Having tried to describe the benefits and drawbacks of the different parts of the coast, I have divided the lodging options accordingly, but the reality is that where you base yourself geographically is not as important as where you choose to stay: It's the resort rather than the location that will make your beach break. Predictably, I have a preference for smaller, more individualistic places, where service is personal, dining and pool areas are intimate, and you will never feel engulfed by package tours. Note that I dutifully visited all the large resorts; despite finding their vast size and cookie-cutter decor depressing, I have included a few of the best here, with appropriate caveats, should you prefer the anonymity and vast array of facilities that come with these mega-beach lodgings.
The Italian Invasion -- There are a number of resorts catering almost exclusively to Italian package groups, particularly the Ora group, which owns four hotels in the east (Hakune Majiwe, White Rose, Coral Reef, and the newest, Palumbo Reef) and another soulless edifice in the north (My Blue), in which all signage is in Italian and the Maasai guarding the entrance is as likely to greet you in Italian as Swahili. Also catering to package tours from the continent is the Plan Hotel group, which owns or manages three resorts, all neighboring each other on the east coast (Mapenzi Beach Club, Neptune Pwani, and Dream of Zanzibar), as well as the so-called five-star La Gemma Dell Est, a 138-room resort in the north where haughty reception staff prefer to speak Italian and pumping Eurotrash music drowns out the lapping of the ocean at the beachfront. The collective buying power of these resorts has meant that they are able to, in high season, charter planes to fly direct from Italy to Zanzibar. If you don't mind being in a resort that feels as if you are in Italy, the best of these are Hakune Majiwe (www.hakunamajiwe.net; half-board standard room $185-$275 double, depending on season), which, at 21 rooms, is relatively small; and Mapenzi Beach Club, which, being of an earlier era but recently refurbished, has a little more character than its swisher neighbors, Neptune Pwani and Dream of Zanzibar.
There are only two good options in the south: Fumba and Unguja (both happen to be sister resorts, though they differ in design and management style). Most of the other lodges on the south coast are looking tired and worn out; some of them are still occupied, pity the poor travelers, but many more are totally deserted and with a forlorn air.
Tip: If you're traveling to Kizimkazi for a dolphin excursion, pop into Cabs Restaurant (tel. 077/741-5554; email@example.com), which enjoys a great (and prominent) location overlooking Kizimkazi's little harbor and traditional dhow. It's a worthwhile place to slake a thirst (ice available) and choose a snack from the Statar menu or from the Man Coose; lobster masala with coconut will run you Tsh30,000, grilled fish Tsh15,000.
Approximately 90 minutes' drive from the airport, the southeast comprises a virtually unbroken stretch of wide white sands with three distinct fishing villages situated along it: Jambiani in the south, Paje in the center, and Bwejuu just north of this. Though there are a few good lodging options in Jambiani, this is the largest settlement on this coast, and the beach is very busy, with hawking and other forms of harassment by local villagers common complaints. Many visitors end up taking a taxi to spend the day on the uninhabited beaches farther north, and some end up moving into one of the lodges overlooking this; we suggest you cut this short and just book one from the outset. I have thus reviewed only the lodges running north of Bwejuu, rated one of the top 30 beaches in the world by Condé Nast Traveler for its "wide and blindingly white sands," and totally deserted except for the residents of the exclusive accommodations located on it. Of these, the gorgeous Baraza stands head and shoulders above its sister lodges (neighboring The Palms and Breezes) and is the most luxurious lodge on the island, while the tiny Anna of Zanzibar is arguably the most exclusive of the southeast bunch. Note that, at low tide, the ocean recedes for what appears to be miles, and you will then need a pool to cool off. The southeast coast also tends to be buffeted by a nearly constant breeze (hence the many kitesurfing schools that have sprung up along the coast, three alone in Paje); this can either be a welcome relief from the heat or an irritant. The breeze tends to drop during October and November, so don't come during these months if you're keen to try your hand at kitesurfing.
