Nungwi, the Ibiza of East Africa

Sunday November 29 2009
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Nightlife at a beachfront bar and restaurant at Nungwi. Picture: Mana Meadows

Be it snorkelling, diving, kayaking, partying, fine-dining, exploring local village life or taking a sunset dhow cruise, Nungwi has something for everyone.

For centuries, Nungwi’s claim to fame was its reputation as the dhow-building centre of Zanzibar.

Skills in the ageless art of dhow-building were passed on through the generations, creating a highly skilled pool of craftsmen.

Today, Nungwi is also known as one of the world’s most favoured backpacker hotspots on the Spice Islands.

With its dazzling white sandy beaches, beach bars and variety of cheap beachfront guesthouses to choose from, Nungwi offers an unpretentious holiday venue.

This is not a place for those seeking peace and quiet.


Nungwi is peppered with a range of night-time venues, catering to many tastes and guaranteeing a good evening.

From rustic beachside restaurants to more upmarket hotel restaurants, freshly caught seafood is a staple.

“Pub-hop” along the shoreline as you sample different menus.

For those wishing to increase the pace a little, don’t miss the cheerful Rasta beachside bars where in the wee hours dhow-deck bar surfaces become dance floors and a midnight dip in the sea cools you down.

From party animals to sun worshippers, cultural enthusiasts to nature lovers, Nungwi is your one- stop Zanzibari holiday town.

The immediate surroundings can be explored on foot, dhow or kayak and the beaches and lively night scene are all ensconced in the charm of a traditional Swahili fishing village.

All the action takes place on the western cape, where the original fishing village of Nungwi is found, as well as the majority of tourist accommodation.

Sadly, the clutter of tourist lodgings has somewhat eclipsed the original Nungwi town.

But development is still fairly modest, with no mass market resorts yet established in the western area.

If you’re after more than rustic beach bars and pretty scenery, a stroll up the beach towards the lighthouse on the northern shore will reveal that Nungwi has managed to retain the charm of a traditional fishing village life.

Tranquil village life

Beyond the guesthouses, the Internet cafes, the Italian-speaking beachboys and beach shacks blaring Bongo-flava music, local people still carry on as they have for millennia.

Under swaying coconut palms and shady neem trees, fishermen mend their nets or haul in their day’s catch to the small fish market nearby.

Women wade in the shallow waters, harvesting seaweed or hunting crustaceans to sell to the restaurants that you can eat at later.

Just before the lighthouse is the Mnarani Aquarium, a sheltered inland lagoon that also functions as a conservation site.

Here you can feed green sea turtles, and often catch sight of the endangered hawksbill turtle.

If it’s beaches you’re after, then take a walk in the opposite direction to the neighbouring village of Kendwa, some three kilometres south of Nungwi.

With shimmering white sands, deep turquoise waters, gentle rolling waves and swimming possible at all tides, Kendwa’s coastline is tough to beat.

If you have a whole day free, try a trip to Mnemba Island – home to a famous marine-protected reef where you can snorkel or dive and see some of the best underwater life that Zanzibar, and in fact Tanzania, has to offer.

Aside from the underwater scene, the trip offers a fabulous day at sea.

Motor-powered dhows leave Nungwi every morning for the reef, most offering a fresh seafood barbecue lunch as part of the package.

If you don’t have the time for a full day Mnemba trip, you can hire snorkelling gear from the number of watersports stalls that dot the beachfront and paddle around close to shore.

If this all sounds a little too strenuous, a sunset dhow cruise is perhaps a more sedate option.

With a glass of chilled white wine or bottle of Tanzania’s finest lager, a cold one on the water can only signal a good start to the evening.