A SHORT BREAK IN: MAPUTO

Six years after hostilities ended in Mozambique, the country's capital is now confidently showing off its colonial-style cafes and wide avenues. Kari Herbert reports on a renaissance in southern Africa

Mozambique's capital, Maputo, makes a fantastic short add-on to a holiday in South Africa. The city fell off the tourist map in the 1970s with the onset of a 17-year civil war that brought the country to its knees. Now, six years after the cease-fire, the city is shakily yet spiritedly rediscovering an identity: terracotta-roofed, whitewashed villas are rising out of the dust and the old cafes and brasseries are re-opening their doors. The locals are gently welcoming the return of tour- ists, and there is an unmistakable sense, on visiting Maputo, that you are witnessing a renaissance.

Maputo is also a gateway to other parts of Mozambique that have as yet been barely touched by tourism. Not too far away is Bazaruto Island, an archipelago surrounded by bountiful marine and bird-life.

When to go

The climate of Mozambique is tropical and subtropical. The dryer, more pleasant season is generally between April and September, when temperatures are warm. The wet season (our winter) can feel extremely hot and humid.

Getting there

Maputo does have an international airport, but there are no direct flights from the UK; the quickest access would be via Harare in Zimbabwe or Johannesburg in South Africa. A current fare from Quest Worldwide (tel: 0181-547 3322) comes to about pounds 480, including pounds 333 plus tax return on BA flights to Johannesburg, plus about pounds 100 for the onward return fare to Maputo.

Those wanting to travel at a slower pace should try the train service between Johannesburg and Maputo. There are three trains weekly in either direction, and the journey takes about 16 hours; prices are very low (about pounds 15 each way, in first class with bedding).

Getting around

Taxi ranks are outside the airport, the Hotel Polana and Hotel Cardoso, the Hospital Central and the Central Market. Dirt-cheap public minibuses with no seats run along set routes; you can get on and off them almost anywhere.

Hire cars are available through Avis and Hertz if you want to get yourself further afield, although the quality of the roads is very poor. If you do decide to go exploring, do not go off the road into the bush, and take particular care on rural road verges. There are still many unexploded landmines in Mozambique which can be set off even by people standing on the road and having a pee.

What to do and see

Mercado Central is the central market situated on Avenida 25 de Setembro. Stalls sell shrimps in discarded Schweppes cans alongside mounds of fish, fruit and vegetables, as well as an extraordinary range of wigs and hairpieces and birdcages filled with tiny and beautiful song birds (on the food stalls). With a little extra cash, purchases come complete with a Sainsbury's or Asda plastic carrier bag.

Market Xipamanine is the largest market in Mozambique. If you are feeling brave and street-wise you will find an extensive traditional medicine section comprising rows of tails, primate hands, dried skins, animal heads, and crystals. Be aware that this market is not entirely safe.

A must-see is the fondant icing-coloured CFM railway station designed and built in 1920 by Gustave Eiffel. The recently renovated marvel of wrought iron, with its marble arches and enormous copper dome, also houses two original turn-of-the-century wood-steam locomotives. Meanwhile, facing the palatial station is the Praca dos Trabalhadores, an Amazonian woman of stone who towers over huge and ancient pick-ups parked in the square. The local legend involves a great amount of wrestling with a deadly cobra, and the timely death of the reptile in an enormous cauldron of boiling porridge perched on the woman's head.

The Museu da Revolucao, at 3003 Avenida 24 de Julho, holds a pretty comprehensive collection of photographs, maps and military artefacts from the time of the war of independence against the Portuguese oppressors. It is worth arranging for a guide/translator to take you through it unless you understand Portuguese. The Museu National de Arte, on Avenida Ho Chin Min, is the place to view the work of Mozambique's contemporary artists.

A drive down the Marginal and the Costa do Sol that runs along the seashore is recommended by the locals, but the grubbiness and litter on the beaches is not so attractive. Efforts are being made to clean up the place, but it may take a while before they are safe to romp around on. The beaches around Maputo are generally not safe after dark.

A trip to Catembe, a village on the other side of the estuary, is worthwhile. The ancient ferry carries swarms of locals laden with everything from appliances to weekly groceries. Grilled prawns are a speciality in Mozambique and the local restaurant on Catembe is known for serving some of the most delicious on the island. The ferry leaves from the Catembe pier on Avenida 10 de Novembro every two hours during the day.

