Compared to Zanzibar, Mafia Island is relatively little known – yet if you are seeking an undisturbed beach holiday, the sleepy archipelago is well worth considering. On arriving at Mafia’s tiny airport with its grassy runway there is an instant sense of the slow pace of life in Mafia Island. Sandy roads lead through the one-street capital of Kilindoni, then friendly farming and fishing villages.
At the coast you’ll find mangrove forests, a few short stretches of golden beach and a brilliant turquoise sea where scenic dhow sailing boats float between the islands.
There are a small number of high class hotels including three excellent, and totally different beach lodges split between the two islands of Kinasi and Pole Pole. However, on Chole Island the remarkable Chole Mjini Lodge has been set up as a partnership with adjacent villagers. It has a few beautifully-built tree-houses on stilts in baobab trees, plus one imaginatively-designed room on the ground. Chole Mjini is a great place to experience village life, and also offers great diving, snorkelling and complementary dhow trips to sand bars.
Indeed, Mafia Island’s ocean surroundings are the obvious attraction. In 1995, the Mafia Island Marine Park was formed to protect the archipelago’s reefs. Within Chole Bay, the shallow reefs are perfect for snorkelling or learning to dive. Outside the bay, its entrance is guarded by a long coral wall, attracting more experienced divers. Here are more than 50 species of coral, including giant table corals, huge stands of blue-tipped staghorn corals, and over 400 species of fish.
This is one of Tanzania’s best areas for diving. You’ll always see something exciting, from rainbow-coloured clownfish to octopus, rays and the odd gigantic grouper or large potato cod. Sharks and dolphins are found in the deeper waters, and at night turtles crawl onto remote beaches to nest. (Note that due to local winds and currents, dive sites outside the bay are often only safely accessible from about mid-September to the end of February.)
Probably the best thing to do on Mafia Island is swimming with the whale sharks. These huge but gentle creatures visit the waters to the west of Mafia every year. ‘Papa Shilingi’ is what locals on Mafia Island call them – ‘papa’ means shark and ‘shilingi’ is coins – because these beautifully speckled creatures look like they have been studded with doubloons. About 12 metres long and up to 60 years old, these ocean goers – the biggest fish on the planet – are truly a wonder to behold.
Getting to Mafia Island has two easy options. The Abeid Amani Karume International Airport on Zanzibar Island takes in chartered flights from Prague, Warsaw, Rome, Brussels, Frankfurt, Doha, Muscat, Tel Aviv, Johannesburg and other international flights with the likes of KLM, Condor, and Oman Air. From there, a short and enjoyable flight which gives you some impressive views of the archipelagos can take you to Mafia’s Airport which is also served itself by many of Tanzania’s airports by operators such as As Salaam Air, Auric Air, Precision Air, ZanAir, and Coastal Aviation.