Mozambique’s picturesque isles offer rich history, superb marine diversity and pristine beaches. Sarah Gilbert picks the top five
Stretching over 2500km from South Africa in the south to Tanzania in the north, Mozambique’s coastline is dotted with idyllic islands, lined with picture-perfect white-sand beaches lapped by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Dive into an underwater world of colourful coral or snorkel the spectacularly clear waters that teem with tropical fish. Get active big game fishing or try your hand at a host of watersports, from sea kayaking to kitesurfing. Spend a lazy day picnicking on a shell-strewn beach before setting sail on a creaky old dhow to watch the sun set. Or discover the country’s diverse history and culture in atmospheric stone towns.
1 Bazaruto Archipelago
Best for family fun
Reached by boat, puddle-jumper or helicopter from the coastal town of Vilanculos, the family-friendly Bazaruto Archipelago is made up of five main islands, with soft-sand beaches and impossibly turquoise water. They broke away from the mainland millennia ago and are now an outstanding conservation area and protected marine park, home to thousands of fish species, where dive sites such as the Two Mile Reef have become an underwater paradise for both novice and experienced divers. Introduce your children to the turtles, humpback whales, bottlenose and spinner dolphins, and rare dugongs that are often spotted around the islands. Birders flock to see the hundreds of migrant and resident bird species found on the islands, from fish eagles to pink flamingos. And away from the beaches, there are suni antelope, red duiker and samango monkey hidden away in the islands’ forests and wetlands, to be discovered on winding nature trails. Many of the lodges have babysitters and kids’ clubs offering games and water-based fun for children of all ages, while adults get some R&R on the beach or at the spa.
• Stay The Anantara Bazaruto Island Resort (doubles from US$645) is set among forests of whispering casuarina trees, coconut palms and seemingly endless white-sand beaches, and caters to all ages.
• Adventure fix Saddle up for an early morning or late afternoon horseback safari across sand dunes, into the forest and to Bazaruto Island’s freshwater lakes in search of crocodiles.
2 Inhaca Island
Best for island life on a budget
Reached by ferry, laidback Inhaca lies just 40km from the capital city of Maputo. Large areas of the island and its shores have been protected since 1976 and it has a wealth of stunning beaches, unspoilt coral reefs and marine life, as well as untouched evergreen forest and bush to explore on foot. The island is the base for several world-class dive sites and, just south of Inhaca, across a narrow channel at the tip of Machangulo Peninsula, is Cape Santa Maria, with quiet beaches and crystal-clear waters perfect for snorkelling. Also worth visiting is the marine research centre and tiny, uninhabited Ilha Portuguesa, or Portuguese Island, about 3km to the north-west. This beautiful spit of white sand is a former leper colony, now part of the marine reserve. And talk to the locals to discover the island’s many myths and legends, such as the story of Nhaca, who survived a shipwreck and arrived on the island unconscious on a wooden raft. He crossed the Santa Maria Channel to reach Machangulo but, after marrying, returned to settle on Inhaca.
• Stay Set in a tropical garden, Nahyeeni Lodge (doubles from US$155 per person, full board) sleeps from four to 22 guests on a self-catering or full board basis, with delicious meals rustled up by a local chef and a boat on hand for exploring.
• Adventure fix Have a go at surfing. The reef between the north point of Inhaca and Ilha Portuguesa is becoming increasingly popular.
3 Ibo Island
Best for history
Only accessible by boat from Pemba, Ibo is one of a string of 32 tropical isles that make up the remote Quirimbas Archipelago in northern Mozambique. The island was the region’s capital in the 1800s and a prosperous trading stop, but after the Portuguese colonisers left in 1975 its grand mansions began to crumble. The main square is still testament to Ibo’s former wealth but now rust coats the ornate wrought-iron verandas and strangler figs grow out of the abandoned buildings. Time appears to have stopped. But 3000 people live here, most of them in the mud and thatch village that begins as the stone town ends. At dawn, fishermen set sail from the ramshackle harbour in creaking dhows, barefoot children play in the dusty streets and women collect water from the well. The island is home to not one but three historic forts, including the whitewashed São João Batista. The former prison’s brutal history spans French pirates, Arab slave traders, repressive colonisers and a savage civil war. Today, in a symbol of Ibo’s renewal, it’s a base for the silversmiths who create exquisite jewellery from melted-down coins.
