Thanda Island, a remote, uninhabited teardrop of sand, in the Indian Ocean, off the east coast of Tanzania, is 20 acres of secluded paradise. One of the world’s most exclusive private island getaways, this is the perfect sanctuary to enjoy time with family.
Thanda was designed with families in mind. The owners wanted to create a paradise island where generations of families could come together, to reconnect and bond, away from the distractions and pressures of the outside world, and that’s exactly what we got to do during our recent stay…
Our Thanda Island Reunion Story
Zambia, in the heart of Africa, has been my home for more than 25 years. When COVID suddenly shut the world down nearly 3 years ago, my eldest son was training at the military academy in Australia, and my second son was studying at university in the UK. My family was scattered across the globe, and I had no idea when we would all be together again. Countries opened and closed borders like cuckoo clocks. Travel rules and regulations chopped and changed. No one knew, from one day to the next, what the situation really was. Could we travel? Should we stay home? What were the rules? We booked flights, only to have them canceled. We got our hopes up, just to have them dashed as lockdowns were extended.
But finally, here we were more than 2 years later, waiting at the airport in Zambia, ready to welcome our eldest son home for the holidays. Tears (mostly mine!) were flowing as he walked through the arrivals gate, and even my husband, usually stoic, turned away to surreptitiously wipe his eyes as we headed for the car and the drive home. Our youngest son, who had managed to return from England a few weeks earlier, was awaiting our return. A month together lay ahead of us, and I was determined to make it special.
Living in a landlocked country as we do, neighboring Tanzania and its warm ocean and sandy beaches were the destination of many a family holiday when our boys were growing up; it was perfect for swimming, sandcastle building, collecting shells, and more. I felt another Tanzanian beach holiday was just what my family needed, but given that my boys were now in their 20s and sandcastles and shells had perhaps lost some of their charm, I decided Thanda Private Island would be the perfect choice.
Tanzania is a vibrant and beautiful country, blessed with the winning combination of superb big game-viewing areas and stunning tropical beaches. Tanzania’s beaches, especially those on its islands, are spectacular. While Zanzibar is probably the most popular and well-known island in East Africa, tiny Thanda Island, just 100 miles to its south, remains virtually unknown.
The 20-acre Thanda Island sits 30 miles from Tanzania’s mainland. It’s set in the Shungi Mbili Island Marine Reserve — a marine protected area situated between the Tanzanian mainland and the Mafia Island archipelago — and opposite Africa’s largest game reserve, Selous. Thanda is only 1,148 feet wide and a bit over half a mile in circumference — it takes less than 15 minutes to walk around!
The shark fin-shaped triangle of sand is surrounded by coral reefs that protect it from stormy seas, and aside from your fellow guests and island staff, the only sign of human life is the occasional traditional fishing dhow on the horizon. This is Robinson Crusoe territory, but with all the luxury one could desire and Tanzania’s vibrant largest city, Dar es Salaam, just a 35-minute helicopter flight away.
Pro Tip: Thanda Island only rents on an “exclusive use” basis; guests have the entire island to themselves for the duration of their stay.
At the heart of the island is an elegant beach-house villa. More Hamptons or Cape Cod design than typical Tanzanian beach style, five double-bedroom suites all lead directly to the beach, and there’s an expansive living area with a private library, grand piano, wine collection, cigar humidor, and an indoor aquarium filled with tropical fish. Outdoors is a dining area with 180-degree views over the ocean and a glass infinity pool.
Further accommodation is available on the other side of the island, in two double-story thatched chalets built with local materials — perfect for members of your group who want a bit more seclusion.
Good To Know: All this comfort does not come at the cost of the environment — air-conditioning and fresh water are provided by power from the lodge’s own solar farm (the second largest in Tanzania).
Thanda Island cuisine is fresh and delicious: fish, prawns, freshly caught lobster and mangrove crab, beef, game, poultry, vegetarian dishes, seasonal vegetables, and tropical fruits. From the villa’s magnificent dining table to alfresco dining on the beach under a canopy of stars, enjoy wood-fired pizzas, sandbank picnics, breakfasts on the beach, and Swahili feasts dedicated to the flavors, spices, and aromas of Tanzania — if you can dream it, Thanda’s chefs can produce it!
