Magical Mozambique

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Indian Oceanholidays are the stuff of dreams. And where better to soak up the sun and sea than along the seemingly endless coastline ofMozambique. For over a decadeMozambiquehas been on the comeback trail, with new resorts springing up, massive improvements in its roads and other infrastructure, and restocking of its game reserves. Now it’s a leisure destination that can match anywhere inAfrica. You want idyllic beaches or island life, fascinating history and culture, fabulous cuisine or an active adventure holiday?  Then grab your passport and head across the border.

Maputo,Mozambique’s cosmopolitan capital is a great weekend break or start to a self-drive holiday. The melting pot of several cultures, its architecture and cuisine reflect a strong Portuguese, South African, Arabic, and Eastern influence. In its heyday,Maputo, or Lourenço Marques as it was then known, must have been a magnificent city of grand buildings and leafy avenues and it’s still a charming place to explore despite the obvious poverty and somewhat run-down appearance of many of the central areas.

Architectural masterpieces worth checking out include the striking Cathedral da Nossa Senhora da Concieção, the Iron House, and the grand old Victorian domed CFM Railway Station, both designed by Gustav Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame, and the arched windows and delicate turrets of the Manueline Natural History Museum – home to some eclectic exhibits such as the largest collection of elephant foetuses in the world. Equally impressive isMaputo’s iconic Grand Old Dame, thePolanaSerenaHotel, a leafy retreat with a massive swimming pool, elegant pillars and sweeping verandas. If you can’t afford to stay, at least pop in for afternoon tea and gaze out at theIndian Oceanas you indulge.

The business visitor is spoilt for choice when it comes to hotels, bars and eateries.Maputohas established quite a name as a culinary capital, with everything from gourmet cafés to sushi bars and top-notch French bistros supplementing the traditional seafood restaurants. If you’re feeling adventurous, head down to the fish market just off the Ave da Marginal, select your own seafood from the arrays of freshly caught prawns, crab, crayfish, mussels and fresh fish straight off the boats, and take it to a nearby market restaurant to have it cooked. Or head out of town on the promenade to the perennial favourite, Casa de Sol, and sit out on the veranda with a cold 2M beer and a plate of peri-peri prawns. By the time you’ve eaten the city might be waking up.Maputo’s reputation for nightlife is legendary and there are plenty of clubs if you have the energy to party into the wee small hours.

The little island of Inhacain the Bay of Maputois only a short hop by boat or plane from the mainland – but it’s very much an island paradise with an excellent lodge, snorkelling, diving, fishing and a range of water sports and land-based activities. It’s the closest, and cheapest, tropical island toSouth Africa, so makes a great escape. If you’re planning to self-drive, then the southern resorts are a good bet. Just across the Kosi borderpost, Ponta do Ouro is one of southernAfrica’s most popular beach destinations for diving and, for the adrenalin-seekers, surfing and kite surfing. Plus, you can swim with the resident pods of bottlenose dolphins – an activity that is prohibited inSouth Africa. One bay further north is the much quieter Ponta Malongane, while Ponta Mamoli, a more exclusive resort a few kilometres further north again, boasts beautiful chalets and a range of marine adventures, seasonal tours to see nesting turtles, as well as the chance to combine a beach holiday with a Big 5 experience atTembeElephantPark.

A short drive north of Maputo, Praia do Sol, on the sheltered Uembje Lagoon near Belene, is a good safe spot to take the kids and/or to try your hand at deep-sea angling or fly-fishing. If you’re looking to combine beach and bush, it’s only a couple of hours from Belene to Massingir, the entrance gate for the Parque Nacional do Limpopo, part of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park (which includes South Africa’s Kruger and Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Parks). Besides their guided hiking and 4×4 wilderness trails, they have a luxury en suite tented camp overlooking theMachampaneRiverwhere you can just relax and enjoy the bush.

Inhambane is still close enough to be a self-drive destination but regular scheduled and charter flights serve the booming coastal resorts, which are clustered along the idyllic bay beaches of Barra, Tofu and Jangamo. All offer a good array of beach, inland and marine activities, but it is the SCUBA diving and snorkelling that is really exceptional – the diving here is some of the best in the world, with not only magnificent coral but also regular encounters the marine Big 5 – turtles, manta rays, whale sharks, dolphins and humpback whales.

