Nungwi, Zanzibar: resort time on a prime beach

Lone Masai on Nungwi Beach

Nungwi Beach on the northern coast of Zanzibar ranks among the prettiest on the island and is home to many popular resorts, hotels and restaurants. I definitely wanted to spend some of our time in Zanzibar there. Scanning our available hotel points and certificates and local resorts I was happy to find very reasonable award availability at Marriott’s Nungwi Beach Resort by Turaco. Reviews sounded good, the location was great, so I quickly locked in four nights.

Although roads are generally good in Zanzibar, the last half mile or so through the town of Nungwi approaching the resort is a narrow dirt road. Our SUV slowed to a crawl as our Zanzibar driver, Ally, dodged impressive potholes and wove among small shops. We stopped in front of tall gates, checking in with a security guard before proceeding to a large open-air lobby.

Reception provided us with two welcome drinks apiece, a tasty something in a glass and fresh coconuts with straws. There was no way to finish both (and we’d just come from Jambo Spice Farm where we’d eaten plenty and drunk our fill of coconut water) before the bellman was ready to escort us to our room. My award points got us a third floor standard king room with a balcony overlooking the pool and a view of the beach and ocean to our right. The room was spacious and housekeeping had covered not just the bed with hibiscus flowers and leaves, but also the bathroom counter and a low shelving unit under the flat screen tv (a charming process repeated all but one of our four days).

Our standard king room

We loved the room and soon decided the location was ideal as well. Although we faced the pool with its swim-up bar and party music, the pool and bar closed at 7pm, leaving our room blessedly quiet and with a nice view over the lush resort grounds and the ocean. On the other hand, rooms facing the beach are close to dining and entertainment and subject to noise much later than we’d be happy with.

The beach set-up is interesting. Without the natural rise atop which our Uroa hotel sat, this Marriott resort relied on a high retaining wall to protect it from the big tides of Zanzibar. (Get a glimpse of it in the video below.) This set-up meant we spent our beach time in loungers on the sandy “beach” on the resort side of the wall so that when sitting we saw just the heads of passers-by below on the public beach. The wall also provides a security barrier and there was always a guard walking the top of the wall. He wasn’t armed, but he would occasionally intervene to tell vendors peering over the wall to move on which they did without argument.

To get to the warm ocean water, we descended stone steps to the lower beach. A group of young Masai men waited there most hours of the day, offering tours, promoting shops, posing for photos and just visiting. Despite reviews I read complaining about these “beach boys,” we found them to be friendly and not overly persistent. We couldn’t blame them at all for trying to earn a living, especially with the slow rainy season soon approaching. They took “no” for an answer–sometimes after a few attempts at altering their pitch–then were often happy to visit, asking us where we were from, where we’d been in Zanzibar and elsewhere in Africa and what we thought of their homeland. They entertained themselves and us with jumping contests and an occasional song. Accepting tips from passers by, but not asking for anything that I saw. A few local women also offered massages or tours, but again, they accepted a “no” and moved on.

Masai on Nungwi Beach and the retaining wall of the Marriott resort

The big tides I’d been expecting didn’t materialize until our third day in Nungwi. That day the tide was so far out that many boats were left high and dry. Groups of locals harvested the pale green seaweed exposed by the receding water. We were told the seaweed is dried, powdered and used as a seasoning. We walked far out among the tidal pools finding many small crabs and fish and beautiful African red knob sea stars. I love this kind of tidal pool ecosystem and had been looking forward to it. It reminded me of the wonderful tidal pools in Nusa Dua, Bali… but minus the deadly sea critters. [Note: As with most beaches in Zanzibar, water shoes are a good idea. Spiny sea urchins are common, although they weren’t as plentiful in Nungwi as the were in Uroa.]

African red knob sea star in Nungwi shallows
Looking back at Nungwi Beach Resort by Turaco with the tide going out

I couldn’t pass up the chance to see more of the local sea life and arranged a day of scuba diving before we arrived in Nungwi with Dive Point Zanzibar which was recommended by the resort and charged identical prices to every other Zanzibar dive outfit I researched. Dive Point Zanzibar has a small office on the premises of Nungwi Beach Resort by Turaco, but their equipment is at another location nearby in Nungwi. They also have a main office in Matemwe, closer to popular diving and snorkeling off Mnemba Island. Dive Point Zanzibar offered dives at either Mnemba Island (known for larger fish and diving with dolphins, but reported to have mostly dead coral) and off Tumbatu Island (known for its colorful coral and tropical fish). I was inclined to Tumbatu from the start, but learning that it was nearly an hour drive to Matemwe (and an extra $30pp for that drive) to dive Mnemba cemented my thoughts. Being among a flock of boats chasing dolphins in Lovina, Bali, made me leery of seemingly similar descriptions of the diving and snorkeling crowds off Mnemba. And I love a good coral reef!

