It's a rare commodity, an endless, unblemished beach. With 1,424km (883 miles) of Indian Ocean shoreline and relatively few urban blips along the way, Tanzania's coastline is a revelation. Beyond Dar es Salaam, the country's economic workhorse, there's precious little development and, apart from a handful of towns and villages, nothing resembling the concrete claustrophobia and human overcrowding that afflicts better-marketed tropical destinations such as Zanzibar and Mombasa.
An exotic jumble of beautiful palm-lined beaches and a steamy industrial port, Dar es Salaam -- the "House of Peace" -- is a confluence of striking contrasts. Wrapped in Swahili kangas, village women on their way to market bump shoulders with citified ladies tucked into Western office suits; men in traditional Omani-style koffias walk alongside lads in boardshorts and T-shirts bearing images of Barack Obama; and teens in hip-hop get-ups sit next to their sisters modestly tucked away in black bui-bui. You're as likely to hear the call to prayer ringing out from the mosques as you are to see crowds congregating outside steepled churches, and the sleek mirror-glass business blocks stand cheek-by-jowl with crumbling monstrosities. Everywhere there are visual tableaux that leave you scratching your head, trying to remember where in the world you are. In parts this is unquestionably a part of Africa, but there are pockets of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East here, too. For better or worse, the city represents an exotic cosmopolitan blend that is a reflection of a multifangled, albeit compact, history.
If you have absolutely no interest in seeing Dar es Salaam (or, simply, Dar), chances are, you're here just for a night, either preparing for your trip into the bush or about to head home. Or perhaps you've set your sights on Zanzibar's fabled beaches and haven't even considered the mainland coast. But instead of going with the flow, it may be seriously worth considering the path less traveled, with the chance to locate yourself on a paradisiacal stretch where the tour buses just don't go.
Here, along the coast, you could also choose to combine the best of both worlds at Sadaani National Park, where one of the country's loveliest lodges abuts both beach and bush, with a rare chance to witness pachyderms frolicking on the shore, watch hippos and crocs wallowing in the river, and even swim with dolphins and turtles in the warm, blue sea. Or, if you'd like to balance your safari with a look at an enchanting undersea world, you can sign up for some exceptional diving at little-known places such as Mikindani (a time-warped Swahili town in the far, far south) or Ushongo (a remote haven on the epic beach that stretches virtually unimpeded between Dar and Kenya).
Along this coast, too, there are still remnants and ruins signaling an ancient history of interaction with the outside world. Many of these reminders, clustered around little-developed Swahili towns such as Pangani and Bagamoyo, point to dark times when slavery and colonial exploitation were legitimate commercial enterprises. While the beach and the ocean are surely where you'll be focusing your attention, you can easily diversify your holiday with a short visit to these time-ravaged former Arab trade centers.
Dar may strike most as little more than a transit point between ill-timed flight connections, but there are some fabulous beaches within easy reach of the city, and whether you're a barefoot beachcomber or sun-worshipping snob, there's a patch of paradise earmarked just for you.
The North Coast -- As tranquil and, with few exceptions, untouched as the shores of the Tanzanian mainland seem today, the virginal coast belies centuries of turbulent and often bloody conflict that raged along this coast as Africa's tragic destiny unfolded in the hands of hostile outsiders, greedy to tap into the wealth of the largely unexplored continent. With a long history of exploitation, ports along the Tanzanian coast reached degrees of prominence during the 18th and 19th centuries, along with a growth in the international demand for ivory and slaves. Towns such as Tanga, Pangani, and Bagamoyo, on the coast north of Dar, emerged as major trade centers connecting Zanzibar with inland trade routes. Although there had long been some kind of foreign presence here, Arab traders had traditionally installed themselves on the islands off the Swahili coast -- Zanzibar and Pemba, Mafia, and Kilwa -- because of an abiding fear of attack by the indigenous African population and as a way of preventing their slaves from escaping.
Christian missionaries and European politicians crusaded against the slave trade, gradually stamping out one form of human exploitation (at least on the mainland, where slavery was criminalized) and replacing it with their own brand of imperial control. With the decline of the trade routes and the relocation of the German Protectorate's headquarters to Dar es Salaam in 1891, Northern Tanzania's ports fell out of favor (Bagamoyo's harbor simply wasn't deep enough for the new kinds of ship), and much of the land around them was given over to cash crops destined for European markets. Today these towns live on with some poignant reminders of the past, but none is likely to hold your interest for too long; generally, they're best thought of as beach escapes with the added bonus of some off-the-beaten-track cultural add-ons (including the ancient Kaole Ruins near Bagamoyo and vestiges of an old Arab slave town at Pangani). Only Tanga, at one point a major focus for German development, retains a port of any significance, but the town itself is a lazy, cheerless place, barely worth lingering in for longer than it takes to recover for your onward journey.
In a way, the easy-going rhythm of this coastal belt is like a giant collective sigh of relief following a history of oppression by slave-trading Arabs, and, much later, the Europeans who put an end to the slave trade but made every effort to install themselves as colonial overlords. While the scimitar-shaped dhow sails billowing on the horizon may take you back to the days when waves of traders, explorers, adventurers, pirates, slavers, and invaders landed on these shores, it takes very little effort in coming to the conclusion that the true wonder of this once-harangued coastline lies in the discovery of one of the world's finest beaches.