Mafia Island and its surrounding archipelago including Jibondo, Juani and Chole is located 30 minutes flight south of Zanzibar. Mafia has a great deal to offer as an unspoiled, little-visited alternative to other Indian Ocean locations around Zanzibar and along the coast. However, as with Pemba, Mafia has better diving than Zanzibar, but worse beaches. Mafia is the one island off Tanzania’s coast that really encourages visitors to explore its offshore islands and sand bars. There are very few hotels here which only adds to the attraction of Mafia as the beach destination for the adventurous traveler.

Mafia Island is one of the five sleepy, tropical islands which are clustered together in the Indian Ocean, known as the Mafia Archipelago. They are a 35-minute flight from Dar es Salaam and, compared with Zanzibar, they are relatively little known – yet if you are seeking an undisturbed beach holiday, they are well worth considering.

On arriving at Mafia’s tiny airport (a grass runway, a windsock and a hut) it is clear that the pace of life is slow here. 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. Sleepy dhows float between the islands.

All five islands of the archipelago – Mafia, Jibondo, Juani, Chole and Bwejuu – have lush vegetation and wildlife, with coconut palms, baobabs, cashew, mango and papaya trees in the interior. These are home to bush babies, wild pigs, blue duikers, genets, vervet monkeys and Pteropus fruit bats (flying foxes). On the coast, mangrove forests and tidal flats attract endless sea birds.

Mafia Island Marine Park

It is the ocean here that is the great 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 snorkeling 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 genera of coral, including giant table corals, huge stands of blue-tipped stag horn 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-colored 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.)

There are three excellent, and totally different beach lodges here, split between two islands:

Mafia Island

Very close neighbors, Kinasi Lodge and Pole Pole each have small sections of beach in front of them, with protecting mangroves around.

Kinasi Lodge has 14 rooms spaced around a landscaped hillside studded with palm trees. Kinasi’s furnished with antiques and chairs made specifically for the lodge. There are board games to play, a library, an antique billiard table and a sociable, active atmosphere.

Pole Pole is a sleepy little lodge with just seven well-appointed wooden bungalows overlooking Chole Bay. It’s a place to relax, eat well, snorkel, dive and to lie back and enjoy a massage. Best of all are the free dhow day-trips to remote sand bars – so you feel like you’ve had an active day, even though you’ve just been relaxing.

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. All have private bathrooms, usually including a dry-composting long-drop toilet and a romantic, open-air shower. Chole Mjini is a great place to experience village life, and also offers great diving, snorkeling and complementary dhow trips to sand bars.