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July 10, 2018 10:39 AM

If you’ve been dreaming of going on a wildlife safari, Tanzania should be high on your travel bucket list. The East African country is home to some of the best national parks for spotting the Big Five (elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and buffalo)—as well as gorgeous white sand beaches, so you can peel off your dusty safari clothes and end your vacation with a coconut in hand.

On a recent trip with my girlfriends, I got to do just that, but not before learning a whole lot about navigating Tanzania first. Arguably the most important thing you need to know before you go is how to pronounce the country’s name. After telling everyone I knew that I was going on a 10-day trip to Tan-zuh-nEE-uh, I quickly learned on arrival that I was actually in Tan-ZAN-ee-uh. Yeah, I know.

Because we wanted the best of both worlds on our trip—a little adventure and a little R&R—we split it into two parts: the Serengeti and Zanzibar.

An elephant at the Four Seasons Serengeti watering hole.

Part 1: The Serengeti

Deciding on which national park to visit can be daunting. Arusha offers stunning views of Mount Kilimanjaro, while the Maasai Mara hosts a huge amount of wildlife and doesn’t attract as many tourists as the Serengeti. Really, there is no wrong choice. But we decided on the Serengeti because it’s one of the largest and most famous parks in Africa. Plus, it’s where the late Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of Parts Unknown.

The Four Seasons also runs an incredible lodge in the Central Serengeti. Have you ever wanted to sip a dawa (Swahili for medicine, and a popular cocktail in the area made of vodka, sugar, lime and honey) poolside, while an elephant comes to take his own drink (though clearly not as tasty) from a watering hole just 100 feet away? You should, because it’s life changing.

The Four Seasons Serengeti

Most, if not all, of the lodges and camps in the Serengeti are all-inclusive because the nearest town is an eight-hour drive away, so the food is a serious consideration when choosing an accommodation. The Four Seasons Serengeti has three amazing restaurants where the food is just as good as the sweeping grassland views. Make sure to stop by the Boma Grill where members of the Maasai tribe will teach you their traditional jumping dance mid-dinner.

The game drives throughout the park, which the hotel can arrange for you, are offered as full and half-days, but it’s recommended to opt for the full-day drive because the animals can be quite spread out in such a large park. On the drive we booked through Mario Tours and Travels, we saw all of the Big Five except for rhinos, but were told that’s typical because the heavy poaching in the area has nearly wiped them out. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get to see one of the animals on the hunt. We witnessed a leopard track down a warthog for lunch (poor Pumbaa) and it was one of the coolest moments of the entire trip.

You’ll be away from the hotel for most of the day, so remember to pack lunch or ask your hotel to put something together for you. There aren’t many food options to buy from throughout the park.

If you don’t think you have room in your suitcase for DSLR camera, take out that extra pair of shoes you probably won’t wear. Trust me. While on the game drives, it’s best not to rely on your phone for pictures because the wildlife can sometimes be far away from the roads and there’s no off-roading allowed in the Serengeti. You might also want to bring a pair of binoculars, though our tour guide had them in the truck for us to share.

Hot air balloon ride in the Serengeti.

The other thing you can’t miss is a hot air balloon ride, even if, like me, you’re afraid of heights. The balloons glide so slow and often low to the ground so you can see the animals that I never felt scared. Serengeti Balloon Safaris is one of two companies running rides in the park and will arrange with your hotel to pick you up and drop you off. The cost is around $600, which includes an outdoor champagne brunch at the end, but it’s worth the splurge.

In addition to the animals you’ll see while in the air, the car ride to the balloon take off spot is before sunrise (it’s early, yes, but our jetlag made it easier to get up) so you’ll see animals you might not otherwise see in the day. A hippo crossed directly in front of our car on the way, and it’s extremely rare to see them out of water. If we weren’t fully awake before that, we certainly were after.

Zanzibar

Part 2: Zanzibar

Four days was the perfect amount of time in the Serengeti. By then we were ready to trade the bush for the beach. Zanzibar, an island off the coast of East Africa just a two hour flight from the Serengeti, has some of the most gorgeous beaches in the world, luxury hotels, water activities, and the historic city of Stone Town.

