Just Back From
Since its inception in 1991, andBeyond (then called CC Africa) has been committed to land and wildlife conservation, as well as community preservation; hence the original name. Now with 34 lodges, the recently re-opened Benguerra in Mozambique as its latest, the company remains fiercely dedicated to its founding principles (they changed the name in 2008 when there was expansion into places beyond Africa).
Roughly the size of Turkey, Mozambique hugs the eastern African shore, wedged between South Africa in the southwest, Tanzania in the north and the Indian Ocean to the east. The country can roughly be divided between the regions around Maputo, in the south, which are relatively easy to access (particularly from South Africa) and the wild north, which remains difficult to reach logistically. Particularly the southern coast, known for its spectacular beaches, had a long history of hosting international travelers pre-independence, but the crippling civil war that followed in 1977 put an end to tourism for some two decades. Now, having had a stable government for more than a decade, Mozambique is inching back into the travel spotlight, particularly appealing to east Africa aficionados searching for the perfect beach culmination to a safari.
And flawless the beaches are, especially those found in the Bazaruto Archipelago, a 550-square mile area that has been a designated marine national park since the early 1970s. Calling it the “Galapagos of Africa,” as Bazaruto has been, might be a stretch, but it’s true that the relative isolation has yielded a complex ecosystem with some of the Indian Ocean’s most pristine coral reefs and an abundant marine wildlife. For this and many other reasons, Benguerra Island was a perfect fit for andBeyond’s portfolio.
Getting to the lodge and Benguerra Island—at 21-square-miles, the archipelago’s second-largest—offers a vivid introduction to this special destination. Guests arrive at sleepy Vilankulo town where they transfer via helicopter straight to the lodge. The eight-minute ride is most magnificent during low tide when large patches of sand emerge between a sea whose color runs from deep sapphire to the lightest Tiffany turquoise—a translucent dreamscape of water and light; a tropical Monet.
As all of andBeyond’s lodges, Benguerra was conceived to blend into its natural habitat, a lush canopy of coconut palms, Banyan trees, potato bush and tangled beach shrubbery. The main lodge is a low-lying building made predominantly out of stripped wood, with a soaring thatch roof and expansive decks on stilted platforms. There’s nary a glass window in sight – everything opens up to make the most of the stunning views of sparkling Benguerra Bay and what must be one of the world’s best beaches: an expanse of powdery white sand and small waves scattering shells along its edge.
The lodge’s 13 bay-fronting bungalows fan out from the main lodge and they, too, are set a bit back so that they quickly disappear into the vegetation when seen from a boat. Surrounded by large wooden decks and plunge pools, the guest bungalows have glass doors but thatched roofs that let in the sea breeze (there’s air conditioning but most times of the year, it’s not necessary). They are supremely comfortable and it would be a stretch to call them rustic — for the well-stocked mini bars, beautiful fabrics and glam indoor-outdoor bathrooms alone. But they also feel totally in step with this laid-back place. Suffice it to say that any shoe more elaborate than a flip-flop will stay in your bag the entirety of your stay.
However cushy the resort, however, few guests spend their vacation staying put. There’s simply too much to explore, especially for those keen on diving and/or snorkeling. There’s pristine Two Mile Reef, teaming with Ember Parrotfish, Fire Goby, Devil Firefish and other colorful reef species, as well as an embarrassment of healthy coral (if you’ve ever snorkeled in reefs effected by coral bleaching, like the Great Barrier Reef, you will weep with joy here). There are catamaran cruises to Paradise Island, a deserted island that still holds the spooky shell of a once hot-spot hotel (Bob Dylan reportedly wrote his catchy song Mozambique while visiting). There are sunset cruises on a dhow, eastern Africa’s wooden fishing vessel of choice, and if you are in luck, you will spot dolphins or the elusive dugong, an aquatic mammal that is almost entirely extinct.
But above all else, there is the fact that besides andBeyond Benguerra Island (with 13 bungalows) and the 16-room Azura Lodge down the beach, you are staying on an island in midst of a local community of fishermen and their families. They wave when you’re taking a walk along the wide beach (circumnavigating the island takes some seven hours), and you meet them at andBeyond where more than 60 percent of the staff is from Mozambique, many from the island. Some of the locals have barely left Benguerra in their lifetime, even to go to the mainland, as many do not know how to swim and fear a dhow accident en route to Vilankulo (andBeyond has plans to offer swim classes). Success stories abound, like quiet, talented Victorino Vilankulo who worked his way up in the kitchen and is now Benguerra Lodge’s head chef, and charming John Sevane, a former fisherman who today skippers the lodge’s best snorkeling and dhow cruises.
There are lots of moments that will stay with me from my recent trip to Benguerra: the symphony of birds in the morning as if waking in an aviary (there are more than 140 species in the Bazaruto region); watching hundreds of ghost crabs play a game of hide-and-seek in the surf of Southern Beach; observing the fishing dhows returning after a hard day's work, rows of wooden vessels with colorful sails stitched together out of multi-hued cloth.
All inspired an urgent hope that this unique destination will be developed with care, and that the kind of low-impact tourism championed by andBeyond will make a meaningful contribution to the local communities and protect what makes the island so magical. Many more places in Mozambique will need a champions like this, as change is sure to arrive in this undiscovered gem. Visiting now, you can't help but be occasionally overwhelmed by that giddy—and rare—recognition that you are lucky enough to be catching a place at precisely the right time.
Part of five islands that make up the Bazaruto Archipelago, in southern Mozambique, nearly nine miles off the shore from coastal town Vilankulo.
Who Should Go: While Benguerra Island is open to kids of all ages (unlike some safari camps), the beachside castaway vibe is undeniably romantic. Couples will be most happy here, especially those who know how to scuba dive, as the marine wildlife is world-renowned. And Africa aficionados who want to explore a special place before the rest of the world gets there should book now. If you do opt to bring the kids, there's a lovely three-bedroom villa, Casa Familia, that sits at the edge of the property (also beachside) and can be rented.
Who Should Not Go: People who need an abundance of water sports, activities or a nightlife. Also, in keeping with the low-impact philosophy, paths at night are very dimly lit by lanterns, so older travelers or people who have trouble walking might face a challenge here.
When to Go: High season is June, July and August, as well as the week between Christmas and New Year's. Mid-December through February is the rainy season, and February should be avoided due to rain and heat. A beautiful time to go is late September, October and November when temperatures are manageable.
Getting There: There are direct flights to Vilankulo from Johannesburg (five times a week; 1 hour 40 minutes) and Nelspruit, near Kruger National Park (twice a week; 1 hour 15 minutes). The eight-minute helicopter transfer to Benguerra Island is inclusive in the room rate and offers a spectacular introduction to the archipelago. Indagare Tip: Unlike the small prop bush planes, the helicopter offers less stringent luggage requirements, i.e., while duffels are preferable to wheeling suitcases, they are not mandatory, and the weight restriction of 44 pounds per person is a bit more lax.
Good to Know: Benguerra is in a Malaria zone, and even though the highest risk of contracting the disease is during rainy seasons (December – February), it's best to get an anti-malaria prescription before your trip and to bring bug repellent (Off makes bug spray–drenched wipes which are easier to transport).
Details: andBeyond Benguerra Island rates cover the helicopter transfer to and from Vilankulo, all meals and drinks (including alcohol), as well as most activities, like the dhow cruise, snorkeling trip, village tour and castaway picnic (scuba diving and horseback riding is additional). There are special packages available for honeymooners.
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