The beach at Thanda Island is everything you could desire. White sand stretches around the edges of the island, fringed by glittering water in shades of turquoise. This is a beach perfect for sunbathing or shell-collecting walks. At night, beach dinners or simply sitting around a crackling beach bonfire are a wonderful end to the day.
The Marine Reserve
Step off the shimmering sand and into the waters off Thanda Island and you’ll find yourself in Shungimbili Island Marine Reserve, the largest marine protected reserve in the Indian Ocean and the only private marine reserve along the entire East African coast. The marine reserve is filled with extraordinary marine biodiversity — coral reefs,, dugongs, dolphins, five species of sea turtles, and more.
Thanda employs an in-house marine biologist who documents local sightings, guides guests on dives and snorkeling expeditions, nurtures the Thanda Island reef restoration project, and works closely with NGO Sea Sense to protect the endangered sea turtles who nest on Thanda’s shores.
For me, the highlight of the waters around Thanda was the gentlest giant of the ocean, the whale shark. Swimming with whale sharks is one of the most amazing ocean experiences you can have. Being up close with these creatures, who can grow to an astonishing 40 feet (about the size of a school bus!), is an incredible part of the Thanda Island experience. Despite their name, whale sharks are harmless, feasting only on plankton (just like whales). Due to their gentle nature, you can actually swim right alongside them.
Pro Tip: Whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, are found just south of the island from October to March.
Being situated within a marine reserve makes Thanda Island perfectly located for water sports. The reefs around the island offer wonderful snorkeling, and the resident snorkeling guide can show you blue-spotted stingrays, trumpet fish, cornet fish, jewel damselfish, and countless other colorful tropical fish. If you don’t fancy or need a guide, you can simply don a mask and fins and dive into the water to take a look for yourself.
Scuba diving is another favorite activity. The waters around Thanda teem with unique marine life, including a diverse range of coral reefs and over 400 species of fish. If you aren’t a diver and want to learn, this can also be arranged at Mafia Island Diving on nearby Mafia Island. Dives are done from traditional Arab dhows in the Mafia Island Marine Park, which has some of the most spectacular diving off the East African Coast.
Depending on the season, guests can watch turtles nesting, and for those looking for something above the water, a boathouse full of equipment has everything you need for sailing, kayaking, and stand-up paddle boarding. Adrenaline junkies can try their hand at water skiing and tubing — a very patient boatman spent hours helping my youngest master wakeboarding. Deep-sea fishing is available too, and the island is outfitted with all the equipment you need, including a 28-foot reef runner cat to reel in tuna, kingfish, and more. For those who prefer a more sedate pace, a cruise on a traditional dhow is a good option.
Pro Tip: Children are welcome to fish — or learn how to — and the fishing season is from September to March, with sailfish from November to January.
Other Island Activities
I loved the white, gray, and black egrets that nest on the island. This is the perfect environment for them and they breed very successfully here, judging by noisy interactions between parents and hatchlings.
For the more sports-minded, there’s a full tennis court, volleyball court, yoga sessions, and a fully equipped gym.
Wellness and happiness sum up Thanda’s ethos, and the island’s beauty and massage specialists have created a full range of special massages, facials, and body treatments that will have you feeling rejuvenated and relaxed in no time at all — I visited the spa on a daily basis!
The Neighboring Islands
As wonderful as Thanda Island is, you may wish to explore some of the neighboring islands. A 30-minute boat ride away is Mafia Island with mangrove thickets, ancient baobabs, and the picturesque Chunguruma forest to explore, as well as hippos, flying foxes, and bush babies. You can visit a local fishing village and see how traditional dhow sailing boats are built. The islands of the Mafia Archipelago are also home to antiquities dating back to the 11th century, and various ruins can be visited, including a beautiful, barrel-vaulted mosque from the 15th century and a number of well-preserved buildings from the latter half of the 18th century.
A little further afield is Dar es Salaam — a thriving harbor city on the mainland with a colorful mix of African, Arabic, Indian, British, and German architecture and culture — and where you can shop the markets for colorful African textiles and souvenirs. Alternatively, a visit to Zanzibar, the legendary spice island, is another option. The historical center, Stone Town, is a fascinating place to explore and a spice tour is a great activity to sign up for. For these excursions, a helicopter flight from the island can be arranged.