Fitzpatrick, Mary, The Independent (London, England)
Traveller's guide In the first of a five-part series on Africa produced in association with Lonely Planet, Mary Fitzpatrick celebrates a little-visited nation that's big on beauty
Indian Ocean sunrises, turquoise waters, a 2,500km coastline and a fascinating cultural scene: all this and more awaits in Mozambique, one of southern Africa's least visited destinations. Here, in this long land running from South Africa in the south up to Tanzania in the north, the African bush fuses with Mediterranean flair (this was once Portuguese East Africa), humpback whales migrate up the coast while lions and buffalos roam the interior.
Despite all that Mozambique has to offer, its vibrant present is often overshadowed by its darker past. From Vasco da Gama's first foray in 1498 to independence in 1975, much of the country was under the loose control of the Portuguese, who left their mark on its language, cuisine and culture.
Following a hard-fought independence war and a brief and economically disastrous flirtation with socialism, Mozambique almost immediately fell into a protracted guerrilla war fuelled largely by external sources. Only since the 1993 peace accords have Mozambicans had the stability, peace and massive influxes of foreign aid needed to rebuild their country.
Over the past decade, things have really taken off. New developments are most noticeable in the national capital, Maputo, which is in Mozambique's far south and is economically welded to neighbouring South Africa. Mozambique's north is in many ways a different land, with vast tracts of dense bush in the interior, and idyllic islands scattered along the coast.
Because of Mozambique's size - almost four times that of the UK - it is best to focus on either the south or the north. Southern Mozambique's climate is ideal almost year round, apart from January, which can get very hot, and March to May, when there is usually lots of rain. In the north, the main rains fall from about February through April, and temperatures are somewhat higher than in the south.
For most visitors, the first port of call is Maputo, a striking and unexpectedly pleasant capital city. Long, wide avenues lined by flame and jacaranda trees flow down into the lively low-lying Baixa commercial area. Swanky villas overlook the blue expanses of Maputo Bay and Portuguese-style pavement cafs offer respite from the streetside bustle. Meanwhile an ever-growing array of restaurants serve seafood platters, spicy samosas and sizzling steaks. Painted "laranjinha" tuk-tuks wait outside the landmark Hotel Cardoso (00 258 21 491071; hotelcardoso.co.mz), on the edge of the busy central area, to take you from sight to sight (from about US$6/4 for a short trip). The hotel has doubles from US$280 (187).
Exploring on foot is also feasible. But whatever your mode of transport, don't miss Maputo's elegant early 20th-century train station on Praca dos Trabalhadores. Waiting for the badly dilapidated train isn't worth your time (there are just a handful of mostly local runs), but the building - with its wrought-iron lattice work and a dome that was designed by an associate of Gustave Eiffel - is an architectural masterpiece. Nearby is an imposing fortress, known locally as the Fortaleza, that harks back to the Portuguese colonial era.
Another highlight is the National Museum of Art (00 258 21 320264; admission 1) at 1233 Avenida Ho Chi Minh, with an eclectic collection of works by contemporary Mozambican artists. The chaotic Mercado Municipal on Avenida 25 de Setembro, open from about 8am until 6pm daily, makes an enjoyable detour, overflowing with piles of tropical fruits and spices. For respite from the market's noise and crowds, duck into one of the small, dark shops opposite, with their colourful batiks and capulanas (cloth wraps worn by many Mozambican women). Finish exploring with a leisurely drive along the breezy seaside Avenida Marginal. …