Tanzania’s Indian Ocean coastline is peppered with the kinds of island you’ll just as likely see splashed across glossy travel magazine covers as you will adorning faded postcards in back street tourist trinket stores. That is to say: tropical golden sands, coconut-laden palms, pellucid blue waters – the usual tropes of a fantasy island vacation, although most are not inhabited or set up for visitors.
But beyond the frenzied appeal of Zanzibar and its sprawling five-star resorts, or the more rustic and far lesser-known Mafia Island just over one hundred miles south, those with significantly deeper pockets can live that magazine-cover-fantasy on what is officially – according to the 29th World Travel Awards for Africa and the Indian Ocean at least – the leading luxury island in Africa. For the sixth year running.
A shark fin shaped triangle of sand surrounded by coral reefs in the Shungimbili Island Marine Reserve, Thanda Island is the world’s only exclusive-use island in a marine reserve. Just five and a half hectares in area, Thanda takes less than 15 minutes to walk around. Its fine-sand beach is littered with exotic shells and areas to laze, its shoreline pops with colorful marine life, from blood-red starfish to black tip reef shark pups, and at its heart sits a single private villa and two bandas set up with one thing in mind – to deliver a one-of-a-kind experience to guests.
The Villa is home to five luxurious rather than ostentatious suites with all the amenities you would expect from top of the line accommodation. The style is breezy Hamptons house – white wood washes, pastel blues and yellows, blurred lines between indoor and outdoor living. Beds are built for sprawling, private outside terraces house deep baths and rainforest showers framed in bamboo. The grand suite occupies an entire wing, doors opening in three directions for a wraparound view of your own private island. It’s pinch-yourself perfect.
The intended sensation is one of feeling at home but with the added bonus of everything being dialed up to eleven. The main living room is dominated by a vast aquarium (the only permanent structure on the entire island apart from the swimming pool), giant couches arranged to enjoy its endless show. There’s a library heavy with Hemingway, a mini grand piano ready to be tinkered, and behind it a rack of other instruments free for the playing. An open bar stocked with top end spirits begs your attention, as do the ice buckets of Kilimanjaro beers and Stoney Tangawizis dotted around ready to quench tropical thirsts.
Step through always-open doors and a deck area wraps around the entire property – loungers and tables in sun and shade, double day beds buried under plump cushions, and in front a glass-walled infinity pool pointed west that cleverly refracts the orange and red rays of every spectacular sunset. Follow winding boardwalks and you’ll find al fresco dining with pizza oven, fire pits and hidden resting places, or a tennis court and boathouse bursting with more toys than FAO Schwarz – all available whenever you want, be it a relaxing evening paddle board safari or a dawn wakeboarding wake-up call.
Explore a little further into the tropical forest and you’ll find the island’s engine – a solar panel field, organic garden, staff quarters, and workshops for local craftsmen to create the unique decor and furnishings, and keep its boats and toys in pristine condition. Explore further still and you’ll happen across two Tanzanian bandas, traditional wooden houses with thatched roofs elevated to luxury status that offer a more atmospheric place to rest your head. Set back in the trees, they peer out over the beach and ocean and feel a million miles away from the order of the Villa.
All this luxury means little without the service to bring it to life. Thanda’s well-oiled team is a mix of international and Swahili, the majority hailing from neighboring Mafia Island and who create a warm and relaxed atmosphere where nothing is too much trouble – or rather where everything is an absolute pleasure. Island manager Anti and helicopter pilot Rob feel more like convivial hosts and old friends, spinning stories of what life is like in this tropical paradise and their endeavors to leave a positive footprint.
Chef Ulla and his team create astonishing feasts, from locally caught seafood (from outside the marine reserve) cooked over open fires to Swahili and farther flung delights – Italian, Arabian, French and most anywhere else your tastebuds might like to visit. Most meals are accompanied by a spectacular setting, from fire-lit tables in the sand to Arabian tents complete with outfits for the diners, all designed to complement the flavors and conjure unique atmospheres.
The island’s true appeal is, of course, its setting, which once again the Thanda team brings to life in surprising and extraordinary ways. Guests are assigned their own personal marine biologist to lead aquatic excursions of every variety – scuba diving and snorkeling on the reefs of nearby Chole island, sewing coral into underwater nurseries to regrow reefs destroyed by historic dynamite fishing, and most extraordinary of all swimming with the largest fish in the sea, mighty whale sharks that silently cruise offshore feeding grounds.
It was the fragility of this offshore environment that inspired the owners of the Thanda Safari private game reserve in South Africa, renowned for its conservation and community initiatives, to set up Thanda Island and work to revitalize and protect a truly unique place and create shared value for environment and community alike.
Alongside their stringent adherence to sustainability (plastic is non-existent, containers are upcycled bottles, waste water is harvested, salt water desalinated, even the rash vests are made from recycled ocean waste), there’s a sense of urgency to be the flag bearer for the environment, not only to guests but also to the local population, that really resonates in everything they do.
Every member of the island team talks eagerly of the conservation efforts, partnering with Tanzanian Marine Parks and local NGO Sea Sense on research and conservation projects for sea turtles, dugongs and whale sharks. Guests are encouraged to take part in the Whale Shark Citizen Science Programme, getting hands on in the water with GoPros to film them up close and personal. Local educational programs help increase awareness of sustainable fishing practices and marine conservation.
The results speak for themselves. Today the coral is returning and with it around 300 fish species, bottlenose and humpback dolphins, green and hawksbill turtles, reef herons and many, many more species besides.
Sleeping up to 20 across the Villa and bandas, an island buyout costs $45,000 (£33,000 a night) with a minimum five night stay. That brings with it domestic helicopter transfers, use of the 82-foot Sea Leopard yacht, all meals and drinks and unlimited spa treatments and water sports, plus the conservation and marine park levies. Find out for yourself at Thanda Island.