There are accommodation options to suit all tastes and budgets.FlamingoBayWater Lodge, in theBayofInhambane, is the closest and most upmarket of the lodges in the area, and the slick service and exclusive water chalets appeal to romantics and honeymooners. At high tide you can descend the steps to the bright turquoise lagoon then snorkel or kayak around the stilted chalets, or explore the mangroves looking for the flamingos from which the resort takes its name.

Nearby Barra Lodge is less sophisticated, so is popular with families and the more active set who take advantage of its magnificent beach and activities which include scenic flights, snorkelling and diving trips, and quad eco-tours. Jeff’s Palm Resort, just south of Inhambane, is a relatively new kid on the block that offers great value self-catering accommodation and a vibey bar and restaurant, while the new catered water chalets at Pomene Lodge (slightly further up the coast between Inhambane and Vilanculos) have really opened up this beautiful, pristine, but previously inaccessible, stretch of coast.

Vilanculos and the Bazaruto archipelago have bounced back from the damaged inflicted by Cyclone Favio and offer standards of accommodation and activities even better than before. Vilanculos has some good value accommodation and adventures including day, or multi-day, dhow safaris to the islands, but most visitors simply pass through on the way to the archipelago. TheBazarutoNational Park, a marine reserve and one of the largest marine parks in Africa, consists of five islands: Bazaruto, the largest; Benguerra; Magaruque; Santa Carolina (orParadiseIsland), and tiny, uninhabited Bangue. The lodges and resorts on the islands are exclusive and unobtrusive – and the glorious beaches, pristine waters, range of water sports and land-based activities make them perfect destinations for romantics and adventurers alike. The most affordable option is the luxurious Pestana Bazaruto Lodge on the mainislandofBazaruto, while Indigo Bay Resort boasts haute cuisine and all mod cons, including a new Sanctuary Spa. Romantics looking for a spoil should head toBenguerraIsland. The extremely up-market, chic Azura Resort at Gabriel’s opened in late 2007 and is the first Mozambican establishment to gain membership of the prestigious Small Leading Hotels of the World. Its chic decor, imaginative wine list, gourmet restaurants and innovative spa provide competition to the newly renovated and well-established Benguerra Lodge -Mozambique’s Leading Safari Lodge at the 2007 World Travel Awards – a sophisticated, intimate retreat set in indigenous forest and lush gardens.

But my favourite area ofMozambiqueis right up in the north – the relatively unknown Quirimbas Archipelago. Pemba, the gateway to the islands is a wonderful destination with a beautiful beach and reasonable prices – in fact the area, Mozambique’s new tourism frontier, offers all that southern Mozambique, Zanzibar the other Indian Ocean islands offer but without the crowds. So go soon before the secret is out.

Heading out to the Quirimbas archipelago is still one ofAfrica’s great adventures. The island lodges are all very different. If you want an exclusive holiday check into Quilalea, Matemo orMedjumbe PrivateIslandlodges. This is luxury living at its best – beautiful white sand beaches, swaying palms, turquoise seas and the full gamut of water sports to amuse. The emphasis is on a total spoil, with the staff going the extra mile to ensure the personal attention that makes your holiday really memorable, and the food is superb. But if you want something a little bit different, head toIboIsland. Previously a thriving Arab and Portuguese trading settlement, the island is now a sleepy backwater rich in history and culture. The population is only a fraction of what it was, the electricity generator is sporadic, and the beautiful old colonial buildings all need a lick of paint or have trees growing out from the walls. But this sense of decay and the wonderfully friendly people add to Ibo’s charm – it is an extraordinary place that you simply have to visit once in your life. Don’t go expecting the classic beach resort, though. While dhows from the elegant red-roofed island lodge will take you to empty sand banks for lazy days of snorkelling, sunning and seafood braais, there is no beach on Ibo. Rather, tours are organised to the forts and other historical sites and to watch local craftsmen creating exquisite filigree silver jewellery. The weight of history bears down on you here, much as it does in Ilha de Mozambique further south, or inZanzibar’sStoneTown. But there’s none of the hassle or the cramped squalor here. Rather, Ibo is in a time warp, relaxed and unspoilt, and while the people are poor they seem happy – there is none of the irritating ‘gimme sweet’ culture that is all pervasive elsewhere.

If you’re a seasoned bush addict and 4×4 enthusiast thenGorongosaNational Parkis a good self-drive destination, while the intimate Lugenda Wilderness Camp in the north is an up-market fly-in option. However, with the notable exception of its marine safaris, game viewing is the one area in whichMozambiquecan’t compete with its neighbours. But that’s no great hardship when you’ve got so much else. Time to hit the beach.

Fiona McIntosh 

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