Mafia Island, Tanzania

Photo: Chole Mjini Lodge
Photo: Chole Mjini Lodge

Thirty years ago, seaplanes didn’t transport people between the islands of the Maldives. Thirty years ago, high-end resorts hadn’t even considered building on Mauritius. Thirty years ago, no one had heard of the Seychelles. Thirty years ago, those islands looked like Mafia Island in Tanzania.

From Dar es Salaam, it’s a quick 20-minute flight to Mafia, one of the Tanzanian Spice Islands. The island has few roads. None of them–including the runway–are paved. There are no resorts, no shops, and no nightlife. But there are ruins from early settlements, quiet coves, an abundance of marine life, and smiling locals. It’s a little jewel in the Indian Ocean.

So where do you stay in such a pristine, undeveloped place? Roll up your pant legs, wade knee-deep into the warm water, and climb onto a dhow. Ride through calm, protected Chole Bay to Chole Mjini, just offshore. Amid the mangroves and the tamarind trees, you’ll find the Chole Mjini Lodge. Built in ancient baobab trees, the lodge’s seven open-air treehouses were built by hand and have views of Kinasi Pass. There are no phones, televisions, or Internet connections. It’s a place to truly escape, not pretend to escape.

The day begins with sunshine creeping into your treehouse, cool sea breezes, and coffee being delivered up to you by a pulley. Spend the day swimming with whale sharks. Don’t worry, these gentle giants, which can live to be 150 years old, only eat plankton. Go scuba diving with giant groupers in the Mafia Island Marine Park. Have a picnic lunch on a private sandbar. It’s only accessible during low tide. Find starfish, tiger cowries, and crabs in the small pools at the edge of the sand. And visit the Kua medieval settlement and the Juani palace ruins. They’re surrounded by overgrown tropical forests, vines, and fig trees. Pied Kingfishers may be the only other visitors.

Photo: Chole Mjini Lodge
Photo: Chole Mjini Lodge

Returning to the lodge, you’ll pass giggling kids playing soccer. Shower in the bamboo thicket. And then head to the rooftop Hanashi bar for pre-dinner drinks as the sun begins to set. Make plans for the next day. Maybe you’ll watch newborn hawksbill sea turtles stumble toward the water for the first time or snorkel in the Utumbe coral garden. Learn how to pay Boa, an East African board game. And join the other guests for a candlelit dinner of freshly caught fish, papaya lemon soup, and roasted vegetable salad under the stars. Everyone’s eyes light up as they share their stories from the day.

Tiki torches and fireflies light the way back to your treehouse. Overhead, flying foxes have just awakened to begin their day. But you’ll happily fall asleep watching the stars and hoping people don’t talk about what Mafia Island used to be 30 years from now.

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