Both popular as post-safari treats or standalone destinations, Zanzibar and Mauritius draw many parallels. You’ll find beaches lapped by clear waves that shroud underwater worlds. Their positions on old trading routes have also left them with an interesting history and a mix of cultural influences. Specialists Erin and Anna share their pick of experiences on these postcard-perfect islands.
Zanzibar even sounds exotic and mysterious. That said, it’s becoming increasingly popular — particularly as a place to relax after a safari, thanks to its proximity to mainland Tanzania and Kenya. Approaching the archipelago by air, you’re met with views over vivid-blue ocean scattered with tiny shards of land.
The moment that most excites me, though, is when you get to your chosen property and catch a first glimpse of the ocean’s waves gently unfurling onto white sands. It takes all your effort not to strip to your swimwear there and then and run into the water.
Depending on where you stay on the island, you can easily spend whole days swimming, sunbathing, and exploring coral reefs on snorkel and dive trips. And, though the ocean can often recede dramatically at high tide, the hotels and resorts here have pools, bicycles to hire, and other facilities for you to make the most of.
It’s true that Zanzibar’s beaches are certainly worth writing home about (brag about pristine sands that dazzle in the sun, ocean so turquoise it makes your eyes tingle, picnics on secluded sandbanks…). But, I find you get more out of your visit if you explore Zanzibar’s history and culture, too.
With its close proximity to the mainland, elegant hotels, and the chance to take romantic sailing trips to uninhabited islands, Zanzibar is a popular destination for couples who want to relax after a safari honeymoon.
Once an important hub for the spice trade, the main island changed hands many times over the centuries, leaving it with African, Portuguese, Omani, British, German, and Indian influences. Taking a guided tour of Stone Town, the island’s main settlement, will give you an insight into its past.
You see significant buildings like the Portuguese-influenced House of Wonders, built for ceremonial purposes in 1883 but now housing a Swahili culture museum. Also look out for the houses where Freddie Mercury was born and Livingstone once lived.
Most hard-hitting is hearing about the island’s ties to slavery and seeing where enslaved people brought from the African mainland, India, and the Middle East were forced to live.
I also recommend an evening food tour that begins with sunset cocktails on a rooftop terrace. You then walk to different locations around the town for a starter, main, and dessert, trying local food that ranges from flatbreads and hummus to curried chicken.
Another way to discover local produce is by touring one of the island’s spice plantations. Spices remain an important export, and you’ll learn about the cultivation and different uses of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla, among others.
After picking a few fresh ingredients, you’ll head to a kitchen where, with the help of a ‘mama’, you’ll cook traditional dishes such as pilau rice (there’s a knack to getting the bottom crispy and the right balance of spices). Then, you’ll sit down to dine on your creations.
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Just an hour-and-a-half’s drive from coast to coast, Mauritius packs a lot in within a small area. When I first visited, I’d expected the golden-tinged sands lined with palms (it’s what we all come for, right?). But soon I understood that I’d underestimated this multicultural island.
While French is the dominant language here, you’ll find influences from India, Britain, the Netherlands, and Africa — it’s another island where traders, settlers, and the descendants of enslaved populations have left their mark. Hindu temples, Catholic churches, Chinese shrines, and the occasional fortress mark the landscape.
Joining a Creole cooking class gives you a literal taste for the island’s hotchpotch heritage. I was welcomed into the open-air kitchen of Marie Michelle and soon set to work stirring and grinding fresh ingredients for a chicken curry. You can even have a go at stoking the wood-burning stove by blowing into a bamboo tube.
Families with active children might prefer Mauritius, where you can enjoy plenty of hiking and cycling balanced with time spent on the beach.
The landscape of Mauritius also deserves your attention. Take it from me, it’s worth dragging yourself away from the beaches to hike to the top of Le Morne’s soaring basalt monolith. After huffing and puffing for over two hours, my ascent was rewarded with views over the bluest ocean I’ve ever seen.
You could also explore Black River Gorges National Park, an expanse of forest coating the Chamarel Mountains in the southwest. Walking with a guide will give you the best chance of spotting some of the island’s rare and endemic species, from the Mauritius kestrel and pink pigeon to macaques.
The island has lost much of its native plant life over the centuries. You can help efforts to restore native ebony forest in the Chamarel region by planting your own tree.
After visiting the Ebony Forest Reserve’s Visitor Centre to find out more about the island’s endemic flora and the reforestation project, you can walk or take a short 4x4 ride into the forest. Here, a guide will lead you on a circular walk, pointing out endemic flora and fauna species as you go.
Before heading back, you’re given your own tree to plant, which is then labelled with your name. I felt a great sense of satisfaction seeing my sapling newly planted in the soil. The afternoon ends with sunset drinks at Sublime Point, where you have far-reaching views over Le Morne and the island’s west coast.
As a relaxing alternative to hiking, you could opt to explore the Chamarel region on an e-bike tour, riding through the mountains to the coastal area of Bel Ombre. Along the way, pause at small villages, waterfalls, and rum distilleries.
The beaches are hardly an afterthought here — you’ll find long stretches of sand perfect for sunset strolls, as well as quiet coves and restaurant-lined bays. I recommend basing yourself in two different parts of the island to make the most of its variety.