The Maldives and Zanzibar are two of the world’s most beautiful island nations. The epitome of the perfect paradise island, each boasts powder white beaches, turquoise sea waters and coral reefs teeming with sea life.
In their own unique ways, Zanzibar and the Maldives are outstanding holiday destinations that will appeal to different types of tourists. The Maldives offers unrivalled 5-star luxury, while Zanzibar provides a much more exciting holiday, at a fraction of the cost.
The Maldives and Zanzibar are both idyllic destinations, and this guide will help you make the best choice for your holiday.
Before comparing the Maldives and Zanzibar as holiday destinations, you must first consider the weather - and the timing of their wet seasons. While both destinations lie within the Indian Ocean, they have very different weather patterns and best times of year to visit.
The best time of year to visit the Maldives is from December to April. The peak seasons are the Christmas and Easter holidays, which is when the resorts will be at their most expensive.
The Maldives weather has two distinct seasons: the dry season and the wet season. The dry season lasts from late December through to April, and provides glorious weather with temperatures between 32-34°C (90-93°F).
The Maldives experience two monsoon seasons; the much heavier south-west monsoon (May to September) and the lighter north-east monsoon (October to December).
Never plan a holiday to the Maldives between May and September, as there is a very high chance of intense rainstorms, and diving/snorkelling may be disappointing due to the low visibility of the water. October and November provide great value (for the Maldives!), but there is always a risk of rain.
Zanzibar has two dry and two wet seasons, with the best time of year to visit being the longer dry season from June to October. The shorter dry season, between January and March, is hot and humid, but is fantastic for a beach-focused holiday.
The hot, tropical climate of Zanzibar means there is always the chance of intense rain showers year-round, however these rains are generally short-lived.
Zanzibar has two wet seasons: a brief wet spell around November (the Short Rains) and a more persistent rainy season lasting from April to May (The Long Rains). Never book a holiday during the Long Rains, as travel can be very difficult on the mud roads, the seas are rough, and many tourist services will be completely shut down.
The Christmas holidays are the most expensive time of year to visit, while from June to October offers decent weather and the best value.
The Maldives comprises of 1,192 coral white sand islands, that span the tops of an extinct oceanic volcanic mountain range. These paradise islands extend in a north-south direction for over 871 kilometres, and habitable dry land only accounts for 1% of the total area of the Maldives.
At the centre is Male, one of the largest islands and capital city, where a third of Maldives' 300k population lives. Male is the location of the main international airport, and from here are seaplanes and speed boat connections to the tourist islands.
The Maldives are unique as a holiday destination, as the tourist resorts are clearly separated from the deeply conservative Muslim population. Since the start of mass tourism in the 1980s until relatively recently, hotels for foreign tourists had to be built on uninhabited islands.
This law encouraged the construction of luxurious all-inclusive resorts that span entire islands, and kept bikini-wearing, alcohol-drinking visitors very separate from the Muslim population.
With a holiday to the Maldives, you will be very tied to the food, facilities and activities offered by the resort, as there will be no local shops or alternative tour operators close by.
Before booking any resort, always check to see if it is suitable for you (designed for honeymooners, activity based or family-focused), and check a variety of reviews for food and general standard. No other paradise holiday destination requires as much pre-booking research as the Maldives.
The sea-bungalows of the Maldives
Every resort island in the Maldives is a paradise
The pristine beaches to the north of Zanzibar
One of the many idyllic islands along the Zanzibar coastline
Zanzibar is the finest paradise island of Africa, and while it may be a little rough around the edges, it provides an exciting and memorable holiday destination.
Zanzibar is an archipelago of islands situated 36km off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean. Most visitors to Zanzibar base themselves on the largest island, Unguja, which is often simply referred to as Zanzibar Island or even Zanzibar. The other two inhabited islands are Pemba and Mafia, but if this is your first trip to Zanzibar, we’d recommend being based on Unguja.
Unguja is 85 kilometres long and 39 kilometres wide, but the dreadful state of its roads makes the island feel much larger, as travel can be time-consuming.
Zanzibar is surrounded by thriving coral reefs, with its coastline blessed with vast white-coral sand beaches lined by palm trees. The finest beaches can be found on the eastern side of Zanzibar Island, with this area containing the tranquil beach towns of Kiwengwa, Jambian and Pingwe. To the north of the island is the relaxed beach town of Nungwi.
Stone Town is the bustling - if slightly chaotic - capital city, which makes for an enjoyable day trip from the peaceful beach towns. Inland, Zanzibar is filled with tropical forests, spice plantations and distinctive red soils, along with a multitude of semi-poor farming villages. Zanzibar shares the woes and issues of much of central Africa, however the people are cheery and welcoming.
The big difference between Zanzibar and the Maldives
Zanzibar and the Maldives offer very different holidays, but the key differences are the comparable costs and finesse of the holiday.
The Maldives is a luxurious, paradise holiday destination that focuses on 5-star treatment. To get the most from a holiday here, you will need to spend big - both on your accommodation and once out there. For example, speed boat transfers will cost from $200/€200/£165, or seaplane transfers from $500/€500/£410.
Zanzibar offers similar white sand beaches and outstanding diving locations, but at a fraction of the cost of the Maldives. A holiday to Zanzibar also offers much more to do than in the Maldives. There is Stone Town, the characterful towns along the coastline and boat trips to the surrounding islands.
Zanzibar simply can’t compare to the high-end treatment provided by the Maldives. It is hampered by its infrastructure, dreadful roads, frequent power cuts and subtle corruption.
While Zanzibar is one of the safest African destinations, you must use common sense when outside of your hotel or resorts, as there is a huge wealth disparity between visitors and locals.