A driver with a van arrived promptly to pick us up from the lobby of our Marriott resort for the 5-minute ride to the Dive Point Zanzibar Nungwi office. After selecting fins and donning shortie wetsuits, our dive master led us on foot to the beach where our dive boat (a wooden motorized dhow) awaited us. We were joined by two other couples, a young Norwegian couple and a middle-aged Russian couple. We had our dive master to ourselves, though, as the others were either learning to dive or just snorkeling. [Note: Kudos to Dive Point Zanzibar for really nice equipment. New wetsuits (front zipping, too; not the all-too-common boarding shorties with the back zips not meant for divers wearing tanks) and BCD’s, quality masks and well-maintained regs were a pleasure to use.]

It was a 45+-minute ride to the first dive site off of Tumbatu island. Waters in the area can be rough during some periods, but we had the benefit of smooth seas and a gentle breeze. The dive was fairly shallow, around 40 feet. Almost immediately upon descending, we came across two octopuses in full view before darting to hide beneath a coral stand. The rest of the dive treated us to pretty coral and swarms of smaller tropical fish as well as some colorful nudibranches and another octopus, nothing remarkably different from a lot of other dives but enjoyable as diving always is. Visibility was only average, with a lot of bio material suspended in the water. After a snack break provided by Dive Point Zanzibar, we moved to our second dive off the little island just north of Tumbatu. This island is called Mwana Wa Mwana, which means “son of son” (or as our dive master translated it “baby of baby”). Our dive master explained that Tumbatu is known as the child of Zanzibar and this little island is the baby of that bigger island baby. The second dive was similar to the first and ended with enormous schools of colorful fish circling large stands of coral. The diving wasn’t exceptional, but it was good and a great way to spend the day.

Fishing ladies on Nungwi Beach near where we boarded our diving dhow

Prior to booking our trip to Zanzibar, I did a little research–as I always do before our trips–on safety which includes both potential health and crime issues. I’d read that crime, including violent crime, could be a problem in Zanzibar as in much of Africa. It was one of the reasons I opted for drivers rather than renting a car. Although the roads were good, I was particularly happy with this choice after we twice had drivers stopped by police requesting a bribe. Our drivers told us this was normal saying with a laugh that “This is Africa!”, but it could have been intimidating if we’d been on our own and dealing with language issues. I read particular warnings about crime along the beaches stretching from Nungwi to Kendwa stating that there had been violent muggings there. Warnings said not to walk the beach at night. Despite this, we saw quite a few tourists walking along the beach to the many restaurants and hotels near Nungwi Beach Resort by Turaco. We walked along the beach a fair ways ourselves during the day and I don’t think I’d have too many concerns about it in the early evening when lots of people are out. That said, we ended up being lazy and eating at our hotel as we’d done in Uroa. The food was good and the beachfront location of the Fisherman’s Grill restaurant was beautiful and especially spectacular at sunset. We learned to come early to grab one of those waterfront tables. Our room included a large buffet breakfast (even though when I booked with Marriott points the site said breakfast wasn’t included) and we opted to just pay à la carte for lunches and dinners. We just don’t eat or drink enough to justify the all-inclusive price and we found our total bill for lunches and dinners to be reasonably priced.

Sunset view from Fisherman’s Grill with one of the nightly soccer games that spring up along Zanzibar beaches as the sun and temperature drop.

The only issue we had during our stay at Marriott’s Nungwi Beach Resort by Turaco was an air conditioner that dripped water onto the floor between our entry area and the bedroom. Maintenance took a day to get it fixed, but it wasn’t a big deal. Nevertheless, the receptionist when we checked out apologized profusely and offered to buy us drinks to make up for it. We’d just had drinks and a light lunch at the bar and our Zanzitaxi ride was arriving so I half-jokingly suggested she could comp the drinks we’d just had. She jumped on the idea and comped us not only the drinks, but also our lunch then took off a discount from one of our earlier meals. More than generous. We left the Nungwi Beach Resort by Marriott extremely happy customers!

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