FINDING THE ULTIMATE ESCAPE FROM LIFE ON THE MAINLAND ON A MOZAMBICAN ISLAND HIDEAWAY THAT FEELS LIKE A RARE UNDISCOVERED PARADISE.
If you close your eyes and conjure up an image of a tropical island heaven, it would probably look like Benguerra: a dot of land with a lush green heart, fringed with pristine icing sugar-white sandy beaches and swaying palm trees, surrounded by a shimmering turquoise ocean. Lying in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mozambique, Benguerra Island is a postcard-perfect island fantasy, and yet unlike many other paradisiacal destinations, it has remained almost entirely pristine, untouched by the sprawl of resorts.
Benguerra is the second largest island in the Bazaruto Archipelago, a clutch of five islands 15 kilometres away from the mainland town of Vilanculos in southern Mozambique. The location may seem remote, but not once you find out that it’s less than a two-hour flight from Johannesburg in South Africa to Vilanculos’s shiny modern airport, and from there the boat ride to Benguerra across the sparkling sapphire sea only takes half an hour (or a ten-minute helicopter ride).
An up-and-coming destination, Mozambique’s tourism industry is picking up steam as the country recovers from a protracted civil war that ended in 1992. South Africans have long favoured Mozambique for its perfect beaches spread out on a spectacular 2500-kilometre-long coastline, but in recent years, increasing numbers of international travellers are discovering the southern African country’s largely undeveloped stretches of golden sand and strings of picturesque islands, which are more affordable than the Seychelles and far less built up than Mauritius.
With just two intimate luxury lodges on the 55-square-kilometre island, Benguerra is a six-star castaway dream. I was travelling with my partner and had booked a stay at Azura, which became visible on the boat ride from Vilanculos as a line of thatched buildings surrounded by foliage and palm trees, which seemed to blend in harmoniously with the environment: the antithesis of many garish beachfront hotels. The speedboat pulled up to the beach, and I met with Raul, our personal butler for our stay, who showed us to our villa only a few metres away from the glassy ocean.
Each of Azura’s 20 villas, built out of local natural materials and spread out languidly on the powdery beach, is an enclosed world of its own, with a plunge pool, outdoor shower and walled-off deck with loungers. Inside, our villa was barefoot beach chic at its best: bright, airy and spacious, with elegant minimalist décor and fabrics in creams and whites with hints of the ocean in dashes of coral pinks and turquoise. After a dip in the pool to refresh after the journey, my partner and I were lazing on cushions in our private beach hut watching traditional dhow boats sailing past under the peaches and pinks of the sunsetstrewn sky, thinking it was about time for a drink, when Raul came to find us to deliver a rum cocktail.
The promise of Raul’s telepathic service and the cosiness of our self-contained villa made it easy for us to entertain the thought of spending our entire stay between our stretch of sand, beach hut, pool and deck, but there was far too much on offer at Azura to indulge that idea any further.
First up on the activity itinerary the next day was snorkelling: Benguerra’s big drawcard is its marine life. The Bazaruto Archipelago, which lies within the Indian Ocean’s largest marine reserve, is home to East Africa’s largest population of rare and endangered dugong: elusive creatures related to manatees, which sailors once believed were mermaids. Migrating humpback whales also pass through these waters from May to October, while pristine offshore coral reefs teem with more than 2,000 species of fish, loggerhead, green and hawksbill turtles, manta rays, five dolphin species, reef sharks and occasionally, those gentle giants of the sea – whale sharks. We took a 15-minute boat ride out to Two-mile Reef and donned masks and snorkels to jump into the crystal-clear water and experience this tropical aquarium. We weren’t lucky enough for dugong, turtles or whale sharks but the rainbow coloured circus menagerie of fish made for underwater magic.
On our return boat ride, we stopped off at Pansy Island, a sandbar that only appears at low tide as an abstract minimalist painting of bands of white sand against a deep blue sky and turquoise ocean. This is the place to live out a true deserted island fantasy. There was nothing on the miniscule island but us, our footprints and a few pansy shells, delicate petal-patterned shells of sea urchins. Known as sand dollars in other parts of the world, pansy shells are believed by some to be the lost coins of mermaids that have washed ashore – another legend to add to this fantasy archipelago.
Back on Benguerra, we sat in Azura’s beachfront lounge playing a game of bao, an East African board game that uses a beautiful wooden board and shells as pieces, before my partner’s lift for the afternoon arrived: a beautiful chestnut horse. While he spent a few hours riding along the beaches and dunes, I chose the more sedate option of a wonderful massage with nutty-smelling marula oil (harvested from indigenous southern African trees) which put me into a state of deep relaxation that synched in completely with the languid pace of the island.
