Traveller's Guide: Mozambique

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In the first of a five-part series on Africa produced in association with Lonely Planet, Mary Fitzpatrick celebrates a little-visited nation that's big on beauty.

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 national capital, Maputo, which is in Mozambique's far south and is economically welded to neighbouring South Africa. 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 – almost four times that of the UK – 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 April, and temperatures are somewhat higher than in the south.

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 samosas and sizzling steaks. Painted "laranjinha" tuk-tuks wait outside the landmark Hotel Cardoso (00 258 21 491071; hotelcardoso.co.mz), on the edge of the busy central area, to take you from sight to sight (from about US$6/£4 for a short trip). The hotel has doubles from US$280 (£187).

Exploring on foot is also feasible. But whatever your mode of transport, don't miss Maputo's elegant early 20th-century train 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 (00 258 21 320264; admission £1) 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. For respite from the market's noise and crowds, duck into one of the small, dark shops opposite, with their colourful batiks and capulanas (cloth wraps worn by many Mozambican women). Finish exploring with a leisurely drive along the breezy seaside Avenida Marginal. En route are several restaurants where you can savour a heaping plate of grilled prawns and beachside views.

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 (00 258 21 314590; ccfmoz.com) 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 (00 258 21 491001; serena hotels.com/serenapolana), which has graced the city's skyline since the 1920s, has doubles from US$250 (£167), 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.

As you explore, you'll see flamingos, fish eagles and many other bird species. Dolphins cavort in the clear waters, while manta rays glide into the shadows and whale sharks swim through the depths. They are joined by many other types of fish, plus loggerhead, leatherback and green turtles. 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 US$1,250 (£833), all inclusive. Pestana Bazaruto Lodge (00 258 2130 5000; pestana.com), on Bazaruto Island, has doubles from US$474 (£316), full board.

Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; expertafrica.com) offers nine-day Bazaruto packages from the UK from £2,613 per person, including international flights and domestic connections, transfers and meals. The Maputo-based Dana Tours (00 258 21 495514; tourmozambique. travel) can also help with in-country travel arrangements.

Lonely Planet's Mozambique guide (third edition) is out now, priced £14.99. See shop.lonelyplanet.com

Beyond the beach, into the bush

While Mozambique's coast gets most of the attention, there are several inland gems. Gorongosa National Park (gorongosa.net), pictured, 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, with elephants, lions and many antelopes among the highlights. Birding is rewarding, and the landscapes are stunning, thanks to the park's mix of jade-green floodplains, open savannah, woodlands, forests of fever trees and stands of palm.

Explore Gorongosa (00 258 82 912 3637; exploregorongosa.com) runs a seasonal tented camp and walking safaris in the park.

Tour operator Toescapeto (020-7060 6747; toescapeto.com) can arrange a five-night safari to Gorongosa National Park with two nights at Chitengo Camp and three nights at Explore Gorongosa from £2,200 per person, including all flights and transfers.

In northwestern Mozambique, on the shores of Lake Niassa (Lake Malawi), is the sublimely beautiful Nkwichi Lodge (mandawilderness.org), another conservation and community development success story. It offers full-board packages from US$640 (£426) for a double room.

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.

The Quirimbas archipelago

Dawn comes early in the Quirimbas, a chain of about two dozen islands and islets strewn along the 300km of coastline between Pemba in the south and the Tanzanian border in the north. By 5am, the day has begun. On tiny, crescent-shaped Vamizi, one of the most northerly in the archipelago, women in brightly coloured wraps walk along the beach balancing baskets on their heads. Water birds wade in the shallows and crabs scuttle across the soft, white sands. A small luxury lodge (01285 762218; vamizi.com; villas for two guests from US$810/ £540 full board), pictured, has brought visitors and employment, but daily rhythms still follow those of the tides and seasons.

About 150km south of Vamizi is Ibo, the historical heart of the archipelago. It is an enchanting place, with sleepy, sandy lanes lined with dilapidated villas and crumbling, moss-covered buildings. The late-18th century star-shaped Sao Joao fort dominates the island's northern end, serving today as a centre where Ibo's silver artisans practise their craft.