The Zanzibar Collection runs four resorts on a strip of the Bwejuu beach at the east end of the island and about one hour drive from the airport. Each of the hotels is jaw-droppingly beautiful, but cater to different types of travelers.

The Zawadi is the newest of the bunch with a modern, Hamptons-esque décor style. It sits on top of a cliff, so the views alone make it a wise choice. It’s made up of only nine private suites, making it right for honeymooners or those after a quiet, relaxing stay. The Palms (my favorite hotel by far) is similarly small but with a more island tiki-bar vibe and has some of the friendliest staff on the island. The lunch on the beach by Chef William under a palm leaf pergola will make you question every other vacation you’ve taken.

The Palms Hotel in Zanzibar

The Breezes and the Baraza are the larger and more family-friendly resorts. Baraza has a more luxe feel with gilded décor and intricately carved wood furniture, all handmade specially for the hotel. Unlike the Breezes, which has more traditional style hotel rooms, Baraza has all private villas (for both families and couples) that are tucked behind lush greenery.

Stone Town, Zanizbar

Though its tempting to lounge by the crystal clear water all day—the hotels have private lounge chairs and huts for every villa so it’s especially tempting—make sure to take a trip to Stone Town to visit the spice markets and walk through the cobblestone streets. Because the island is predominantly Muslim, it’s respectful to cover your shoulders and legs when visiting the markets, so make sure to bring along a sarong. After you’ve worked up an appetite in Stone Town, the Beach House oceanfront restaurant is a must for a quick bite and a gin cocktail.

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Of all the incredible scenery you’ll witness in Tanzania, the most unique, at least when it comes to dining options, is at The Rock Restaurant in Zanzibar. The eatery, which made PEOPLE’s list of the most incredible restaurant settings in the world, is located in the middle of the ocean, so while you may be able to walk right up to it during low tide, be prepared to take a boat back to the shore when you’ve finished your meal of freshly caught fish.

The Rock Restaurant in Zanzibar

Getting There:

The Seronera Airstrip (SEU) is the main airport that services the Serengeti but it’s for domestic flights only. After flying into Kilimanjaro (JRO), the closest international airport to the Serengeti, African airlines like Safarilink and Precision Air offer transfers to Seronera. Some of the flights have stops in Arusha (ARK) but you don’t deplane or transfer, you simply pick up other passengers before taking off again. Reserve a window seat and keep your eyes peeled because you can see the snowy peak of Mount Kilimanjaro from the air. The same airlines offer flights from Seronera to the Zanzibar airport (ZNZ) for about $200.

It’s important to know that the smaller airlines within Tanzania have luggage restrictions for both carry on and checked bags. They ask that all rolling suitcases are considered soft, but before you leave that pretty Away bag behind, check the measurements. We had no issues bringing along hard suitcases that measured around 22-inches high. But the airlines do note that it’s up to their discretion whether to allow a bag on board, so if you’re visiting during the busy season you may run into more trouble.

When To Go:

June through November is considered the dry season, while March through May bring rain. The in-between months of January and February can be a nice time visit because the hotels and excursions are less expensive and there’s only a small chance of rainy weather when the animals in the parks will be harder to spot. During my trip in February, we only had one day of clouds with temperatures consistently in the high 80s.

Visas and Immunizations:

Tanzania requires a visa for entry into the country. The cost is $100 and it can be obtained at the embassy in Washington D.C. or New York City. If you don’t live near either location, you can mail your passport in with a few required documents and it will be mailed back to you roughly five days later with the visa printed inside. The idea of having my passport out of sight with such a big trip coming up made my skin crawl so I was happy to find out that you can get a visa at any of the major international airports. All you need is $100 cash and a few blank pages in your passport. The process took about 30 minutes, but I could see it taking much longer had there been a number of other flights landing at the same time. Whether you have the time to mail in for a visa ahead of time or risk a few extra hours in the airport is just a matter of preference.

Most travel clinics will advise you to get the Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccinations before traveling to Tanzania, and the CDC recommends talking to your doctor about taking medication to prevent malaria while there. Tanzania also requires proof of a yellow fever vaccination if you’re traveling from certain countries—but you don’t need to worry about this if you’re coming straight from the U.S.

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