The sleepy coastal towns of northern Mozambique have old-world charms and near-deserted beaches that remind travelers of the joy of discovery.
For a certain breed of traveler, just ticking off the continents isn't enough—after all, where package tours go (and they go almost everywhere these days), the hordes will follow. That's why a handful of die-hard explorers are making their way to the remote, beautiful—and largely tour-group-free—coastal towns of northern Mozambique.
The old governor's palace on 1.8-mile-long Mozambique Island, just off the country's northeast coast, is filled with treasures once carried along Portugal's Far East trading route: ornately carved wooden furniture from Goa, waist-high porcelain vases from China, and glass chandeliers from Murano, Italy. But visitors to this former capital, referred to as Ilha (il-ee-ah)—from its Portuguese name—don't need a museum to see firsthand the island's vibrant interplay of past and present.
Beyond the 50 cannons perched on the crenellated walls of the enormous, 16th-century coral-rock fort, women wade in the turquoise waters daily at low tide, collecting mollusks to prepare for dinner, while children scavenge for porcelain shards and beads that still wash ashore from centuries-old shipwrecks (they sell the former at souvenir stands in the village and string the latter into necklaces). And in the nearly two decades that have elapsed since the end of Mozambique's civil war, the country's increasing stability has drawn a wave of entrepreneurial expats to join this and other northeastern coastal communities. These new arrivals are busily restoring colonial-era neoclassic buildings—vestiges of Portuguese rule—and opening small hotels, dive outfits, and restaurants that blend African touches like the ever-present spicy piri-piri chile sauce with European cuisines.
One of these trailblazers is Rino Scuccato, an Italian doctor who founded Ilha's 10-room O Escondidinho hotel in 2003 in a 19th-century whitewashed stone building with high ceilings, large windows, and a courtyard swimming pool. Its restaurant, run by a French couple, serves fresh-squeezed mango juice and seasonal dishes like avocado salad and lemon-grilled local fish such as sea bream and panga, caught just offshore.
About 260 miles north, in the shallow waters of the 32-island Quirimbas archipelago, lies Ibo, another former port laden with picturesque stone ruins where nearly all connection to the outside world is determined by the tides that carry wooden dhows to and from the island. "When I first approached Ibo by boat, all I could see were mangrove forests; then, suddenly, the boat turned a corner, and the white buildings appeared in front of me. It was magical," says Elder Lourenco, a Frenchman who's been living there since 2007. That view convinced Lourenco and his German business partner, Jorg Salzer, to open Miti Miwiri, a nine-room hotel in a two-story house with a veranda that overlooks a mangrove bay and the old town center. Ibo's lost-in-time vibe is the draw for many: There are no ATMs or credit card machines on the island, telecommunications can be spotty, and older mores hold sway (read: Bring a cover-up for that bikini). But the recent increase in 25-minute flights from the region's biggest city, Pemba, may soon change things.
If the islands are all about old-world charm, the mainland coast claims the best beaches. Italian kitesurfing enthusiast Carlo Macchiarulo spent years scouting the area before striking his version of gold—a stretch of ocean with consistently strong winds and safe currents. When he found what he was looking for at Murrebue Beach, 20 minutes south of Pemba, Macchiarulo and his wife, Susanna, put down roots. In 2007, the couple opened Il Pirata, an open-air restaurant serving wood-oven pizza topped with shrimp, and then added three thatched waterfront bungalows later that year. "Even now, when you take a walk along the sand, you can almost imagine that you're the only one who's ever been here," Macchiarulo says. Considering that only six guests can stay on the beach at any given time, that's not even much of a stretch.
South African Airways flies direct from New York and Washington, D.C., to Johannesburg (flysaa.com, from $918 round trip); Air Mozambique (LAM) flights to Pemba leave three times a week (lam.co.mz, from $490 round trip). Kaskazini Tourism Services can arrange round-trip flights from Pemba to Ibo (kaskazini.com, from $240).
When to Go
Late spring through early fall is the ideal time to visit; the rainy season is typically November to March.
GOOD TO KNOW
The official language of Mozambique is Portuguese, though English is spoken in most tourist spots.