I was advised before my departure to Zanzibar, Tanzania, that the best beaches are on the North-East coast that includes from down to the top Pongwe, Kiwengwa, Pwani Mchangani, and Matemwe. It’s about 22 km long white sandy beaches that offer a different experience, breathtaking views, plenty of sunbeams, and a variety of ocean activities. It was clear to me at the start of the trip that I won’t be able to visit all the spots on this endless coastline, so I was supposed to choose at least two of them. I believe I made a wise choice by picking Kiwengwa and Matemwe without knowing anything in advance for both.
The distance between them is only 13 kilometers but they are so distinct. Let me admit at the beginning of this article that I am biased, and my absolute favorite is Matemwe. You will probably feel it while reading. But it doesn’t mean it’s going to be the same for you. The first one I arrived at from Stone Town was
It was quite crowded in the middle of January 2021, despite the coronavirus pandemic situation. The coastline is densely built up with hotels and guesthouses. They are literally next to each other and there is some space to breathe only where are the locals’ huts. I was accommodated in beachfront property and what I really appreciated during those five days in Kiwengwa was that I did not need to wear any shoes. I went barefoot the whole day long, regardless if I was sunbathing on the beach, walking, working, shopping, dining, swimming…just name it, but it did not require putting shoes or even flip flops on because the beach is perfect for walking.
In Kiwengwa could be witnessed the most spectacular low tide on the island of Zanzibar. From early morning till about 2 pm the beach looks triple the size (and even more) because the ocean is “drying up”. All this water goes somewhere and hundreds of meters from the ocean bottom remain exposed for hours. The favorite thing for the tourists in the morning hours – from about 9 am till 1 pm, is to walk the dried ocean bed inward.
While for the holidaying foreigners the low tide is an attraction and the period to search for shells, for the native locals it’s a hectic time and they need to catch up till the ocean is back. Mostly women and kids are checking every inch for mollusks and are carefully collecting them in plastic containers. That’s going to be their family’s lunch and dinner so everything that’s eatable should be gathered. The shallow waters, during the low tide, is the men’s spot. They cross it by boats for catching octopus, fish, calamari, and prawns. This precious haul is going to be delivered to the restaurants for the tourists only.
While you are staying in Kiwengwa, day by day you find the fresh catch of the day could be ordered in the small taverns and the restaurants not earlier than 2:30 pm – 3:00 pm, so the lunch usually should be postponed a bit. Especially the grilled octopus and calamari. In the early afternoon, men could be spotted on the beach hitting the octopus with a stick and kneading it into the sand. I was curious to know what’s the purpose. The answer was that way the octopus meat becomes softer and melts in the mouth. They were correct, I tasted it many times and it was fantastic.
The low tide morning beach walk is the perfect time for the local tour providers to catch the tourists and to sell them whatever they can. The trading procedure is simple. The local is encountering a beach walker, greets them by the usual ”Jambo”, asks: ”How are you?” and usually does not wait for the answer but replies by themselves: “Hakuna Matata” which means “No problem”. After Hakuna Matata is mentioned, here comes the real huckster. Boat sailing, snorkeling, starfish photo session, wooden craft with the tourist’s name on, huge scallops and shells, bike and scooter rentals, massages, taxi services, restaurant invites…whatever could be sold it goes around.
Lots of Maasai from the Arusha area (mainland) could be spotted here. They are coming to Zanzibar in search of better income and are ready to provide storytelling, tour guiding, small souvenirs, or intimate services. I won‘t call them aggressive but they are confidently approaching every single white woman on the beach. Here is actively applied the main marketing rule – contact at least 100 to be able to sell to two.
The Maasai are always wearing their traditional mostly reddish clothing. It looks like a piece of specifically tinned fabric that wraps their body. I never asked but probably the design and the colors of the wrap represent the tribe they are coming from, similar to the Scottish kilt. Some of the Maasai have a complex hairstyle, quite different than the local insular simple haircut. I got the impression the coastline is configured in zones and each of the Maasai is designated and covers a particular sector of the beach. Of course, they gather together and could be seen often playing football during the low tide.
The seafood in Kiwengwa is fairly affordable. In most of the restaurants, there is a menu, but all the prices are in US dollars. The seafood portion varies from 9 to 18 USD. For example, an avocado & prawns salad is 9 USD, dorado fish is 10 USD, grilled octopus or calamari 11 USD. The coca-cola regular small bottle is 1 USD, an ice cream stick – 1 USD. I would recommend having everything grilled, you can’t get it wrong, and is super delicious. Be prepared to wait for a while, though. The kitchen here is not working fast and the average waiting time for a meal is 40 to 60 minutes. The Zanzibaris like repeating: Pole Pole, what in Swahili means Slowly Slowly.
