City, Safari and Sand: The Ultimate Tanzania Itinerary

This three-part trip is a perfect late-winter tonic.

Tanzania is no curt skip away. From Europe, would-be visitors typically face an eye-bag inducing long-haul flight to the likes of Nairobi, before decamping onto a shorter route to one of Tanzania’s urban hubs. From there, protracted road trips or further flights in ever-smaller, ever-older and ever-noisier aircraft usually beckon.

With the journey so consuming then, it stands to reason that arrivals would want to sap every ounce of experiential potential from their time in the country – something Meliá Hotels has seized upon with the opening of its swish, five-star Gran Meliá Arusha property. It’s the group’s first urban property in Tanzania and, when combined with Meliá Serengeti Lodge and Meliá Zanzibar, has become the first leg on what is arguably the ultimate Tanzanian itinerary – one that allows visitors to sample its abundant diversity of culture and environment through a single series of terrific interconnected stays.

Stop One: Arusha

Roughly an hour’s drive from the international Kilimanjaro Airport, Arusha is Tanzania’s sprawling third city. It’s far from a bronze medallist in its offerings, however, and though sometimes seen as a solid jumping off point for farther-flung adventures, there’s much to admire within striking distance. The 178-room Gran Meliá Arusha is one of the newest gems in the city’s crown, occupying a rambling compound that includes a coffee plantation and neatly kept urban farm, providing caskets of preposterously fresh produce for use in the hotel’s kitchens.

In style, the property is a long exhale when compared to the sharp intake that is the raucous city beyond. A softly ebbing koi pond greets guests then swiftly gives way to a majestic, cloud-grazing atrium flanked by light-bouncing ecru marble. The rooms, meanwhile, blend restrained luxury with Tanzanian flamboyance in sporadic bursts of African prints and boldly coloured art pieces. Those staying on the executive floors have access to a private butler service and well-equipped business lounge.

Elsewhere, there are all the hallmarks of a luxury stay, albeit not the overbearingly glitzy kind. At the spa, guests can opt for a skin-scrubbing massage traditionally undertaken by locals before their wedding days or languish in the outdoor pool, with the humming of insects a surprisingly soothing soundtrack. Once pummelled and pacified, you can enjoy the hotel’s restaurants, which offer up exemplary fare: local cuisine in the all-day-dining spot, Saba Saba, and refined Indian dishes at Yellow Chilli. The pinnacle, however, is perhaps the rooftop bar, where guests can enjoy a cocktail while looking across to the mist-shrouded Mount Meru by the amber light of sunset.

Of course, enjoying Arusha as more than a pitstop means breaking beyond Gran Meliá’s comfortable surrounds and exploring the city’s celebrated and lesser-discovered attractions alike. Its proximity to Mount Kilimanjaro makes it an opportune spot for climbers, but for those who wish to reach its peak without the physical exertion, fly-bys organised by Ruka Africa whisk visitors skywards from Arusha’s petite airstrip. The trip provides unparalleled views, not just of Kilimanjaro’s summit but of the nearby Arusha National Park and surrounding cityscape too.

Back on solid ground, Arusha’s Maasai market is a cacophonous maze of stalls, selling various traditional wares and tourist trinkets, from hand-woven blankets and carved wooden figurines to dazzlingly patterned clothing and jewellery. Here, haggling is both a sport and a test of nerve, with vendors expecting to engage in a well-meaning verbal rally.
More sedate is a visit to one of the city’s coffee plantations, such as Kimemo, where visitors can explore the processes of growing, picking and roasting, and ultimately leave never looking at a cup of joe quite the same way again.

Stop Two: The Serengeti

There’s an informality to Arusha’s airport, whereby passengers stroll to their various light aircraft across the runway from a canopied, but essentially outdoors, waiting nook. Dodging already spinning propellers and haphazardly stacked trolleys of luggage is perhaps travel at its most visceral. Planes to the Serengeti National Park are compact, carrying only a handful of passengers in intimate quarters. Nervous fliers are likely to find the journey mildly harrowing, but for the rest it’s an incomparable opportunity to witness the beauty of Tanzania from above, as city gives way to sporadic green and, eventually, seemingly infinite savannah.

The Serengeti’s Seronera Airstrip is a sparse dust track far from civilisation. From this great wilderness it’s several hours drive to the nearest small settlement; much longer to what might constitute a large town or city. Guests of Meliá Serengeti Lodge are greeted by a nattily-dressed guide and canteens of tea and coffee, set up on a picnic table surrounded by sun-scorched plains, impala nodding curiously in the distance. The hour-long journey to the property is surely one of the world’s most impressive transfers, with giraffes, elephants and big cats strolling alongside each other and the powerful scent of grass and earth hanging in the air.

