Coral Lodge sits between mangrove forests and a glorious stretch of beach. Picture: SUPPLIED
Coral Lodge sits between mangrove forests and a glorious stretch of beach. Picture: SUPPLIED

The inselbergs are the first surprise.

Little more than two hours out of Joburg, our Airlink jet drops through the cloud and banks towards the northern Mozambican city of Nampula. Beyond the airplane’s wing, bulbous mounds of granite burst from the lush green landscape.

The word inselberg was coined in 1900 by the German geologist Wilhelm Bornhardt, who marvelled at these "island mountains" rising abruptly from the plains of East Africa. The inselbergs of Nampula are no less impressive, and a fine beginning to the road leading us to the coast.

I’ve come to this corner of Mozambique in search of a different kind of island, though; one brimming with history, conflict and colour. After three hours of driving —past lush banana plantations, peanut hawkers, abandoned factories and ramshackle villages — the tarmac delivers us to the beach. Across the waters lies Ilha de Moçambique.

Until the 1960s this would have been the end of the road, and a boat would have been needed, but today a 3km concrete bridge, built with Norwegian money, carries a steady stream of motorbikes, trucks and minibuses (chapas) over the wind-whipped waters.

With the sun dropping it’s too late to catch the boat to Coral Lodge, my beachfront escape for the next few days, so I take a room at Feitoria Boutique Hotel for the night. At the waterfront restaurant the ocean laps at the stone quays of the island, while a cold 2M lager and a plate of prawn rissoles erase the effects of a long day of travelling.

The Fort of São Sebastião was finally finished in 1620. Picture: SUPPLIED
The Fort of São Sebastião was finally finished in 1620. Picture: SUPPLIED

Spending my first night on Ilha also means I only have to take a quick stroll out the front door to meet Jaime Antonio in the morning. The official guide for the Museu da Ilha de Moçambique, Antonio also runs private tours for guests at Coral Lodge. He’s as charming a guide as you could ask for, and passionate about sharing the history of the island.

It’s a history that begins some time in the 10th century, when Omani traders from Zanzibar set up shop on the mainland. They traded gold, ivory and slaves, but bothered little with the island itself. When the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed into the bay in 1498, the local sultan was a man by the name of Mussa bin Bique. And so a country’s name was decided.

Da Gama continued on to India, but over the next decade the Portuguese established themselves on the island, which soon became the capital of Portuguese trade between Europe, East Africa and Asia. The island remained the capital of Mozambique for nearly 400 years, until power moved south to Lourenço Marques, modern-day Maputo, in 1898.

As one wanders along the cobbled streets between the palm-thatched houses of Makuti Town, in the south of the island, to the more affluent Stone Town in the north, it’s not hard to imagine the babel of languages and the mix of cultures and styles of cuisine that would have reverberated here when traders from three continents met in a remote corner of East Africa. They each brought their religion too, and as we wander we pass a Hindu temple, mosques and churches.

With the Portuguese sailors came Catholicism, and in 1522 the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte was completed on the northern tip of the island. It still stands, just metres from the waves, and is believed to be the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere.

It’s just one reason the entire island — 3km long by 500m wide — was declared a world heritage site by Unesco in 1991.

TRIP PLANNER

*Getting there: Airlink offers direct flights from Joburg to Nampula, a three-hour drive from Ilha de Moçambique.

flyairlink.com

*Visas: SA passport holders do not require a visa for Mozambique.

*Currency: Lodges will accept foreign currency and major credit cards. US dollars are accepted in local markets, but the Mozambican metical is your best bet.

*Malaria: Mozambique is a malarial area. Travellers should consult their travel doctor at least three weeks before departure.

*Weather: July to November are ideal months to visit, with warm days, little rain and moderate winds.

*Coral Lodge: Rates start from R4,800 per person sharing, on a full-board basis including accommodation, meals, drinks and activities.

corallodgemozambique.com

The sun is already high by the time Antonio and I reach the ramparts of the Fort of São Sebastião, gazing down on the chapel. The fort is one of the most impressive colonial edifices on the East African coast — as it should be, given it took 60 years to build. Named for the reigning king of Portugal, it was finally completed in 1620, having by then already seen off an attack by Dutch sailors searching for an African refreshment station. In 1652 the Dutch settled at the Cape of Good Hope instead. But we know that story.

Today the fort remains the most remarkable corner of Ilha, despite early signs of neglect evident in the missing stonework and towering weeds in the parade ground, where up to 2,000 soldiers would have stood to attention.

The ramparts still bristle with centuries-old cannons, threatening any interlopers who venture into the sheltered bay. But on a bright autumn day, the only boats out at sea are local fishermen lashing their lateen sails hard against the freshening trade winds.

Sail away

A dhow of my own is waiting for me at the town pier, the ever-friendly boatmen from Coral Lodge ready to ferry me across to one of the most charming beach lodges in Mozambique.

After we have been on the warm water for half an hour, the wooden keel hisses onto the sand flats that stretch away in front of the lodge. The tide is out, which means a short walk through the shallows, past local women searching the sands for clams.

"Welcome to Coral Lodge," beams Filipa Freitas as I step into the bar looking out over the pool deck and surrounding mangrove forests. Filipa and her husband, Ricardo, have managed Coral Lodge for the past three years, and have been instrumental in the rejuvenation that’s occurred since new owners took over in 2017.

That rejuvenation includes new transfer vehicles, boats, kayaks and back-of-house upgrades, but the soft refurb is most evident in the lodge’s 10 spacious villas, split evenly between sea-facing suites and those overlooking the mangrove lagoon. Here the subdued tropical tones and textures offer a sense of laid-back beach chic: thatched roofs and wooden shutters, expansive decks, daybeds and splashes of colour.

Local fishermen mend their nets on the beaches of Ilha. Picture: SUPPLIED
Local fishermen mend their nets on the beaches of Ilha. Picture: SUPPLIED

While the lagoon villas are more affordable, the sea-facing rooms are well worth the extra spend. They gaze out over impossibly blue seas where only the sails of local fishing dhows puncture the skyline.

Days at Coral Lodge revolve around the ocean, whether it’s a dhow cruise to deserted islands for a picnic lunch or stand-up paddle-boarding in the mangroves.

When the weather’s fine, snorkelling excursions to nearby reefs dish up a colourful array of life beneath the waves.

Chances are that some of that underwater bounty will end up on your plate come lunchtime. Ricardo, formerly a chef in Portugal, has trained a talented local kitchen crew who dish up a menu infused with local flavours and fresh seafood.

Visitors can expect warm pao and herbed butter to start, ideally washed down with a cold Laurentina Preta beer. Lunch could mean squid dusted in coconut and cassava atop flavoursome tomato rice, while dinner is a more extravagant affair of line fish ceviche, prawns, clams and grilled lobster. Dessert? The roasted pineapple with homemade vanilla ice cream is a knockout.

Filipa and the lodge team are passionate about bringing local colour and culture into the lodge, whether it’s a village choir performing before dinner or Zé Aguas, the resident tailor, creating bespoke clothing for guests from colourful capulana cloth.

Guided walks to the nearby village of Cabaceira Pequena are also a highlight, the villagers still drawing water from wells dug 500 years ago by Da Gama’s crew. In a quiet corner of the village, looking out across the seas, is a small graveyard, said to be the last resting place of Bin Bique.

He couldn’t have imagined how the island across the water would change in the centuries after he lived and traded here.

Whether you come for the beachside luxury or the island history, it’s a worthy stop for any traveller to the country that bears his name.

*Holmes was a guest of Coral Lodge