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Away from Stone Town, traditional life still follows the rhythms of the tides and the winds of the monsoon, seemingly oblivious to (but soon to be overwhelmed by) the mushrooming chain of resorts that line much of the island's northern and eastern edges. A handful of densely populated towns, small farm plots and areas of scrub dot the interior, while a string of stellar beaches and somnolent fishing villages fringe the coast. If you meander around the latter, you'll find strings of fish drying in the sun, fishermen repairing their nets in the shade and cows and chickens wandering across sandy lanes. Wade out into the surreal shallows at low tide and you'll often discover women picking their way through their seaweed harvests.

Description: fishing villages fringe the coast

fishing villages fringe the coast

One fishing village that is an enduring favourite of mine is Jambiani in the southeast, with its sunbaked collection of coral-rag houses overlooking a long stretch of white sand. It's easy to get stuck here for days, gazing out at the sea with its ethereal aqua hues and line of anchored Ngalawa (outrigger canoes). Another highlight is Matemwe, known for its powdery white sand and its inviting collection of smaller hotels.

Description: One fishing village that is an enduring favourite of mine is Jambiani in the southeast, with its sunbaked collection of coral-rag houses overlooking a long stretch of white sand

One fishing village that is an enduring favourite of mine is Jambiani in the southeast, with its sunbaked collection of coral-rag houses overlooking a long stretch of white sand

If the crowds on Zanzibar Island get to be too much, there are several nearby islands and islets to explore. Tiny Mnemba, a zoom-wide patch of dazzlingly white sand that is just offshore from Matemwe, is renowned for its fine snorkelling and diving, its dolphins, green turtles and seasonal populations of humpback whales. It is also known for Mnemba Island Lodge, Zanzibar's most exclusive address. While anyone can snorkel offshore, entry onto the island is reserved for guests of the lodge.

Description: Mnemba Island Lodge

Mnemba Island Lodge

On the other side of Zanzibar, about 10km southwest of Stone Town, is the larger island of Chumbe. Unlike Mnemba, Chumbe is not known for its beaches (although they are there). Rather, the highlights here are Chumbe's spectacular coral gardens, as well as the dolphins, turtles and 400 species of fish that frequent its surrounding waters.

The island tivasTanzania's first marine sanctuary, and is now run as Chumbe Island Coral Park (www.chumbeisland.com), a highly acclaimed centre for ecotourism known especially for its environmental education work with local school children.

Description: the highlights here are Chumbe's spectacular coral gardens, as well as the dolphins, turtles and 400 species of fish that frequent its surrounding waters

the highlights here are Chumbe's spectacular coral gardens, as well as the dolphins, turtles and 400 species of fish that frequent its surrounding waters

Leaving Zanzibar behind, we turn our sights northwards. Lying just across a choppy 50km-wide channel is the hilly and lushly vegetated Pemba, the Zanzibar Archipelago's other island'. This is the al Khuthera of old, the Green Island that once provided the archipelago's economic foundation with its extensive clove plantations and agricultural base. Yet it is almost totally overlooked today.

Pemba's interior is a verdant patchwork of tidy farm plots and stands of banana, while much of the island's coast is lined with mangroves and tidal creeks. Although it goes without Zanzibar's stellar beaches, there are a few beautiful coves and some idyllic islets. Offshore, the steeply dropping walls of the Pemba Channel offer challenging scuba sites for skilled divers. The island is small, and a north-south traverse by foot takes less than two hours. However, anything off the main road feels kilometres away in space and time from everywhere. Highlights for me include the quiet waterways of the far south, the lovely islet of Misali, the medieval ruins near Tumbe and the dense rainforest at Ngezi. Culturally, Pemba remains shrouded in mystery - it is overwhelmingly Muslim and Swahili in character, but possesses strong voodoo and animist traditions as well.

Our final island stop is the Mafia Archipelago. If Zanzibar Island is a glimpse into the Swahili coast's promising future, Mafia is a delightful step back into its more traditional past. On the main island of Mafia, sandy lanes wind through coconut plantations, and donkey-drawn carts and Bajaji (Tuk-Tuks) are the main forms of transport. There is no equivalent of Zanzibar's Stone Town here; lively Kinondoni, the main town, is a complete backwater by comparison. A handful of upmarket lodges and a few enterprising backpacker bases are the island's only accommodation, and life moves at a charmingly snail-like pace.

Mafia's entire southeastern comer has been gazetted as a marine park, and offers fine diving and snorkelling, with lovely corals and a good variety of fish. The arrival of whale sharks to Mafia's waters is a highlight for many visitors between November and February.

An easy sail away from Mafia Island are several smaller islands with ruins testifying to the archipelago's Shirazi-era Heyday and its later role as a trading centre during the time of the Omani sultanate.

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