Where safari meets heavenly white beaches

TANZANIA combines the thrill of safari through the vast plains of the Serengeti with relaxation on the tropical beaches of the exotic Spice island of Zanzibar.

We draw the curtains of our room in Kempinski’s Bilila Lodge to find a welcome committee of seven elephants, obligingly gathered at a watering hole just steps away from our balcony. Our first encounter with the wildlife of the Serengeti National Park, an area the size of Scotland and home to some of the world’s most impressive wildlife, is just a taster of things to come.

Safari simply means “journey” – so for pasty Europeans like us, some structure and the guidance of an expert is vital. Which is why we went game driving with Steven, a guide with an uncanny knack of knowing exactly where the baboons would cross our path or where a pride of lions were playing with their cubs. But this isn’t Disney’s Lion King – moments later we passed a lioness that had just caught and killed a young wildebeest and was in the process of tearing its throat out.

Back to that welcome committee of elephants and the place that allowed us to enjoy them. Bilila Lodge is a new luxury lodge in the Seronera area, generally thought to be the best year-round game viewing area of the Serengeti. The term “luxury safari” has always struck me as a contradiction, because there’s no fragrant way to get up close and personal with a smelly hippo or a rather ugly wildebeest. But lodges such as Bilila bring style to the experience. Touches such as a personal telescope from your own private viewing deck, good food and wine and – best of all – state of the art AC systems which ensure bug-free nights, make this a safari far removed from camp fires and canvas. The on-site spa offers a welcome jet-lag massage after the long trip, or an après-game drive spot of relaxation before enjoying a Bilila Bellini overlooking the savannah.

The Serengeti is one of the best places on earth to see lions – there are over 3,000 of them here. The short grass makes viewing easy. Elephants, giraffe and zebras are all to be seen in great numbers, as are the cheetah and African wild dog. Animals such as the gazelle, impala, hartebeest, topi and waterbuck also frequent the plains. Hippos can be spotted bathing in their muddy pool and it’s a sight quite unlike any other. They may look innocent, even tranquil, as they wallow in their muck, but if you annoy them, beware their enormous mouths and deadly bite. It’s not unheard of for angry hippos to devour unwitting intruders. Likewise elephants: annoy them with loud chatter and they have been known to trample or even to bring down treehouses.

Over a million wildebeest and about 200,000 zebra flow from the Northern hills to the Southern plains for the short rains every October and November, then swirl West and North after the long rains in April, May and June. The sight of them is staggering.

A short hop by small plane, but a world away from the savannah, is the magical archipelago of Zanzibar, comprising over 50 islands nestling in the Indian Ocean. The major inhabited islands are Unguja (which we call Zanzibar), Pemba and Tumbatu.

Zanzibar’s main town, Stonetown, is a Unesco world heritage site and a crumbling maze of twisting alleyways with over 200 huge, ornately carved doorways. Historic buildings such as the Old Fort, The House of Wonders and the Old Dispensary are a fascinating living monument to the curious mix of East African, Arab, Indian, Persian and European conquerors, traders and seafarers who all left their mark on the islands.

The coastline proffers mile upon mile of blue sea and white sand, with waters famed for their superb diving. Zanzibar beaches are among the best in the world, views from the palm-fringed sands reveal the hand-sewn sails of traditional wooden fishing dhows, and ocean explorers can find themselves alongside thriving coral reefs, beautiful tropical fish, turtles and dolphins.

The Zamani Kempinski is the newest of the large five-star resorts on Zanzibar. Located on the East coast, about 45 minutes from Stonetown, the hotel has an unsurpassed air of chic and seven private villas each boast a private 20-metre infinity pool. The beguiling, idyllic jetty bar and the private beach club grill and bar also appeal.

In Stonetown, go for the balcony bar at Africa House, the former English Club in colonial times. It’s the place to be seen for sundowners. After dark, head to Forodhani Gardens to eat freshly caught fish. Mercury’s, just 2 minutes from the Old Fort, is a beachfront tribute to Freddy Mercury, who was born in Zanzibar. Emerson & Green Hotel typifies Stonetown style with breathtaking architecture and is famous for its rooftop dinners.

A balloon ride over the Serengeti is the best way to get a bird’s eye view of the Migration.

Fly over the Ngorongoro Crater – one of the wonders of the world. Make sure to grab the seat next to the pilot on the short 10-seater flight from Lake Manyara to Seronera for a spectacular sight.

Have a Champagne breakfast in the bush as the sun rises. The sounds and smells of the local wildlife waking up give a whole new meaning to Bucks fizz.

Sample an African barbeque in the Boma, a round room built in the style of a Maasai house. The Maasai people have grazed their cattle on the vast grassy plains here for millennia. These tall and handsome people with their red blankets and huge spears act as guards around the hotel.

Prise yourself away from the hotel beach club and head to Prison Island. A former prison for slaves and a quarantine station for Zanzibar, it is home to giant tortoises that were imported from the Seychelles in the late 19th century.

A Sunset dhow cruise is pure romance on the high seas, or go for a spice tour – after touring a spice farm you’ll visit the markets where you can purchase pure spices. Later chefs teach you to create traditional dishes from the Swahili kitchen. The Jozani Forest is home of the red colobus monkey, a rare species found only in Zanzibar. These monkeys are full of character, and roam freely.

BA offers return flights from London Heathrow to Dar es Salaam from £618 per person based on September 2010 departures.

For reservations, visit ba.com or call 0844 493 0787. Internal flights from Dar es Salaam to Arusha, Seronera and Zanzibar are operated by Coastal Aviation: www.coastal.cc

Kuoni (01306 747008 or www.kuoni.co.uk) offers 7 nights on half-board basis at the Zamani Zanzibar Kempinski in a garden room, including flights with Kenya Airways from Heathrow with private transfers in resort and a lounge in the UK on departure. Prices for October 2010 start from £1686 per person based on two sharing.

Kempinski’s Discovering Tanzania experience includes one night at the Kilimanjaro Hotel Kempinski in Dar es Salaam, two nights in Bilila Lodge Kempinski and four nights in Zamani Zanzibar Kempinski.

The 7-night package in a standard room is 3,900 USD for two adults, or in private villas in Zamani Zanzibar and Bilila Lodge, and Diplomatic suites at the Kilimanjaro Hotel Kempinski, for 25,000 USD. To book, go to www.kempinski.com or call 0080042631355

Tours of Zanzibar: Gallery Tours can be found at www.gallerytours.net. To find out more about Tanzania Odyssey, go to www.tanzaniaodyssey.com