• Stay Ibo Island Lodge (doubles from US$335) is spread over three 150-year-old mansions, filled with handcrafted furniture. it runs many community projects, including the silversmiths’ programme.
• Adventure fix Go island hopping in a dhow or sea kayak accompanied by an expert guide. the experience entails snorkelling off isolated sandbanks, camping overnight on secluded beaches and feasting on fresh seafood around the campfire.
4 Ilha de Moçambique
Best for culture
Pronounced ‘Il-ya de Mo-zam-bique’ — or just Ilha to Mozambicans — this diminutive, crescent-shaped island is barely 3km long and not wider than 600 metres. But the former capital of Portuguese East Africa was an important trading post for ships laden with gold, ivory and slaves en route to India, and still packs a cultural punch far beyond its size. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the oldest part of the island is redolent of the Arab, Indian and Portuguese cultures that have passed through it over the centuries. Wander Stone Town’s dusty streets and you’ll find that many historical buildings have stood the test of time, some of them constructed from coral and dating back to the 16th century, including the imposing Fort of São Sebastião that once housed 2000 men, and the tiny chapel of Nossa Senhora do Baluarte that juts out from the fort into azure water. The restored Palace of São Paolo in the heart of Stone Town is a former governor’s residence turned museum that showcases the upper-class lifestyle of the island’s heyday.
• Stay The 10 stylish villas of Coral Lodge 15.41 (doubles from US$500) — its latitude and longitude coordinates — are set on a secluded peninsula, surrounded by impressive dunes and wild beaches.
• Adventure fix Learn about local culture on a guided visit to Ilha de Moçambique; visit the Macua people in the three nearby communities of Cabaceira Pequena, Cabaceira Grande and Chocas, and join the chef at the market and learn to cook his favourite dishes.
5 Vamizi Island
Best for exclusive escapes
A slender strip of coral, Vamizi is part of the far-flung Robinson Crusoe-esque Quirimbas Archipelago. The epitome of barefoot luxury, you can take one or all of &Beyond Vamizi Island’s six ultra-spacious five- and six-bedroom beachfront villas, which make it perfect for families or groups of friends looking for a private island escape. They each come with a chef to rustle up your favourite meals for dining under a shady palapa or the star-studded sky, and plenty of relaxed lounging space around the pool. Your dedicated butler is on hand to arrange picnics at one of five secluded sites, kayaking alongside tangles of mangroves, nature walks and community visits. Set in a marine conservation area, it boasts the most pristine reefs in the Indian Ocean, with a staggering 180 species of coral and more than 400 kinds of reef fish, and Neptune’s Arm is recognised as one of the world’s top dive sites. It’s also a breeding ground for green turtles and, with help from the in-house conservation team, you can get up close to these magnificent creatures laying their eggs or the hatchlings making their first tentative steps towards the ocean.
• Stay &Beyond Vamizi Island (villas from US$1970, two people) is known for its conservation ethos, and works with the community, as well as focusing on reef conservation and creating safe migratory routes for the endangered species that travel the coastline.
• Adventure fix Go deep-sea, catch-and-release fishing just off the coast at the St Lazarus Banks; it’s a hotspot for sailfish and marlin.
• Getting there The capital Maputo is the main point of entry and you can fly from the UK via Johannesburg, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Lisbon. For the Bazaruto Archipelago, you can fly direct from Johannesburg to Vilanculos; and for the Quirimbas Archipelago, head to Pemba from Johannesburg, Nairobi or Maputo. From there to the island lodges will be by a short charter flight, helicopter or boat transfer organised by your lodge. Coral Lodge 15.41 is reached by a five-hour road transfer from Pemba, or a flight from Nairobi to Nampula and a two-hour road transfer. Inhaca Island is reached by a 10-minute flight or public ferry from Maputo.
• When to go The best time to visit is May to October, when it’s dry and temperatures are at their lowest. You can travel from November to January, but temperatures and humidity are considerably higher. Avoid the height of the rainy season — February to April — as many roads become impassable. Also, resorts are busier around Easter, Christmas and South African school holidays.
• Health Contact your GP or travel clinic to ensure that you’ve had all the necessary vaccinations and antimalarials.
• Further reading The Bradt Guide to Mozambique (6th edition) by Philip Briggs.