Life is a Beach in Zanzibar – Nungwi, Mnemba and Tumbatu
Nungwi, Mnemba and Tumbatu are definitely three of the major attractions in Zanzibar. We dove right into the beautiful sea, and soaked up the sun. We also witnessed first hand the beauty of the coral reef, but were also sensitised about the effects of tourism on the delicate coral.
Just like every island, the sea has played and still plays a very important role in Zanzibar. Whereas in the past, the sea was the gateway to trade, today the sea is arguably Zanzibar's best attraction, apart from the provider of delicious sea food. In Zanzibar, we spent three nights in Nungwi and one night in Stone Town. We chose Nungwi because of its pristine beach, which is very touristy, but clear and untouched by the current. Then, even though we do not like cities, we wanted to spend at least one night in Stone Town. This choice of itinerary gave us the right balance between enjoying beach life and savouring the labyrinth streets of Stone Town.
Nungwi beach is an idyllic sandy beach in the far northern tip of Zanzibar. It took about one and a half hours to reach from the airport by taxi. The taxi price for the three of us was $33, and for us this was not too expensive, however it can also be reached for cheaper by dala dala. You can see our full itinerary and budgets here.
Nungwi beach itself is charming and the rhythms of the tide, change its landscape in a magical way. This beach is the hub for hotels, bars and restaurants. Tourists relax on the beach as souvenir and tour sellers roam around in Maasai clothes or normal beach wear. It is also the take-off and landing point for boat tours and fishing boats, whilst serving as lounging grounds for cattle herds.
Definitely all tour operators and beach sellers in Nungwi try to sell boat trips to Mnemba. Booking the ride from a top rated tour operator, we paid $50 per person, but for sure we could have got the same thing for $35. So if you are planning a boat ride there, you can definitely bargain better than us. When it came to our tour departure, the operator directed us to the one boat manager on the beach. We were dropped off later than others, so we had the last choice of goggles and flippers, whilst ending up on a boat with a 15hp motor as opposed to the 40hp motor boats which flew past us. Other than that, we really enjoyed the trip to Mnemba...or rather the sea surrounding Mnemba, because Mnemba itself is a private island so you cannot go ashore. It was a nice boat ride away and we loved swimming with fish of all colours. Be aware that all tourists on Zanzibar want to visit Mnemba Atol, so it is a very busy place. Whilst you are face down admiring the beautiful fish, boats are gliding past and the air you inhale through the snorkel pipe tastes of exhaust.
One thing which really struck us was the gimmick of swimming with the dolphins. As soon as a group of dolphins is spotted, all boats swarm to the place and a few daring tourists jump off the boat, with the hope of swimming with dolphins. The latter, inevitably overwhelmed by the sheer number of roaring engines, swim away at the speed of sound, leaving tourists in the deep blue, surrounded by a dozen boats revving away, whilst trying to climb back on the boat, a few seconds after they would have dove from it.
During our Mnemba boat tour, as we were heading back to Nungwi, on our last full day there, we struck a conversation about Mnemba and Tumbatu. Our guide told us that Tumbatu is arguably much better than Mnemba, as the coral reef is still alive. So we agreed that for a price of $80 (for 3) we visit Tumbatu. An upgrade in boat and a short choppy boat ride away, we arrived in Tumbatu. Currents made the sea murky, more difficult to swim in and take photos, but it was definitely more beautiful. First and foremost, we were there alone and secondly it's fascinating to see multi coloured delicate coral. A reality check was contrasting this with the dead coral in Mnemba and the amount of broken coral presumably by boat anchors, which is already visible in Tumbatu. Coral is indeed very delicate and breaks off easily. Extra care is very important, so that we save such a beautiful masterpiece of nature.
Sea conditions around Nungwi change a lot, and we experienced these changes all in one day. As we headed off to Mnemba in the morning, the sea was quite calm, but when we were heading from Mnemba to Tumbatu the tide had gone out so the ride took longer. The ride from Nungwi to Tumbatu was on very choppy sea, whilst our boat ride from Tumbatu to Nungwi was much shorter, as the sea was very calm.
Beaches in Zanzibar are really as mesmerising as they look in pictures. Remember that beach wear is acceptable on the beaches only, but as you venture inwards, it’s important to wear more conservatively. Sun, sea, seafood and cocktails, definitely make Nungwi a great place to spend a couple of days in. If however, like us, you prefer to fill time more actively, there are definitely other very interesting options like the Red Earth Village Bicycle tour or venture a bit further south to see, smell and taste exotic spices, in one of the many Spice Farms on the Island. As you consider how you want to spend your days in Nungwi, we suggest that you carry out research into your options from home, but there is no need to book in advance. You will have more than enough street vendors offering them to you at "the cheapest price".