Unlike Vamizi and some of the more northerly islands, where patches of white sand shimmer amid turquoise-hued waters, Ibo is mostly surrounded by mangrove forests. During the colonial era, channels were cut through these dense forests, and a boat trip exploring them makes for a relaxing afternoon.

Because the Quirimbas islands are so spread out, choose one or two to use as a base. Recommended lodges include Ibo Island Lodge (00 258 269 60549; iboisland.com) with doubles from US$670 (£447), all inclusive; the backpacker-oriented Miti Miwiri (00 258 269 605 30; mitimiwiri.com), also on Ibo, with simple doubles from US$50 (£34), room only; and Guludo (00 258 26 96 05 69; guludo.com), on the mainland, with suites from US$490 (£326) all-inclusive, and dhow access to nearby islands.

Steppes Travel (01285 880 980; steppestravel.co.uk) can arrange tours of Mozambique, including stays at Ibo Island Lodge.

Mozambique Island

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. In its 17th- and 18th-century heyday, the island was capital of Portuguese East Africa and a hub for Indian Ocean trade. Today, its legacy as a trade crossroads is reflected in its diversity. Christian, Muslim and Hindu communities rub shoulders, while immigrants from East Africa, Goa, Macau and elsewhere mix with local Makua culture.

In the island's northern half or "Stone Town", graceful Portuguese-style praças (squares) are rimmed by once-grand churches, pictured, while stately colonial-era buildings keep watch over quiet streets. Makuti Town is the island's younger, livelier southern section: thatched huts tumble into each other; narrow alleyways echo with the sounds of children playing and fishermen repair their nets on the sand.

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. Mooxeleliya (00 258 26 61 0076), in the "Stone Town", offers simple B&B from US$37 (£25).

On the mainland opposite, Coral Lodge 15.41 (00 258 829 023 612; corallodge1541.com) has doubles from US$850 (£566), all inclusive.

Getting there and getting around

There are no direct flights between the UK and Mozambique. The main point of entry is the capital, Maputo, but you can also fly from Johannesburg to Vilankulo, the mainland gateway to the Bazaruto archipelago. If your itinerary focuses exclusively on northern Mozambique, it can make sense to fly British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and from there to Pemba, Mozambique with Linhas Aereas de Mocambique (LAM; 00 351 21 780 3910; lam.co.mz).

South African Airways (SAA; 0844 375 9680; flysaa.com) flies from Heathrow to Maputo via Johannesburg. TAP Air Portugal (0845 601 0932; flytap.com) flies from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester via Lisbon. Kenya Airways (020 8283 1818; kenya-airways.com) flies between Heathrow and Maputo via Nairobi.

For the Bazaruto archipelago you can fly on Federal Air (00 27 11 395 9000; fedair.com) from Johannesburg and Nelspruit in South Africa to Vilankulo (£130), or from Maputo to Vilankulo on LAM (from about £87 one-way). Once in Vilankulo, island lodges are reached by short charter flight, helicopter or boat transfer organised by your lodge.

For the Quirimbas archipelago, head for Pemba. South African Airways flies there from Johannesburg, and LAM flies from Maputo (from about £120 one way). Transfers to the islands (via charter flight or road and boat) can be arranged directly with the lodges. Vamizi Lodge also offers direct charters from Dar es Salaam, at additional cost to the full-board package.

Mozambique Island is accessed from Nampula, reached by LAM flights from Maputo (from about £110 one way) and Pemba (from £55 one way). From Nampula, travel three hours via local bus or rental car to Mozambique Island, which is linked by a 3.5km causeway to the mainland.

Gorongosa National Park can be reached with CFA Charters (00 258 84 390 16030; cfa.co.za) from Maputo or the Bazaruto archipelago. Fares are about £370/180 one way from Maputo/Bazaruto to Gorongosa. Alternatively, fly LAM from Maputo to Beira (from about £65 one way), from where it is a 200km (three-hour) drive into the park.

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