A happy middle ground between these two quite extreme holiday destinations is Mauritius, and it should be considered if your budget does not allow the Maldives, but Zanzibar seems too demanding.
So why the Maldives?
There is no doubting that the Maldives contain some of the world's most idyllic islands and beaches.
Here you'll discover white, powder-soft beaches, fringed with palm trees, calm blue lagoons, and below the warm and inviting waters, you'll find coral reefs teeming with life. This isn't just at one or two locations - this applies to each and every one of the 110 tourist islands.
Where the Maldives really excel are with their 5-star all-inclusive island resorts, providing unrivalled service, outstanding facilities and sumptuous meals. A luxury holiday in the Maldives will be expensive, however it will be faultless - which is why they are so popular for a once-in-a-lifetime holiday such as a honeymoon.
One of the best, most unique experiences of the Maldives is staying in one of the sea bungalows. These delightful villas stand above the calm lagoons, and there is no more magical experience than waking up surrounded by the turquoise waters and diving into them from your own private jetty.
Diving and snorkelling is always a highlight of the Maldives, with each resort having its own private diving site. As the Maldives sit atop a series of volcanoes, there are fantastic coral cliffs, impressive drop-offs and calm lagoon water in the craters that are perfect for snorkelling.
If you want an exclusive, relaxing holiday, then the Maldives is the perfect destination.
So why Zanzibar?
Zanzibar is undoubtedly one of the best destinations in Africa. A holiday here offers an exciting blend of rich cultures, stunning natural scenery and welcoming people. If you are looking for something very different from your holiday, Zanzibar makes a great choice of destination.
One huge bonus of a holiday to Zanzibar is that it can be easily combined with a safari in neighbouring Tanzania. A two-week holiday will frequently be split between an exciting safari in the Serengeti, followed by a relaxing beach break in Zanzibar.
As a paradise island, Zanzibar boasts some of the world’s finest beaches, with vast expanses of white coral sands and inviting turquoise sea water. The best beaches are to the far north (Nungwi), to the east (Kiwengwa) or to the southeast (Kizimkazi). The island’s coral reefs are teeming with life, and diving at Zanzibar is surprisingly inexpensive.
Unlike many other paradise islands, there is actually plenty to do if you tire of spending time on the beaches. There are day trips to Stone Town, Prison Island, the Jozani Forest nature reserve, as well as multiple snorkelling and diving trips.
Zanzibar also provides excellent value for money, for both mid-price all-inclusive holidays and budget-focused backpacking trips. For an off-the-beaten-path backpacking destination, Zanzibar is a fantastic choice.
While Zanzibar is a popular holiday destination, the island never feels overrun with tourists.
Sights of Zanzibar
Capital city 1) Stone Town
Main resort towns: 2) Kiwengwa 3) Nungwi 4) Jambiani 5) Pingwe 6) Paje
Best beaches: 7) Bwejuu Beach 8) Michamvi Beach 9) Nungwi Beach 10) Kendwa Beach 11) Kizimkazi Beach 12) Matemwe Beach
Tourist Sights: 13) Changuu (Prison Island) 14) Old Fort (Historic centre of Stone Town) 15) Jozani Forest 16) Snorkelling at Mnemba Island 17) The Rock restaurant
Transport: 18) Zanzibar Airport
Sights of the Maldives
1) Male (Capital city) 2) Gran island and airport 3) Noonu Atoll 4) Shaviyani Atoll 5) Faafu Atoll 6) Rasdhoo Atoll 7) Baa Atoll 8) Ari Atoll
Note: zoom in or out to see all of the points
Getting the most from your Maldives holiday
When choosing the Maldives for your luxury holiday, please put significant effort into selecting the resort that looks right for you. Don't be swayed by last-minute deals or website recommendations (which are often paid for).
The island you choose is where you will be based for your entire holiday and eat all of your meals, with your resort providing all of the included activities and equipment (such as kayaks, paddle boards and snorkelling equipment). Because of the one resort per island set-up, there will be no other options for tours, shops or activities on the island you select.
Insight: The saying "you get what you pay for" is most true for the Maldives. Never skimp on the resort you will be staying at, otherwise, you will be faced with the same buffet food every day of your stay.
One good point is that all of the islands are similarly beautiful, with every resort having the same stunning white sands and idyllic seawaters. The location of your island is not as important as the services and facilities that your resort can offer.
The sea-bungalows of the Maldives
Zanzibar’s stunning coastline
Things to do and see in Zanzibar
Zanzibar is both ecologically and culturally diverse, with the extensive selection of tours and activities available reflecting this.
The trading importance of Stone Town has resulted in a cultural mixing pot of Arabic, African and Indian influences. With its UNESCO world heritage sites, characterful back streets and elegantly carved wooden doors, Stone Town is a thriving and engaging city that is well worth a visit.
The Zanzibar Archipelago comprises of many islands, and a popular excursion is an island-hopping trip that includes snorkelling. One of the largest islands, Prison Island, is famed for its ancient giant tortoises.
Some of the best snorkelling is around Mnemba island, while there are dolphin-watching tours and deep sea fishing trips that head further out into the Indian Ocean.
Zanzibar was once completely covered in dense forests, and Jozani Forest is a great region in which to view the natural environment, along with its inquisitive red colobus monkeys. On the more fertile lands are farms growing exotic species, and there are informative tours of these plantations.
For more relaxing excursions, there are Dhow boats that gently ply the coastal waters or offer sunset tours.
Insight: The only consideration with any day trips on Zanzibar is the potted and dusty road network which can make the best of travellers feel car sick.
Which is more expensive for your holiday?
The following price comparison looks at both destinations for a 1-week holiday in the next month, giving you an indication of prices for a range of accommodation.
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