It’s no overstatement to say that the six islands in the Bazaruto archipelago are among the most beautiful on earth. You know those tropical islands you’ve been dreaming of, buttered with soft white sand, and topped with skinny palm trees? We found them, 40 kilometers from the mainland city of Vilankulo in central Mozambique. The archipelago is a national park, blessed with some of the most spectacular diving and snorkeling in the Indian Ocean, and home to reefs teeming with clown fish, giant turtles, whale sharks, devil rays, and butterfly fish. It’s also home to the last viable population of dugongs – a slimmer relative of manatees – in the world. Life on the archipelago moves with the rhythm of the tide and all activities are planned accordingly.
Of the six islands that make up the archipelago, Bazaruto and Benguerra are the largest, where you’ll find luxury eco-resorts that are a natural hit with honeymooners. Santa Carolina (or Paradise Island) is shingled with the remains of a former hotel, and makes a great day trip from Bazaruto, Benguerra or Vilankulo, as does Magaruque island. Banque and Shell, the remaining two islands in the group, are tiny and devoid of any infrastructure.
Where to stay
The jewel in Benguerra’s golden crown is Azura, an exclusive luxury eco-boutique retreat like no other. The 16 beach, infinity, and presidential villas (from $550 per person per night) come with their own private infinity pools, double deckings, discreet beachside salas, and king-size beds with Egyptian cotton linen and down duvets. The bathrooms feature curved tubs and both indoor and outdoor monsoon showers; the outdoor showers are heated by the sun and walled for privacy. Best of all, each villa comes with its own private butler (usually a Benguerra islander) who (together with the kind and detail-oriented guest services team) will greet you with champagne from the owner’s French vineyard and organize every detail of your trip, including sunset cocktails, a 15-minute massage, and a complimentary dhow cruise and island drive by Landrover (diving, snorkeling and private island picnics are booked separately). At dusk, tables are laid between the sand and the stars, and the South African chef serves fine food made with simple, fresh ingredients. With every detail taken care of, we couldn’t beat the Azura experience if we tried.
The wonderful four-star &Beyond Benguerra is on the other side of Benguerra Island, and offers an entirely different experience. The focus here is on rustic, chic casitas (that also come with their own plunge pools, hammocks and charming butlers), lashings of green vegetation, and more of a safari-lodge feel. If you feel at one with nature and wildlife, &Beyond Beguerra is your spot, not least because it’s home to a stable of Zimbabwean horses with a moving backstory along with serving as the island’s dugong protection base. The food here is fresh and good; expect tropical salads, homemade crabcakes, and divine caramel tempura puddings. Diving, snorkelling, Dhow cruises, island drives, and horseriding are all easily arranged. Prices start at $510 per person per night.
On Bazaruto island, Indigo Bay Resort is a 44-villa island paradise that has more of a resort feel than Benguerra Island’s accommodation options. That means you get a choice of restaurants, a large swimming pool, golf course, gym and the fabulous Anantara Spa — modeled on luxury Thai spas, and perched on top of the clifftop, affording spectacular views from the couple’s massage tables down into the Indian Ocean. Some of the villas (from $700 per couple) come with private gardens complete with hammocks, as well as luxury multi-roomed bath suites, and the most comfortable beds this side of Madagascar. Dinner is served in a different location each mealtime, with the candlelit sand suppers by far the best of the bunch.
Pestana Bazaruto Lodge is a four-star lodge that has all-inclusive rates starting from $375. A little less luxury than Indigo Bay, this is still a stunning place to stay, and its 40 bungalows were remodeled a few years ago. Staff here can arrange the same activities as the other lodges, although there isn’t quite the same level of attention to detail and planning. Nevertheless, Pestana makes a great island getaway if the other three lodges are beyond your budget.
Two Mile Reef, a 20-minute speedboat ride from Benguerra Island, is one of the world’s most colorful places to snorkel or dive. “On Two Mile Reef anything is possible,” dive instructor Vouter, who works at Azura on Benguerra Island, told us. “In the winter you might see whales, and there are a lot of turtles and devil rays, as well as unusual specimens like sea apples — something of a cross between coral and fish,” he said. Whale sharks turn up at the reef from November to February, but they can be hard to spot. Two-meter-long gray reef sharks are more common. Snorkelling at Two Mile Reef can be organised at low-tide by all island lodges, as well as most hotels in Vilankulo. It’s also a great place to dive, from beginner to expert level. Further from the shorelines, Five Mile Reef affords advanced divers a tricky but beautiful diving experience, at a depth of 20 to 25 meters, while San Sebastian Reef about 90 minutes away is even more challenging. On Santa Carolina, there is a shallow coral reef suited to snorkeling. All equipment can be hired at your lodge, with transfers and instruction easily arranged.
Horse riding on Benguerra Island is a very special experience. The six horses stabled at &Beyond Benguerra arrived by barge from the mainland and were part of a 104-strong group transported to Vilankulo by owners Pat and Mandy Retzlaff when they were evicted from their Zimbabwe farm. Mozambique Horse Safari runs incredible riding trips along the beaches and atop the dunes of Benguerra Island, culminating in stripping off the horse’s saddles and riding bareback into the Indian Ocean.
All of the island lodges can organize island drives (often complimentary) of Benguerra and Bazaruto, that take in the crocodile pools, sand dunes, local school (part-funded by donations from guests at Azura on Benguerra Island), and island flora. It’s a fantastic way to learn about the lives of villagers in the archipelago, and to see some of the unusual and medicinal plants that grow on the islands. Sunset dhow cruises with a glass of cool vinho branco in hand are the perfect way to welcome the night.
Vilankulo is a two-hour flight from Johannesburg and a little less from Mozambique’s capital, Maputo. If you’re travelling by car, the road between Maputo and Vilankulo is long, but mostly in good shape. Plan on nine to 12 hours by road. Most transfers between the mainland and the archipelago are done by air. The luxury lodges on Bazaruto and Benguerra organize helicopter or light aircraft transfers to match bookings, around $150 per person return trip. The flight takes between five and 10 minutes, and affords stunning views over the turquoise waters below. It’s also the best way to spot the shadows of dugongs and giant turtles.
Alternatively, you can travel by speedboat on a 45-minute journey that costs around $250 per boat one way, or travel local style by barge through three hours of potentially rough waters (note that life vests are not provided, and safety may be a concern) for 130 meticais each way. Barges run once or twice a day, but timing may vary; ask locally in Vilankulo for more information. If you don’t plan to stay on the archipelago, Dolphin Dhow in Vilankulo runs day trips that include snorkeling and picnics from $85 per person, and overnight safaris that include camping on the archipelago for $100 per person.