Waking up the following morning to clouds, we decided to do some land-based exploration, hopping on Azura’s open-sided Land Rover with our guide Carlos to see another side of the island away from the beach. We drove past villages of houses made out of thatch and reeds and visited the local school, which was built by Azura’s charity (the lodge has a commendable commitment to giving back in various ways to the local community). Inland, Benguerra feels far wilder than its coastal edges. Here, sand dunes tower over freshwater lakes populated by enormous Nile crocodiles and flocks of flamingos, and thick indigenous forests and wetlands form a habitat for more than 120 species of birds. We walked up a huge steep dune for panoramic views over a landscape in 50 shades of green: a beautiful forest-hued contrast to days of ocean blues and turquoises.
By the late afternoon, the clouds had lifted just in time for our sunset dhow cruise. Traditional Arabian wooden boats with triangular sails, dhows have sailed along the coast of Mozambique for more than 1,400 years and are still in use today by fishermen. One of the wonderful things about Benguerra is not hearing the buzz of speedboats whizzing past: instead the only boats that skim by are near-silent dhows, and going for a sail on one is a quintessential Mozambique experience. As sunset locations go, it’s hard to beat gliding on a calm sea, sitting under the shadow of a dhow’s billowing sail while the golden orb slips down the sky, casting an amber trail over the Indian Ocean.
In between all of the activities were superb meals, featuring lots of seafood and fish straight from the sea, from crab linguine, whole grilled fish and calamari and mango salad to Mozambican prawn curry fragrant with coconut. Dining locations were delightful surprises, such as breakfast on the deck of an old dhow on the shore and a picnic for just the two of us amidst the dunes on beautiful Southpoint Beach at the very tip of the island, but our last night was the best of all. In front of our villa, Raul set out a table in the sand surrounded by flickering candles. Our soundtrack was the lapping of tiny waves a few feet away, and our roof was a dark sky painted with a dazzle of stars. It was by far the most romantic place I’ve ever eaten dinner.
Tucking into our seafood feast and sipping on South African Sauvignon Blanc with my toes in the sand, I thought about what real luxury means. Apart from the dhow boatmen gliding past, the few other couples staying at Azura and the few local islanders who occasionally walk past on the beach with a smile and a wave, you don’t see anyone else during your whole time on Benguerra. Five-star beach resorts are easy to come by, but truly getting away from it all in an extraordinarily beautiful place that remains unspoiled by tourism, is true paradise.
WHERE TO STAY
- Azura Benguerra
Azura offers 20 beachfront villas with spacious indoor and outdoor areas and plunge pools, two more expansive Royal Beach Villas, which each feature a lounge and swimming pool as well as a jet pool and have their own private stretch of beachfront, the two-bedroomed Villa Amizade and the three-bedroomed Presidential Villa, where you’ll find lounges, a bar, outdoor deck and big infinity pool, and which comes with its own private chef. Azura is very romantic and perfect for honeymooners and couples, but it also caters for children and teenagers with a range of fun activities, such as learning to snorkel or dive, flying kites, marine walks, and a visit to the local island school. The bigger villas are great for families as they have TVs, DVD players and a selection of games for children. Rates at Azura include meals, selected beers, wines and cocktails, an island drive and sunset dhow cruise.
- andBeyond Benguerra Island
Set on the north western side of the island just over a kilometre away from Azura, andBeyond Benguerra Island is a stylish eco-lodge with a commitment to sustainability. Luxurious accommodation is in 10 thatched casinhas, two cabanas or an exclusive three-bedroom villa, all of which feature private pools, decks and outdoor showers.
There’s a wealth of sea- and landbased activities on offer at both lodges, including snorkelling, scuba diving, island hopping in the Bazaruto Archipelago, 4×4 drives around the island, deep sea fishing (with a tag and release policy on protected species), horse riding (suitable for complete beginners to experienced riders), dhow cruises, whale watching, picnics, kayaking and paddle boarding, massages and playing soccer with the local island team.
WHEN TO GO
Benguerra Island is warm and sunny all year, but the best time to visit is during the dry (and cooler) season from May to September. Rainy season is in January and February and there’s a chance of cyclones between January and March.
Travellers can obtain a 30-day visa on arrival in Mozambique with proof of a return flight.
NEED TO KNOW
Mozambique’s local currency is the Metical, although US Dollars and South African Rands are widely accepted. The country has a high risk of malaria, so it’s recommended that you take prophylactics and use insect repellent.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
The main gateway to Mozambique is Johannesburg in South Africa. From here it’s a short direct flight to Vilanculos on SA Airlink. From Vilanculos, you have two options for getting to Benguerra: a short boat ride or an even shorter helicopter ride, both of which can be arranged with your lodge.