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Postcard from Tanzania: A private island vacation off the coast of Zanzibar

Like most people, I had never set foot on a private island — outside of my daydreams. Then earlier this year, I got to visit andBeyond Mnemba Island — a private coral-fringed, white-sand island off the Zanzibar archipelago in Tanzania — and it felt like something I’d conjured in my imagination. A ‘pinch me’ vacation that was so beautiful and so lush that I’d doubt all of it ever happened if I didn’t have the photos to prove it. 

Where did you stay? What was the vibe?

Mnemba Island is just off the northeastern tip of Zanzibar, surrounded by nothing but coral reefs and the electric turquoise of the Indian Ocean. It’s tiny. In fact, it’s so small you can walk its fin-shaped coastline in under an hour. Shoes are optional, and almost nobody wears them. There are no roads, no honking horns, and no inhabitants except for guests and staff of the AndBeyond Mnemba Island hotel and resort. There isn’t much other than snorkeling, sleeping, eating and reading — and that’s the whole point.

The hotel is made up of 12 rustic luxury villas that back onto a casuarina pine forest, each facing out onto its own stretch of beach — so you’ve got your own slice of paradise right outside your door. Everything feels gentle here, even the sea. The coral reefs surrounding the island are actually part of a marine conservation area, and the island itself is one of the only two protected nesting sites for the endangered green sea turtle.

What’s the most touristy activity you did? 

A snorkeling session that’s offered to all guests on the island. The crystal-clear waters encircling Mnemba Island offer some of the most accessible reef diving in Africa. And because of its marine park status, the waters teem with so many different fish species. On our outing, we visited the community-owned artificial reef where marine rangers from andBeyond’s marine charity, Oceans Without Borders, are actively engaged in rehabilitating degraded coral reefs along Mnemba’s coastline through coral transplantation and conducting vital ecological surveys.

I’d been snorkeling once before and I hated it. I was in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Ireland. The water was rough and bitter cold. My face felt raw. I don’t think I saw anything.  This time was a completely different story. The water in the Indian Ocean was warm and still, like bathwater. It was so clear I could see to the bottom, and I watched in awe as ghost pipefish, leaf fish, striped zebra fish and sneaky little dragon moray eels with their camouflage colors glided underneath me through a colorful display of corals — completely unbothered by my presence. I couldn’t believe the abundance of marine life I encountered. 

What’s the most scenic activity you enjoyed?

There were so many. One evening, guests were invited to hop aboard a schooner for a sunset cruise. As we sailed through the waters, cocktails were prepared on board (I opted for an Aperol Spritz), and plates of nibbles were served, including olives, spiced nuts, coconut, mango, and other tasty bites as we watched the sun go down and fish glide past us in the sea.

On another night, just as the sun was dipping below the horizon, we enjoyed a beach dinner right out on the sand. That felt really special. Stars twinkled, lanterns flickered and there was no sound except for low, giddy chatter and the sound of the ocean. Every meal we enjoyed here was excellent, local where possible, and so fresh. Dinner that night was a Tanzanian meal of pilau, chapati, samosas, curries and tropical fruits for dessert.

What was the highlight of your trip?

One event stands out in particular. My visit to Mnemba coincided with turtle hatching. A real-life Blue Planet moment. Conservationists from Oceans Without Borders invited guests to aid (from a responsible distance) as the teeny green sea turtle hatchlings emerged from their protected nesting site to make their first journey to the sea. We were instructed not to interfere, even if it looked like they were stuck or confused. But they all knew what to do. We watched (in tears) as their tiny flippers propelled them across the sand to meet the tide and take them away (sob!).

Months later I’m still thinking about where those sea turtles might be. The outlook isn’t great, and the Oceans Without Borders team told us that approximately just one in 1000 marine turtles make it to adulthood. There are so many obstacles in the way — all man-made — like habitat destruction, poaching, accidental capture in fishing gear and plastic rubbish.

What about its sustainability credentials?

AndBeyond Mnemba Island is owned by andBeyond, a travel company renowned for its luxury properties (primarily safari and wilderness lodges in Africa). It’s also part of the Beyond Green company, which represents eco-conscious hotels, resorts, and lodges across the globe. To become a member of Beyond Green, properties must prove that their sustainability efforts go way beyond the usual eco-friendly practices like zero-waste and plastic-free policies. Beyond Green say they want to emphasize the importance of striking a balance between luxury, profitability, and supporting the local community, culture (particularly Indigenous cultures) and the environment. Its members, for example, have to offer fair wages, have anti-discrimination policies in place, and purchase from local sources as much as possible. Its portfolio is designed to help travelers select vetted properties that are giving back in some meaningful way. Notably, Beyond Green properties offer guests unique opportunities to participate in conservation efforts during their vacation. 

AndBeyond Mnemba Island aims to have a holistic approach to sustainability. In addition to fulfilling basic requirements, the resort stands out for its active involvement in coral reef development and the conservation of endangered sea turtles in partnership with Oceans Without Borders. Those experiences made the trip stand out for me. Yes, it was amazing to stay on a private island resort and have so many people take care of me — my every need and whim catered to — but to witness the turtles begin their brutal trek across the ocean and to see first-hand the work being carried out on the coral reefs (and the positive impact that has made already) was incredibly special. Both experiences served as a stark reminder of the incredible marine life we stand to lose because of the immense challenges our oceans face.

Source: Lonely Planet