Ilha de Moҫambique is a delicious mix of Swahili, Arab, Portuguese, Dutch, Indian and now Afro-Euro Chic. This tiny island was first settled in the 8th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its unique coral rock architecture. The island’s historic Stone Town is being restored and there are new boutique hotels, galleries and restaurants, a sense of style and change. Wanted went exploring.
Despite being so small and remote, there’s a cosmopolitan feeling to Ilha de Moҫambique. This three-kilometre-long island is 2000km north of the capital of Maputo, and a two hour drive from the nearest big town of Nampula. Yet, it attracts travellers from Denmark, Sweden, Australia, Britain, Italy and Portugal, many of whom are buying places here; and is home to architects, historians, style queens and escapists. This is not your average Seffrican prawns and beer holiday; Ilha de Moҫambique is about style, soul, history and architecture. Here’s what you need to know:
THE WOW FACTOR The architecture and history of Stone Town. Think narrow corridors and alleyways, ancient double volume buildings with interior courtyards. Stone Town here is like Zanzibar Lite and without the crowds. Many of the buildings are still in disrepair, which lends its own strange charm, but increasing numbers are being restored and refurbished. A meander through Stone Town is fascinating. The island is wrought from explorers and pirates, from colonialism, slavery and civil war. There is a dark edge to these timeworn passages, a deep resonance to footfall on its ancient stones.
THE MOST HIP HOTEL With such a powerful sense of history going down, you’re going to need a cocktail and a pool deck. Head for Villa Sands, a boutique hotel that was designed by Swedish architects who renovated three old warehouses and turned them into this sexy soul space. Villa Sands has fourteen rooms - eight on the ground floor around an atrium; six on the rooftop terrace. An elegant interior pool greets you on arrival. There’s a rooftop deck for sundowners – essential viewing. But best of all is the wooden deck that looks out across the pool and onto the Indian Ocean. On the beach lies the resident locally crafted dhow called Edna, waiting to take you to do the postcard stuff - swim in crystal waters, dip into mangrove forests, explore white coral beaches. villasands.com
THE BEST HISTORICAL MEANDER Spend a few hours wandering the old Fortaleza that was built by the Portuguese in 1507. Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama landed on Ilha in 1498 in search of the sea route to India, and the Portuguese followed in 1507, setting themselves up with a hospital, a church and this massive fort. Their colony became a wealthy trading post for ships sailing on monsoon winds to and from the east. Cargoes of gold, ivory and slaves flowed from Africa in exchange for spices, fabrics and spirits from India and Arabia. I got the shivers walking through the spaces in the fort and wondering what happened here.
THE MOST MOVING MOMENT Standing inside the tiny little church that was built on a promontory at the very end of the Fortaleza, washed endlessly by waves and the souls of the ancients. Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte dates back to 1522 and is the oldest church in the southern hemisphere, apparently. I wonder who stood here on these cool marble floors back then? Who hand-carved the window in the shape of a cross?
THE MOST ROMANTIC SPOT Coral Lodge is the place for honeymooners and swooners. It’s all soft white sands, deep blue seas and golden baobab sunsets. Coral Lodge is set in a little bay with eleven thatched chalets, a pool, various places of repose, and a sexy bar and dining room visited occasionally by a nagapie (bushbaby). You can snorkel and dive, explore the archipelago, stroll hand in hand along the beach. If you can tear yourself away from the beach, take a guided tour of the nearby village Cabaceira Pequana, where the water is still drawn from an ancient well built by Vasco da Gama. The village is famed for its cemeteries and mosques and the grave of Mussa Al Biki who was the sultan here at the time of the arrival of the first Portuguese, and after whom Mozambique is named. newmarkhotels.com
THE MOST CHARMING GUESTHOUSE From the rooftop terrace at Jardim dos Aloes (garden of aloes) you can see the Milky Way at night, the star maps that guided the ancient mariners. Jardim dos Aloe is an Afro-Mediterranean guesthouse with Egyptian touches, right in the middle of Stone Town, run by the delightful Italian Bruno Musti and his Mozambican wife Judy. Each suite is differently decorated and there are lovely gardens, courtyards, terraces and hideaways. jardim-dos-aloes.com
THE MOST HISTORICAL STAY Once a warehouse for a fishing company, the Terraҫo das Quintadas is a fascinating luxury hotel cum museum. The 400-year-old house is filled with furniture and objets from Goa, Bali, East Africa, China and the Orient. You can really feel the whisper and creak of history here. We stayed in a room with enormous wooden chairs and a massive egg-shaped bath. Take some time to explore the décor, courtyards and balconies. terracodasquitandas.com
For tailor-made trips to Ilha de Moҫambique contact Dana Tours danatours.net For local adventures like boat trips, kayaking, snorkelling, whale watching, bicycle tours and more, contact Ilha Blue Island Safaris.