Swim alongside whalesharks, Mafia Island’s majestic beasts of the sea

Mafia is also famous for out-of-this-world diving and the sheltered bays and challenging dive walls are home to similar marine life to Pemba. There is one special thing, however, that might just help Mafia pip its neighbouring island to the post: between October and March each year, visitors are able to snorkel with one of the most beautiful creatures in the ocean, the whale shark. The island is recognised by PADI as being one of the top ten spots in the world to interact with these incredible beasts, which also happen to be the world’s biggest fish.

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Take a stroll through Pemba’s lush green interior. Credit: Manta Resort

Whilst Pemba might not be home to these graceful giants, don’t write it off just yet. It’s also known as ‘The Green Island’ as a result of it’s lush and vivid interior. Take a wander and you might encounter vervet monkeys and flying foxes, or wander around the local plantations growing everything from cloves (the smell permeates the air), to mangos, coconuts and bananas.
The reality is, you can’t go wrong with either island. Both are perfect for beachy escapes and watery adventures and are truly idyllic destinations.

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Undiscovered Indian Ocean - thanda island
Escape from the world at Mafia’s private Thanda Island

Where to stay?

Being much smaller islands with far less tourist footfall than some of their neighbours (hurrah to that), you might expect the accommodation options to be slim on the ground. Whilst the islands might not have the multitude of options offered by the bigger island of Zanzibar, the ones they do have are top notch. Everything from rustic opulence on the beach, underwater bedrooms (yes really), to private islands, we promise you’ll find something for you – and here are some of our favourites…

Undiscovered Indian Ocean - fundu pemba
Pemba’s Fundu Lagoon let’s you live out your wildest Robinson Crusoe dreams

Fundu Lagoon

Pemba Island

Set amid Pemba’s tropical wilderness, this idyllic spot is the place to go if you’re in the market for a spot of barefoot luxury. Hemmed in by jungle and sea, you’ll feel as though you’ve stumbled upon paradise itself. With options for every budget, visitors can choose to stay in a tented room (perfect for Castaway would-be’s), suites, and luxury suites (for those really wanting to push the boat out). You’ll be spoilt for choice.

Undiscovered Indian Ocean - manta resort
Sleep beneath the waves in Manta Resort’s unique underwater room

The Manta Resort

Pemba Island

We’re willing to bet you’ve never stayed anywhere quite like this. The resort itself is placed high on a remote hilltop, overlooking the sparkling sea. So far, so beautiful… but it gets better! Set not on dry land, the resort’s underwater room is perfect for those searching for the life aquatic. Anchored out in the water, the unique room is a floating glass cube, allowing guests to be completely immersed in the ocean watching as fish slowly swim by. Bliss.

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Mafia’s Pole Pole is the ideal beachside retreat

Pole Pole

Mafia Island

Sophistication for the eco-friendly traveller, Pole Pole is green luxe at its finest. Translating as ‘slowly slowly’ from Swahili, this is truly a place to switch off from the world. Understated and refined, there’s a quiet pool to relax by, a restaurant overlooking the sea (renowned for serving some of the best food on the island) and a bar under the palms to enjoy a sundowner or two. If that doesn’t sound like heaven, we don’t know what does.

Undiscovered Indian Ocean - thanda mafia
Indulge in escapism on your very own private island just off Mafia’s coast. Credit: Thanda Island

Thanda Island

Mafia Island

Rustic luxury is all well and good, but sometimes you just want out and out extravagance. And nowhere in Mafia fits that brief better than Thanda Island, the ultimate definition of exclusivity. A private isle set in Tanzania’s Shungimbili Island Marine Reserve, you’ll stay in a luxury house that’s big enough for you and your friends, with all the mod cons you can shake a stick at. Fresh local seafood is served up by your private chef and activities include snorkelling around the surrounding coral reef, straight from your very own beach. Book us a one way ticket!

How to get there?

Despite being far from the madding crowds, both Mafia and Pemba are relatively easy to get to with regular connections from Dar es Salaam. You might have to make a little stop to drop some passengers off in Zanzibar – but then that’s all the more time to look at this ocean paradise from above.