"Tem força," said Abudo, in Portuguese. "O vento há-de soprar."
Have strength. The wind will come.
The sail flapped listlessly as we drifted in the sun's growing heat. We'd hired the 70-year-old fisherman to sail us in his wooden dhow across a channel from Ilha de Moçambique, a tiny speck off the northern coast, to a nearby isthmus of the mainland. Soon the wind did come, billowing the patched sails of nearby fishing dhows and winging them to sea. Beaching at a thatch village under coconut palms, we waded through tidal inlets to a spectacularly empty, several-mile-long curve of white beach. After snorkeling in the quiet shallows, avoiding enormous sea urchins, we hiked back to discover our dhow sprawled on its side on a sandy flat at least 500 yards from the water's edge.
"What do we do now?" I asked Abudo.
"Now we wait for the sea," he replied.
Back in the fifties and early sixties, Mozambique then a Portuguese colony was on its way to becoming the Caribbean of Africa for white South Africans, landlocked Rhodesians, and others. After Portugal granted independence in 1975 commemorated in Bob Dylan's song "Mozambique" a new black socialist government came to power. Then came 16 brutal years of civil war.
Now, after more than a decade of peace, Mozambique is rebuilding, and tourism is one of its brightest spots. But you don't go there to zoom your crystalline lenses across the African savanna and zing off photos of the Big Five. During the war, bush fighters slaughtered many animals for food, and, as a result, there really isn't much big wildlife in the scrubby interior. Where you do find stunning wildlife is among Mozambique's palmy archipelagoes, coral reefs, and 1,500 miles of Indian Ocean coast that the civil war paradoxically kept pristine from development. Some 700,000 visitors arrive in the country annually (nearly double from 2001), many of them eco-tourists who've quickly spread the word.
During our year's stay in the capital city, Maputo, where my wife, Amy, was doing research on dance, we took advantage of the coastline most weekends. On our children's five-week Christmas school break, we flew deep into the subtropics, 12 degrees south of the equator. It was here, in 2002, that the World Wildlife Fund helped Mozambique establish Quirimbas National Park. This encompasses 11 of the 28 islands of the Quirimbas Archipelago, plus a large swath of the mainland's mangrove and miombo forests and the St. Lazarus Bank farther offshore, considered one of the world's premier diving and sportfishing locations.
The park is an experiment in eco-tourism, approved by the area's traditional fishing villages in order to preserve their way of life, manage marine resources, and develop basic services in a region with a life expectancy of less than 40 years. Rather than bringing in the masses, the park emphasizes limited, high-end tourism. Opened in 2002, the Quilálea Island resort offers elegant thatch-and-stone villas with access to empty beaches and some of the archipelago's best diving right offshore. The Medjumbe Island Resort, also on its own small island, gives easy access to bonefishing and scuba diving. At the Vamizi Island lodge, outside the park on a seven-mile-long island, you can luxuriate in a house-size villa. Backed by European investors, Vamizi collaborates with researchers from the Zoological Society of London to preserve the area's sea turtles and the mainland's elephant habitat.
In the clear waters of another island group, the Bazaruto Archipelago, off the southern coast and protected by a national park, you can swim (if you're lucky) with the threatened dugong a shy sea cow that supposedly inspired the mermaid myth. Upscale lodges here include the Benguerra and the Marlin.
My 51st birthday happened to find us on Ilha de Moçambique, which lies partway between the Quirimbas and the Bazarutos. The Portuguese built their stronghold in East Africa on this tiny, 1.5-mile-long sliver of old coral and shipped out the interior's gold and ivory from here. Today there's still no place on earth like Ilha, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tree roots sprout from the broken walls of old coral-and-stone villas in its narrow streets, rusted cannonballs lie about the massive fortress, the tiny chapel of the Southern Hemisphere's oldest church overlooks the sea, and the ornate St. Paul's Palace seems untouched dusty furniture and all since the time of the Portuguese.
European artists and architects are rehabilitating old villas into small hotels. We stayed at the Escondidinho, which had been renovated by an Italian doctor. Under its portico, looking onto a courtyard where it's rumored slaves were once sold, a French ballerina and her computer-engineer partner who chucked it all to move to Africa run a bistro featuring a delicious cuisine that, like the island itself, takes its accents from Africa and Europe, Arabia and India.
At the hour Abudo predicted, the ocean refloated our dhow. Soon we were broad-reaching amid flying spray. We would land just in time for me to join a fast-paced game with Ilha's men's soccer team near the fortress walls. Then I would meet my family in the bistro for kid-goat stew and birthday flan. But for now, it was just the wind and the sea.
Access & Resources
Getting There: Fly South African Airways (flysaa.com) from New York to Johannesburg to Maputo for about $1,400 round-trip. From there, it's a two-hour flight on LAM (lam.co.mz) to Pemba, the launch point for charter flights to the Quirimbas. (For the Bazarutos, flights depart from Vilanculos.) Prime Time: April September, with crowds peaking in August. Where to Stay: The Quilálea Island resort has nine villas ($400 per person; 011-258-2-722-1808, quilalea.com). There are 13 chalets at Medjumbe Island Resort (from $345 per person; closed for renovations until March; 011-27-11-465-6904, medjumberesort.com). Vamizi Island lodge has ten beach houses ($560 per person; 011-27-11-884-8869, vamizi.com). Escondidinho, on Ilha de Moçambique, is a ten-room guesthouse (doubles, $50; 011-258-2-661-0078, ilhatur.co.mz). Benguerra Lodge offers 11 chalets ($395 per person; 011-27-11-452-0641, benguerra.co.za). There are 19 chalets at the Marlin Lodge (from $213 per person; 011-27-12-460-9410, marlinlodge.co.za).
Peter Stark's book Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival will be published in March 2014 by Ecco.