Traveling on a Budget? -- Before losing its place to Ras Nungwi as the backpacker destination of choice, the southeast coast used to be the number-one budget traveler destination, and there is still a big cluster of budget options here, of which three are definitely worth looking into. Located in the village of Paje, a 2-minute walk from the beach, the 20-room Paje by Night ($70-$95 double, including breakfast, $40 airport transfers, and free Wi-Fi) is the best budget lodge for young travelers looking for some party action along with their beach experience, with disco nights, a pool with large inflatables to sprawl on, sports bar with big-screen TV, 24-hour restaurant, and a convivial crowd; their Friday parties last till 3am, and with no aural escape, you'd best join in. If you're looking for a more laid-back, relaxing, budget experience, there are two good Bwejuu options. The well-managed Robinson's Place (tel. 077/741-3479; www.robinsonsplace.net; $50-$60 double) has no electricity, which makes for romantic evenings lit by paraffin lamps (book Robinson's House for the best sea view); food and service are excellent, making this exceptionally good value. Set back from the beach (less than a minute's stroll), Mustapha's Place (tel. 077/437-7442; www.mustaphasplace.com; $30-$80 double) also serves delicious food, and you won't find more welcoming and accommodating staff on the island.
The east coast, a mere 45 minutes from the airport, is classic Zanzibar, where every photograph you take is a visual cliché of perfect white sand and every shade of blue beyond. It is not as quiet as the southeast coast resorts, with quite a few beach hawkers in parts, and is also lined with sprawling resorts that all look alike: massive makuti-roof reception areas, oversize pools, and double-story bungalows squashed next to each other. When these resorts are full, you feel overwhelmed; when they're half empty, you feel lost. What's more, the huge distances you need to cover between reception and pool, room and beach are far from ideal. On the other hand are resorts that are small enough to not make you feel part of a package tour but that lack the essentials that make for a really relaxing holiday, such as energized and well-trained staff, maintained grounds, and a pool. The latter is really important; as is the case in the southeast, low tide means a 1km to 2km (1/2-1 1/4 miles) walk to the reefs. Aside from the time it takes to get there and back (the latter being the more exhausting), sea urchins lurk underfoot, so under no circumstances should this be attempted barefoot. The three top picks, all highly recommended for their intimacy and exclusivity, high service standards, organic rim-flow pools, and barefoot-chic style, are Pongwe Beach, Shooting Star, and Matemwe Beach Bungalows. Travelers watching their budget, however, should look into Matemwe Beach Guesthouse (www.matemwebeach.com), a small (just 22 units) and very relaxed option near Matemwe Bungalows; it offers comfortable accommodation right on the beach, is professionally managed (including the dive center), and offers exceptional value ($150-$190 double, $230-$270 suite; rates include breakfast and dinner).
In the large resort category, the bustling Blue Bay/Sultan Sands, organic Fairmont, and upmarket Zamani Kempinksi stand out and are reviewed below, but there are two more large resorts on this coast that may be worth looking into (at least just to see how price competitive they are at the time of booking). The relatively new Neptune Pwani Beach Resort, with all the trappings of a custom-built modern resort, and the older, more established (and, therefore, with more character) Mapenzi Beach Club are both four-star resorts owned by the Plan Hotel group (www.planhotel.com; both around $260-$500 full board double, depending on season and room) and offer good service and facilities and the same awesome stretch of beach. Rooms at Neptune Pwani closest to the beach or with proper sea views are those on the third floor that end in 51 to 54, 56, 57, 61 to 64, 66, 67, 71 to 73, 76, and 77; on the fourth floor, 51 to 54, 56, and 57.
The best choice on this part of the island is the classy Ras Nungwi (which is in the fortunate position of facing both the rising and setting sun), though the new Kilindi, located a little southwest at Kendwa, may still (once a few teething problems have been sorted) be crowned as best resort on the island. However, if you want to be in the heart of Nungwi's tourist beach, with plenty of independent restaurants (which means you aren't forced into the usual half- or full-board route), as well as a choice of dive centers, Z Hotel is the top choice. Aside from these three top-end options (reviewed below), there are a large number of budget accommodations options, most of which are pretty awful unless you're a beachcomber wearing a backpack. However, one midprice option well worth looking into, also located in Nungwi's tourist section (close to the main beach), is Langi Langi Beach Bungalows (www.langilangizanzibar.com). Make sure you book one of the nine seaview rooms ($140-$220 double B&B, depending on season and size); they're the latest addition to the hotel, and the views alone are worth the extra money. There's also a good restaurant and a pool.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.