Maputo - Indian Ocean sunrises, turquoise waters, a 2 500km coastline and a fascinating cultural scene: all this and more awaits in Mozambique, one of southern Africa’s least visited destinations. Here, in this long land running from South Africa in the south up to Tanzania in the north, the African bush fuses with Mediterranean flair (this was once Portuguese East Africa), humpback whales migrate up the coast while lions and buffalos roam the interior.
Despite all that Mozambique has to offer, its vibrant present is often overshadowed by its darker past. From Vasco da Gama’s first foray in 1498 to independence in 1975, much of the country was under the loose control of the Portuguese, who left their mark on its language, cuisine and culture.
Following a hard-fought independence war and a brief and economically disastrous flirtation with socialism, Mozambique almost immediately fell into a protracted guerrilla war fuelled largely by external sources. Only since the 1993 peace accords have Mozambicans had the stability, peace and massive influxes of foreign aid needed to rebuild their country.
Over the past decade, things have really taken off. New developments are most noticeable in the capital, Maputo, which is economically welded to SA. Mozambique’s north is in many ways a different land, with vast tracts of dense bush in the interior, and idyllic islands scattered along the coast.
Because of Mozambique’s size it is best to focus on either the south or the north. Southern Mozambique’s climate is ideal almost year round, apart from January, which can get very hot, and March to May, when there is usually lots of rain. In the north, the main rains fall from about February through to April.
For most visitors, the first port of call is Maputo, a striking and unexpectedly pleasant capital city. Long, wide avenues lined by flame and jacaranda trees flow down into the lively low-lying Baixa commercial area. Swanky villas overlook the blue expanses of Maputo Bay and Portuguese-style pavement cafés offer respite from the streetside bustle. Meanwhile an ever-growing array of restaurants serve seafood platters, spicy samoosas and sizzling steaks. Painted “laranjinha” tuk-tuks wait outside the landmark Hotel Cardoso (hotelcardoso.co.mz), on the edge of the busy central area, to take you sightseeing (from about R50 for a short trip). The hotel’s doubles are $280 (about R2 470).
Exploring on foot is also feasible. But whatever your mode of transport, don’t miss Maputo’s elegant early 20th-century railway station on Praca dos Trabalhadores. Waiting for the badly dilapidated train isn’t worth your time (there are just a handful of mostly local runs), but the building, with its wrought-iron lattice work and a dome that was designed by an associate of Gustave Eiffel, is an architectural masterpiece. Nearby is an imposing fortress, known locally as the Fortaleza, that harks back to the Portuguese colonial era.
Another highlight is the National Museum of Art at 1233 Avenida Ho Chi Minh, with an eclectic collection of works by contemporary Mozambican artists. The chaotic Mercado Municipal on Avenida 25 de Setembro, open from about 8am until 6pm daily, makes an enjoyable detour, overflowing with piles of tropical fruits and spices.
Maputo’s nightlife, permeated by a satisfying fusion of Latin rhythms and African beats, is renowned, although things don’t get started until close to midnight. The Franco-Mocambicano Cultural Centre at 468 Avenida Samora Machel is a good venue for an earlier start, with performances of traditional and modern Mozambican music.
When bedtime calls, Polana Serena Hotel, which has graced the city’s skyline since the 1920s, has doubles from $250 (about R2 500) including breakfast.
After all this activity, it’s time to head out of Maputo to the Bazaruto archipelago – a national marine park reached via a 45-minute flight up the coast – for some relaxation.
The turquoise waters surrounding the archipelago abound with marine life. The largest island, 35km-long Bazaruto, and the somewhat smaller Benguerra are home to a handful of comfortable lodges where you can spend your days listening to the rustling of palm trees or swimming and snorkelling amid well-preserved coral formations.
With great luck, you may even spot one of Bazaruto’s rare dugong, who spend their days foraging among the sea-grass meadows. Azura (00 27 76 705 0599; azura-retreats.com) on Benguerra Island has double villas from $1 250, all inclusive. Pestana Bazaruto Lodge, on Bazaruto Island, has doubles from $474 (£316), full board.
While Mozambique’s coast gets most of the attention, there are several inland gems. Gorongosa National Park (gorongosa.net) in the centre of the country is a success story in the making.
Once one of southern Africa’s premier wildlife parks, Gorongosa was renowned for its large prides of lions, elephants, hippos, buffalos and rhinos. This abundance was affectedly badly during the fighting of the 1980s. In recent years, an international effort has set Gorongosa’s restoration in motion.
While wildlife still cannot compare with that in other southern African destinations, there is plenty to be seen. Explore Gorongosa runs a seasonal tented camp and walking safaris in the park.
Tour operator Toescapeto (toescapeto.com) can arrange a five-night safari to Gorongosa National Park with two nights at Chitengo Camp and three nights at Explore Gorongosa.
In north-west Mozambique, on the shores of Lake Niassa (Lake Malawi), is the sublimely beautiful Nkwichi Lodge, another conservation and community development success story.
The lake here is crystal clear, with days spent swimming and canoeing. At night, sitting around a campfire on the beach and looking up at the sky or at the tiny lights of the fishing boats lining the horizon, it’s easy to see how the “lake of stars” got its name.
By day, with luck, you might see sable antelope, elephants and even a leopard or two in the surrounding Manda Wilderness Reserve.
Just off the northern mainland, Mozambique Island is just 3km long and 500m at its widest. But this Unesco World Heritage site is a highlight of any visit.
Don’t miss the restored Palace and Chapel of Sao Paulo, the former governor’s residence; or the massive Sao Sebastiao fort, begun in 1558 and the oldest complete fort still standing in sub-Saharan Africa. Accommodation on the island mostly involves simple guesthouses, although it’s easy enough to base yourself on the mainland and visit for the day. – The Independent