Travel: Mozambique

I USED to think that the only thing missing from PJ O'Rourke's highly amusing book Holidays In Hell was a description of Mozambique. For decades the former Portuguese colony that skirts much of the south-eastern coast of Africa certainly merited a dishonourable mention alongside such hotspots as Beirut, Belfast and Bosnia.

I first visited Mozambique in 1996, three years after the bloody 15-year civil war had finished. The country had been decimated by decades of conflict, with burnt-out tanks and lorries littering the broken roads. Getting anywhere was a nightmare: most bridges had been blown up, cutting off whole areas so that many families were separated as effectively as those who found themselves on either side of the Berlin Wall. Back then poverty was rife and the only people who looked even remotely healthy were the aid workers and mine clearance agencies who swarmed over the country.

So I returned to this huge country (it's more than ten times the size of Scotland) with a certain amount of trepidation to find a land that has been utterly transformed by 15 years of peace. It's a metamorphosis that has been accelerated by the ructions over the border, where Zimbabwe's loss has been Mozambique's gain. Displaced white farmers have been welcomed with open arms and given sizeable chunks of land, which has given the agriculture sector and infra-structure a huge boost.

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From the coastal city of Maputo in its deep south, Mozambique shares a 350-mile border with South Africa, and thanks to its stunning beaches, coral reefs and outstanding sea fishing, the south of the country quickly became developed with lodges, hotels and private homes catering for the rich and famous. Home to dive schools and fishing charters, it has an almost European feel to it.

Thankfully, it has taken a lot longer for the northern districts near Tanzania – which are up to 1,200 miles from the south and close to the Tanzanian border – to open up to tourism. This was our destination when we went to investigate one of the most stunning areas in the whole of Africa.

We started at the Quirimbas archipelago, a stunning string of islands and atolls north of Pemba in the Cabo Delgado province. This is "the" new beach destination, and it's not difficult to see why. Untouched since colonial days, it has a rich trading history from the Omani sultans to the first Portuguese settlers in the 16th century, who were finally kicked out of the country immediately after independence in 1977.

The town of Pemba is the gateway to the region, with international flights from South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania, which was how we arrived. It has the third largest natural harbour in the world and on the far side, a 20-minute boat ride away, is Londo Lodge.

Built in a natural cove with a beautiful beach and clear turquoise waters, it was the perfect place to wind down and relax. We arrived in time for a huge plate of Thai-flavoured split prawns which marked the beginning of a ten-day gastronomic seafood extravaganza at four different lodges, on a diet that consisted largely of lobsters and crabs that dwarf the ones you get at home.

Leaving Pemba, we took a short flight to Ibo Island, a spot that seems lost in time. Picked up in one of only two vehicles on the island, we bumped slowly through the faded grandeur of the town square to the beautifully restored Ibo Lodge which, like the rest of the town, was a crumbling ruin when its current owners Kevin and Fiona Record first visited five years ago.

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The veranda of Ibo Lodge is the place from which to watch the world go by: boat builders repairing dhows, children on their way to school, fishermen returning home with their catch. And if you feel like a wander, then the back streets and crumbling buildings, some still with Portuguese trading documents and accounts, are worth exploring. As it was the weekend, we watched the end of the weekly workers versus unemployed football match – with more time to practice, the unemployed won the match.

Flying north over turquoise seas and uninhabited islands and atolls, the luxurious Vamizi Island was our next stop. It may not have air-conditioning or plunge pools, but with one of the most spectacular beaches I have ever seen – beautiful white sand and clear, clear sea – it was still five-star luxury. The food, the staff, the rooms and the activities were all first class, and the only disappointment was that I didn't have enough time to explore the most talked-about dive site in the area, Neptune's Arm, which was recently named one of the top ten in the world.

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I've travelled a lot in Africa and one of my favourite lodges is Guludo, which is on the mainland just north of Ibo. An eco lodge, it was built by a dynamic young English couple who simultaneously set up the Nema Foundation, a charitable arm whose projects include providing education, school meals, fresh water and a malaria education programme.

The food at Guludo was some of the best we had, and it was beginning to show as I struggled to squeeze into my wetsuit for some diving around Rolas Island. Having not thought of myself as much of a beach person, northern Mozambique, with its history, sublime diving, fishing, snorkelling, clear waters, abundance of seafood, beautiful lodges and friendly people might just change the way I think about beach holidays for good.

Travel facts

Edinburgh-based travel specialist Farside Africa ( organises tailor-made holidays and safaris to east and southern Africa, Morocco, Gabon, Oman and the Indian Ocean islands. Two weeks in Mozambique on a similar itinerary to this article starts at 3,299 per person including full-board accommodation and meals, and all internal flights and transfers. Honeymoon specials and long-stay discounted rates are available.

Flights from London to Pemba, Mozambique via Johannesburg, Nairobi or Dar es Salaam start from 750 with South African Airlines (

• This article was first published in Scotsman on Sunday on 10 January, 2010.