Astride a hilltop overlooking the savannah, Meliá Serengeti Lodge is anything but bashful in showcasing its trump card: the views. The hotel’s reception and most of its public areas are exposed, looking out to the horizon from the property’s high vantage point. Guestrooms and suites run single file across two levels, so outstanding panoramas are as standard as the four-posters, private terraces and local touches – such as the hand-hewn bars of soaps and water bottled at the lodge’s own sustainability-minded water plant.

With few barriers between the property and the wider park, skilled Maasai tribesmen roam the grounds, and are adept at fending off anything that might consider guests supper worthy. For residents, meanwhile, meals require much less effort, with an all-day-dining joint, lounge and an ambience-rich restaurant specialising in Tanzanian cuisine. At the latter, a ferocious central fire pit squares up to the evening chill, with visitors able to dine al fresco against the backdrop of the moonlit wild.While the Serengeti’s landscape is arguably a draw in and of itself, it’s the inhabitants that most come to see. The lodge’s safari guides are among the best, leading game drives in customised jeeps that come with all of the comforts one needs for a day on the ground – binoculars, charging points and a refreshment-filled cooler.

Elevating the experience still further, the lodge has the exclusive use of an off-road route (a rarity in a region where human intervention is kept to a minimum), and it’s possible to organise a private dining experience in the open air, table service and all. Cooks shuffle between a few neat preparation stations and the Maasai once more hold fort against predators as sharing dishes are decanted onto china plates and ice-cold champagne is poured into flutes. It’s all quite evocative of a different age of adventure.Having explored the surroundings and its abundant residents up close, a hot air balloon ride throws the scale of the park back into stark perspective. Provided by Miracle Experiences and organised by Meliá Serengeti Lodge, it’s a unique way to appreciate the wandering herds below and, while it requires a 4am departure time, the early start is quickly forgotten in the blazing light and swelling birdsong of the early dawn.

The sights and sounds of the Serengeti undoubtedly leave a remarkable imprint, but the sheer bombardment of stimuli is also depleting, as the mind and body sag under the weight of such commanding experiences. Thankfully, Tanzania serves the perfect tonic in its island paradise, Zanzibar.

Stop Three: Zanzibar

The 45-minute drive from Zanzibar’s airport, on the main island of Unguja, to the Meliá resort is a decompression of sorts. As the property’s branded 4×4 rolls along palm-lined roads, flashes of cerulean ocean appearing in bouts, the heart rate slows to a tropical beat and tense muscles melt into the leather seats.

Just as the Serengeti is a world apart from Arusha, so too Zanzibar seems a place entirely removed from the mainland, both literally and figuratively. The distance ripples in the heat and everything from the rows of storefronts to the dense foliage seems alive with colour. Time stretches like kneaded dough, pulled long and malleable. Locals recline on benches: nowhere to be – or at least, not in a hurry.

Meliá Zanzibar hugs the island’s north-eastern shoreline, with its long, perfectly groomed stretch of beach and clear, lukewarm waters. The resort’s footprint is substantial, but despite the scale there’s an air of privacy and the sense of a community peacefully closed off from the strains of anything resembling reality.

The property’s most recent addition is The Level, a luxury enclave within an already smart destination, with its own clubhouse, pool and plush beach pavilions. Built in wood and with roofs fashioned from dried palm leaves, the pavilions are classic Indian Ocean fare, with spacious terraces, walk-in wardrobes and generous lounges-cum-bedrooms.

The all-inclusive resort features a healthy array of dining options but highlights include the Gabi Beach restaurant, where guests dive into plates of seafood as waves fall ashore just a few metres away, and The Jetty Lounge, a stilted bar and restaurant than drifts above the ocean. From here, a spectacular moonrise can be viewed most evenings.

While sinking into the sand with a hefty read is likely to be the sole item on many visitors’ agendas, a tennis court and spa – inspired by Out of Africa author, Karen Blixen – provide alternative diversions. If the purpose is unashamed downtime, then there’s little need to leave Meliá Zanzibar, but free-spirited guests may wish to idle away an afternoon in the island’s capital Stone Town or take to the seas in a dhow boat with the likes of Safari Blue, which offers a day of sailing and snorkelling in the Menai Bay conversation area.

Zanzibar is, unquestionably, the perfectly tuned crescendo to a multi-leg Tanzania trip. Not only does it provide unbridled relaxation within a picturesque setting, but it is yet another facet on a still, for many, undiscovered diamond. For Tanzanians, displaying a warm welcome – ‘karibu’, in Swahili – is a cultural imperative, and with Meliá’s triple proposition, it’s a lesson visitors get to learn three times over.

Stays at Gran Meliá Arusha start at £198 per night; full board at Meliá Serengeti starts at £616 per night; an all-inclusive stay at Meliá Zanzibar’s The Level starts at £500 per night.