5 can't-miss Tanzania experiences

By Jordan Bissell, Special to CNNPublished 23rd October 2014
Tanzania is far more than just a spot to climb the world's tallest freestanding mountain.
The East African country's stunning wildlife, expansive volcanic crater and intriguing islands all set it apart as a unique destination. Massive Mount Kilimanjaro just adds to its allure.
The Indian Ocean laps Tanzania's eastern edge between Kenya and Mozambique, and the "spice island" of Zanzibar is 22 miles off the mainland.
Tanzania's sprawling plains are sparsely populated, by people, at least. About half the world's dwindling lion population lives in East Africa, estimates indicate.
Here are five ways to experience Tanzania's splendor.
Tony is surprised to learn hippos are vicious, unpredictable, incredibly fast-moving killers on Parts Unknown: Tanzania
On the Serengeti's east end, Tony visits "paradise," also known as the Ngorongoro crater's ecosystem within an ecosystem
In Stone Town's Forodhani Gardens, Tony samples seafood snacks and the famous Zanzibar pizza. Watch Sunday, 9pm ET/PT.
Roam the Ngorongoro Crater
Sometimes called "Africa's Garden of Eden," some 25,000 large animals live in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which stretches across 3,200 square miles of the southeastern Serengeti Plains adjacent to Serengeti National Park.
The 12-mile-wide Ngorongoro Crater is the area's crown jewel. The largest unbroken caldera in the world, it is thought to have formed after an active volcano collapsed about 2.5 million years ago.
Well over a million wildebeest pass through the area during the annual Great Migration, one of the planet's most remarkable natural spectacles.
From December to March each year, wildebeest, zebras and other animals gather near Lake Ndutu on the edge of the conservation area. From there they move north, eventually ending up in the Northern Serengeti and Kenya's Maasai Mara in the fall.
Beyond the huge wildebeest herds, black rhinos, leopards, gazelles and birds thrive here -- as does that most powerful crowd-pleaser, the lion.
Get to know the lions
You're bound to be on the lookout for lions in the Serengeti and their conservation deserves a special mention.
The tawny lion prides dominating the Ndutu area of the southeastern Serengeti are not your "Lion King" variety of big fuzzy kittens. These giant creatures are respected among locals because of their history of asserting dominance when challenged by aggressive hunters.
In an attempt to discourage the trend of stalking and killing lions in the Amboseli Ecosystem, conservation organization Lion Guardians recruits young Maasai warriors to instead protect the regal creatures.
By naming the lions and developing relationships by tracking them, members of the guardian program recognize that animals like local lioness Selenkay can live in peace with their human neighbors.
Safaris throughout the vast Serengeti give visitors the rare opportunity to see these majestic cats in their native territory. The Ndutu Safari Lodge features 34 cottages with porches facing Lake Ndutu.
Learn about Maasai culture
For the Maasai, one of the last warrior tribes in the world, cattle are integral to day-to-day life. Besides providing sustenance in the form of milk, and sometimes meat and blood, cows are also currency in the region.
The tribes move with their livestock across northern Tanzania and southern Kenya, constructing villages as they go. The settlements generally consist of a ring fence that encloses a group of families, their herds and a collection of mud and dung houses.
Where livestock gathers, so do big cats hunting for meals. Relations between the Maasai and the lions that lure tourists by the truckload are tense but evolving.
The Maasai are formidable opponents strengthened by a nearly 100% protein diet. A staple is amasi, a lumpy, yogurt-like drink made from fermented milk.
Sample the Spice Islands
The semi-autonomous islands off the coast of Tanzania exhibit the rich and varied influences that arrived on their shores.
On the island of Zanzibar, African, Arab, Indian and European flavors emerge in the cuisine, the homes, the people and the famous carved doors. Today, 99% of the population is Muslim, compared with about a third of the mainland population.
Tourism has replaced the spice and slave trades that shaped the island's history, and delicious street food is part of the local island experience.
Every night in Stone Town's Forodhani Gardens, vendors set up stalls selling seafood snacks and the famous Zanzibar pizza.
Zanzibar pizza is revered as one of the most delicious foods in the region. With toppings ranging from fresh meats to juicy mango, the crepe-like pizza carries its flavorful toppings on the inside almost akin to a burrito. Unlike traditional pizza crust, Zanzibar's variety has the texture of a pancake. And who doesn't love pancakes?
The various carts are piled with fresh seafood skewers, African doughnuts called "mandazi" and fried breads. To wash down all the yumminess, try some honey beer or a mixture of sugar cane water, ginger and lime juice.
Nearby Pemba Island, also part of the Zanzibar Archipelago, offers a quieter, unspoiled experience. Known as "the Green Island" for its lush vegetation, the delicately sweet fragrance of cloves permeates the air, underlining the "spice island" moniker. The rolling hills also produce other fragrant crops like mangoes and coconuts.
Pemba's coast is home to some of East Africa's best diving. Go snorkeling or diving in the translucent waters to admire graceful manta rays, stunning live coral and schools of jewel-toned fish.
Conquer Kilimanjaro
The tallest freestanding mountain in the world, northeastern Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro draws tourists because of its relatively accessible trails. While other towering summits require Spiderman-like agility and climbing skills, conquering Kilimanjaro primarily demands training, determination and a sturdy walking stick.
Kilimanjaro is Africa's highest peak at 19,340 feet. Allot a minimum of five or six days of climbing to reach the top.
As climbers ascend the mountain, they experience each of Africa's climates, from the tropical heat at the bottom to the clear iciness at the top of Africa.
The view at the summit, Uhuru Point, presents a breathtaking picture of the sprawling country below.