Here life goes slowly, no one is in a hurry to anywhere. So, do not be surprised if your guide delays the appointment or the tour agency response you are waiting for comes too late by European standards. The locals look always smiling and careless, but they admit their life is not easy and that’s why are often tempted to trick, scam, or lie for getting a quick earn.
To close the Kiwengwa chapter, two important facts left to share. Every few hundred meters on the beach a kite surfing school is located so if you are curious to learn how to kitesurf, this is your place. The Kiwengwa beach is super windy and is considered a great spot for kite surfers.
Be aware that about 6 pm the ocean is already back on a high tide and could cut your walking pathway by covering the entire beach. The locals told me that years ago the high tide wasn’t that lofty and now the ocean is biting more and more from the land. Some of the beachfront hotels have built special embankments from solid wood in an attempt to stop the ocean and to protect their properties from the stormy water. There is a fear that some of those properties could be damaged soon by the high tide and won’t be accessible anymore for tourists.
It’s a fairytale (I warned you in advance I am biased). Matemwe looks exactly like a tropical Paradise on a postcard, the one we are used to seeing, the one that makes us dream about traveling to exotic destinations. The largest, the whitest, and the cleanest beaches I have seen in Zanzibar are here.
At the same time, it’s tranquil (just my cup of tea) without the usual crowd, without the army of local vendors trying to attract the tourists, without noisy restaurants on the beach. It’s a place to unwind the whole day long, to play, swim or walk. Here the low/high tide difference is not that visible, so swimming is possible even during the low tide (but is not recommended).
It’s a lazy but eye-striking place where you can forget yourself, to enjoy the seafood, the spectacular views, and to recharge your batteries. In Matemwe I made friends with the local kids who were selling fruits and they provided me with fresh mango, pineapple, and bananas daily at good prices (not the high touristic ones). I bribed the kids with Pi Pi (candies) and then bargained a piece of mango for 800 TZS (in Kiwengwa they were trying to sell it between 3000 and 5000 TZS), 6 bananas for 2000 TZS (usually 5000 TZS), and papaya for 1000 TZS (usually 3000 TZS). But I became a regular customer and bought only their products (probably picked from a tree around, free of charge)
The main attraction in Matemwe is the nearby island Mnemba. It’s located just 2 kilometers away and could be seen on the horizon. Mnemba is the main selling point in Matemwe. It’s a small private island with turquoise waters, thin sands, and is fantastic for snorkeling and diving with its varied underwater life. The price varies between 40 to 50 USD and depends on the negotiating skills of the customer.
If the trip is shared with other passengers and you are not looking for exclusivity, then the price could drop. Usually, it includes pick up from your hotel at about 8 am a boat trip to the island, two hours of snorkeling, lunch (seafood and fruits), and a back ride to Matemwe. If you missed it in Matemwe, you could still book it in Nungwi or Kiwengwa, just it will take a bit longer to get on Mnemba island.
The only thing you can’t see in Matemwe are the breathtaking ocean sunsets because it’s on the East Coast but as compensation, if you are waking early could witness and enjoy the marvelous sunrise (at about 6:30 am). Also, here I have seen the lushest greenery and the biggest palm trees surrounding the beach. They provide great shades during the hottest hours and at the same time are an outstanding background for memory photo sessions.
And last but not least, my liking for Matemwe was seriously influenced by one of the boutique hotels I stayed in. The owners, a lovely Italian mature couple, designed an oasis in a traditional Zanzibari style but with a very specific Mediterranean touch. The cushions, the swings, the hammocks, the bathroom style, the amenities scent, even the dinner time lighting reminded me of the South of Italy, implemented in an elegant way among the African mainstream features. Even the way they welcome the guests with a glass of fresh passion fruit juice, the walking tour upon arrival to show and get you familiar with the facilities, the way they were discretely handling the guest payment, the tea bags selection in the room and the precise evening turn down….all of those were really a surprising splash that stands out compared with the rest of the properties I visited.
It’s time to say goodbye to the East Coast. Its reputation as the Zanzibari heaven is fully deserved and I consider myself blessed of being able to try and enjoy two East Coast gems – Kiwengwa and Matemwe. No doubt, I’ll return to get my heart back because I left it at Matemwe.