Marvellous Mozambique: Where luxury holidays dance to a different beat
Life in Azura Benguerra has its own gentle rhythm which gifts visitors the opportunity to hit the reset button, writes Dee O'Keeffe
I should feel bone-tired as I arrive by helicopter to Benguerra Island.
It's been 24 hours since I left Dublin. Instead, I have a strong intuition that four nights in the Azura resort will provide memorable sustenance way down the road. A bird's eye view of the Indian Ocean spreads out before me as we leave Vilanculos Airport.
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Choppering towards my temporary home, I try to guess which one of Azura's 20 luxury villas, each complete with its own infinity pool and beachfront access, will be mine. A welcome party comes into view and waves enthusiastically up at us as the pilot performs a smooth set-down.
My hosts offer me a leafy neck garland before we settle on a couch in the open-air reception for some iced tea and a brief introduction to island life, Azura-style. It's all very simple really. I am assigned Abel, my Mozambican butler-host who will look after my every need. Seafood fresh from the ocean, beach dining, a spa visit and participation in some of the inclusive activities and experiences all come highly recommended. There's no set schedule; the Azura team tunes into each guest's rhythm and from there the holiday flows.
Mozambique is emerging bravely from a turbulent and complicated past. Since being colonised around 1498, Portuguese is the language used in this southern African nation. It's over a quarter of a century since the end of a damaging civil war, something Irish people can perhaps empathise with since our own recovery post-civil conflict looms large enough in the rearview mirror. Along with Zimbabwe and Malawi, Mozambique is also dealing with the aftermath of Cyclone Idai.
Thankfully, Azura Benguerra Island is completely spared from this natural disaster - and it has been business as usual throughout. This might sound like a callous observation. However, this eco-friendly resort was hand-built by the local community and is operated in partnership with it. Tourism is what keeps it all afloat.
The Azura Rainbow Fund is the first registered charity of its kind in Mozambique. It funded the construction of an island school as well as teachers' housing blocks - and so the island now has some 400 children in education compared to 40 when the initiative started seven years ago. Forty per cent of these school-goers are girls, which is also a sea change for the island. Last year, the fund provided a total of $65,000 to help build the first community clinic, with nurses' residence, on the island. I visit both locations as part of my Red Dune & Crocodile Lakes Drive tour of the island and its villages.
From the outset, this little bit of local knowledge really matters to me. Westerners like me come here to find a different beat. Our lives are too hectic, too scheduled and sometimes just too ridiculous. I have a brief window to separate myself from the grinding reality of 21st-century life in a first-world country and absorb a different philosophical outlook, which no doubt has its own daily grind. But not for tourists.
I start each day with a run - tough on the entirely sand-covered island, all 55 square kilometres of it - but it affords me a further glimpse of life in any of the nearby villages I run through and their way of being. The islanders are up and at it as early as I am but their gait is always unhurried. Once a week, Azura Benguerra gets its delivery from the mainland - making my post-run, fresh watermelon juice possible every morning. Palm trees and some indigenous plants are all that grow here.
The food on offer is deliciously prepared and can be as formal or informal as you want. Dine in your stunning villa, the Jellyfish restaurant or have a table set up on the beach with the water lapping at your feet. The culinary highlight for me was an invite to a special barbecue in the presidential villa - chicken, giant prawns, tuna, calamari, vegetables, salads and lots more.
The temperatures are mid-20s throughout my stay (early February). Amid the couples, who appear to be the mainstay of this island resort, and a couple of families with young children, I spot a group of travel industry professionals. I slot easily in with them to enjoy some of what this luxury retreat has to offer in company. This is truly opportune as group dynamics add to my experience of the one thing no visitor to this island should miss - a visit to the live coral. You can avail of diving training at the resort, which offers a full range of courses with a PADI instructor. The next best thing for a guest like me, who hasn't even studied the theory portion of diving, is snorkelling.
The marine life and corals are often cited as the best off the east coast of Africa. This is confirmed to me by a fellow traveller I meet on the arrival and departure legs of the Vilanculos/Johannesburg journey.
This man, who has travelled the world for business purposes and also managed to indulge his passion for diving wherever possible, tells me he cannot wait to return with his adult children. This is as good as diving gets, he tells me.
Whale sharks, manta rays and humpback whales and their calves visit seasonally. More regular visitors include loggerhead, green and hawksbill turtles, reef sharks, stingrays, devil rays and moray eels as well as a variety of reef fish such as grouper, bat fish, surgeons, puffers, moorish idols, parrot fish, clown fish, trigger fish and chocolate dip fish.
Hard and soft corals are in abundance, with Christmas tree anemones and nudibranchs for those who like to spot the smaller stuff.
My group takes a blissful 45-minute guided snorkel around the coral with firm instructions not to touch anything. Conservation is king here, both on and off the island. It is worth protecting because no photograph or painting could accurately capture the beauty of a forest in the sea.
Next we head to North Point for a picnic. Loungers have been laid out for our comfort as we sip pre-lunch drinks. With nothing in our view but sand and sea, we adjourn to the beautifully decorated dining table and cushioned chairs that have been magically set up for our dining experience in the middle of nothing.
A sunset show cruise on my final evening feels so special. This one-hour jaunt in a sailing vessel with some fellow guests, sipping cocktails, is the right note to end on. My last indulgence is a low-key dinner in my villa, wondering why I don't look at the Irish sky more often.
Research has shown that holiday satisfaction is unrelated to your length of stay: it's what you do that dictates if there will be lasting benefits from the experience. Six months later, my Azura Benguerra Island visit is something I feel daily gratitude for.
Like most things in life, luxurious or otherwise, it's the people who make it memorable.
Mahlatini Luxury Travel (01 906 1833; mahlatini.com) offers a seven-night stay at Azura Benguerra Island starting from €4,950 per person sharing on an all-inclusive basis. Includes international flights from Dublin, accommodation, helicopter transfers as well as standard lodge activities.
WHAT TO PACK
Have a US$50 bill ready for your visa at Vilanculos Airport - it's processed on the spot. Pack DEET to keep mosquitoes at bay but skip shampoos, etc., as these are well stocked. Check vaccines in advance - I visited TMB Grafton Street and got shots for hep A, tetanus, yellow fever and a malaria prescription.
Wine lovers are well catered for with the Azura cellar offering a selection of wines, especially flown in from the owner's château in France.
Make time for a spa visit. During the Tribal Traditions massage, olive and shea butter is poured all over the body, and massage strokes mimic the beating of African drums.
If your island drive takes place on a Sunday morning, ask the guides to take you to catch a local soccer match; there is an Island League.