Food and drink

Avenida Julius Nyerere has been nicknamed Maputo's Broadway, and is now home to an abundance of pavement cafes and restaurants. The Terraco restaurant at the Polana Hotel (tel: 491003/7) has a genteel and airy atmosphere, with the kitchen behind an impressive glass partition so you can watch the chefs preparing dishes from the extensive menu. The prawns are a must- have, as well as the monster-proportioned crayfish. Other recommendations on Julius Nyerere are Bistro (tel: 497644), famous for its fresh fish and daily specials, also Cafe de Maputo (tel: 493207) which has a vibrant atmosphere and a daily cocktail hour on the pavement.

1908 (tel: 424834), on the corner of Avenida Eduardo Mondlane and Avenida Salvador Allende, is decorated in African-colonial style, and the waiters are dressed in starched white uniforms. They serve very good Mozambican dishes incorporating seafood and steaks, as well as good Italian and Indian cuisine.

Another area of traditional eateries (and a funfair) is the Feira Popular in downtown Maputo, which has more of a Mozambican flavour. It has plenty of restaurants to choose from and is particularly buzzing on Thursdays through to Sundays.

Where to stay

Mid-range is the Terminus Hotel (tel: 00 25 81 491333; fax: 00 25 81 491284) which has built up a solid reputation over the years. Doubles are $95 (pounds 60). Otherwise try the Costa do Sol (tel: 00 25 81 455115; fax: 00 25 81 455162) which is a popular family-run hotel with a number of comfortable air-conditioned rooms and similarly priced.

Hotel Cardoso (tel: 00 25 81 491071/5; fax: 00 25 81 491804) has an unbeatable poolside view, paintings by Mozambican artists and a generally relaxed atmosphere. Doubles $145 to $240.

The Polana Hotel (tel: 00 25 81 491001; fax: 00 25 81 491480) is the most expensive hotel in Maputo, and is in fact one of the pivotal places in the city. It was built between 1922 and 1928 and is an oasis of subtle grandeur. The hotel is back to its original splendour after the war and has all the modern amenities one could possibly think of, including points for laptops in the bedrooms and a giant-sized chess board and pieces in the garden. The hotel is serviced almost entirely by local people who have been trained to give five- star service. Doubles from $250.

Nightlife

Maputo has a thriving music and clubbing scene. Nightlife starts after 11pm and continues until dawn. Mini Golf, along the Marginal, is a pleasant upmarket nightspot in Maputo, with wooden boardwalks and a tropical feel. It has an open-air disco, swimming-pool, bar and a restaurant serving late-night snacks. Clube Matchedje, on Avenida 24 de Julho, is packed at weekends. The club often hosts African dance performances, and has a fairly strict dress-code on Fridays and Saturdays. The Casino at the Polana Hotel is a decadent way to end the evening, with smart dress required.

Out of town

Try island-hopping. Rapid pleasure boats can be hired, but it is preferable to fly and sleep over. Indigo Bay is on the Bazaruto archipelago, renowned for its four coral islands and ecological haven, and is the epitome of tropical white-sanded paradise with everything from open-sea fly-fishing and snorkelling to white-dune jeep rides. It is best to book from the UK. Information on Indigo Bay can be obtained from Three Cities Hotels (tel: 0171-225 0164).

Inhaca Island is 45 minutes by boat, and is a good day-trip. There are also daily five-minute flights from Maputo airport to Inhaca. Both trips cost around $50 return.

A drive to Marracuene, Macaneta and a stay at Jay's Lodge is highly recommended. Polana Tours in Maputo (tel: 00 25 81 493533) can also arrange tailor- made safaris to the Kruger Park game reserve.

Deals and packages

Rainbow Tours (tel: 0171-226 1004) offers trips to Mozambique, usually as add-ons to holidays in South Africa. A two-night stay b&b in the Hotel Polana, including flights from Johannesburg and transfers, is pounds 250 per person, based on two sharing; extra nights pounds 45 each. Stays on the nearby paradise island of Inhaca can also be booked.

Further information

Lonely Planet, Globetrotter and Bradt do guides for the region. Visas are required for travel to Mozambique: pounds 20 single entry, pounds 40 multiple entry, from the Mozambique High Commission, 21 Fitzroy Square, London W1P 5HJ (tel: 0171- 383 3800).

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