The bartenders, John and Edio, were taking turns to teach us how to play tsoro. This game, which consists of moving seeds or beads around a wooden board (or a grid drawn in the sand) is popular throughout Africa, and is known by a multitude of names and played a multitude of different ways. We were playing the Mozambican way, moving clockwise around the board, trying to manoeuvre in clever ways in order to capture our opponent’s pieces. “Maybe you should move that one?” Edio suggests. It’s a move which results in a large and very satisfying haul of his seeds. “You’re letting me win!” I accuse him. He shakes his head and smiles. I smile back, because win or lose that particular game, just being at Azura Boutique Retreat on beautiful Benguerra Island, means that I had already won.
The road to the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz is paved in yellow bricks; those around Azura are paved in silver. Crushed sand oyster shells (a bi-product of the local fishing industry) cover the pathways, crunching satisfyingly underfoot, and glinting prettily in silver and mother of pearl in the sunlight. Like the yellow brick road, they also lead to a gem of a place, nestled as it is in isolated luxury on one of Mozambique’s picturesque desert islands, surrounded by a fairy tale blue sea.
Any king or queen should be allowed the opportunity to survey their kingdom, and arriving by helicopter allows all guests at this boutique retreat to do just that. As well as the excitement of the ride, you are also rewarded with a bird’s eye view of this stretch of sea, which is painted in sapphire and topaz hues with swathes of sand creating milky swirls in the water, and patches of sea grass leopard spotting the ocean floor with dark, circular shadows. As you leave the coastal town of Vilanculos behind, the island of Bazaruto (the largest in this archipelago) sits perched on the horizon, but it is its smaller sister island of Benguerra that will serve as your kingdom for your stay. At only 11 km long, the island offers an intimate escape, and Azura even more so, with its luxury villas nestled in lush gardens overlooking the beach.
Each villa comes with a shaggy thatch roof haircut, with tossled edges that shade the veranda. But don’t let the beachy, “bed head” vibe fool you, for step instead its blissful air-conditioned cool, and you will find a luxuriously appointed suite that is guaranteed to cater to every royal whim. Large beds (the kind you have to climb up onto, instead of sit down on) are romantically swathed in soft white netting, and look out onto a generously proportioned room, complete with a comfy reading chair and a nook with a desk – should you wish to quickly dash off a “Wish you were here” postcard. The bathroom runs the entire width of the room, with his and hers basins, a walk-in cupboard, an ample bathtub and a shower large enough even for a royal retinue. Every castle should have a drawbridge, and the villas here are no exception, with a wooden bridge that leads over a sea of aloes, to twin outdoor showers – perfect to cool off in the moonlight.
Another option for cooling off is your own personal rim flow plunge pool, which even boasts a throne – yes, you heard me right – a submerged seat on which you can relax and watch the dhows sail by the beach, a stone’s throw from your veranda. These beach views can also be enjoyed from a pair of loungers nearby, or from a thatched sala that sits at the end of the garden, right on the beach.
The main lodge, as well as the villas are quite literally swimming with fish. Fish motifs paddle across the cushions on the beds; the villa door handles are silver fish; large beaded fish lamp shades swim in a school above the reception, and jellyfish ones hover above the restaurant. A large silver fish – ingeniously made from the worn cutlery from the backpacker’s lodge that once stood here – surveys the main deck. It’s little wonder though, as the sea, and the creatures in it, form such a part of life – and your stay – here.
Romantic sunset dhow cruises (complete with French champagne, no less) give you insight into the traditional Mozambican way of sailing and fishing, while also giving you a wonderful view of the island. A short boat ride from the lodge, Two Mile Reef offers spectacular snorkelling with its multicoloured coral and teeming marine life, with tropical fish, moray eels, and even turtles making regular appearances. Drop below the waves, and you will discover one of Mozambique’s most picturesque dive sites – a vibrant underwater wonderland, where you could be rewarded with a multitude of magnificent sightings. Guide and dive master Paulo Vivane’s face lit up when he spoke of looking up from the sea bed to see schools of magnificent manta rays, sailing past on their giant wings, as well as swimming with magnificent whale sharks, or even spotting the notoriously elusive dugong, an animal so rare that seeing one is a true bucket list occasion.
Other activities include island hopping to the very aptly named Paradise Island, and to little Pansy Island, so named because of the pansy shells that liberally dot it. You can also opt to swap your boat for a 4×4 and take a tour of the island itself, to climb sand dunes, look for crocodiles in the fresh water lakes, see the “wild side” of the island, and visit the local school, where the hotel is doing great work to assist with classrooms and educational supplies. As you go, your guide will tell you about the indigenous plants and the ingenious uses that the locals have found for them, including medical remedies, mozzie repellent and even shampoo! A large number of the local residents have been employed at the lodge, where they welcome guests with genuine warmth and hospitality (like Paulo Vilanculos at the front desk), and provide the kind of unobtrusive service that makes you feel completely at home. For that added royal touch, each villa is assigned their own host, who is responsible for serving them all of their meals – many of which are set up in different locations each evening, to really make for memorable dining (which is only enhanced by the superb cuisine).
Our host, Ronald Nembe, set up a magical dinner for us on the deck of our villa, complete with swaying lanterns in the trees and candles on the table. Oh, and not to forget the butter – every meal came with a new picture drawn onto its flat surface wishing us a happy day or a good meal. It turns out that Ronald is quite the artist! He – as were the other hosts – was also expert at anticipating our every need, not least of all at cocktail hour, which simply wouldn’t be complete without a new kind of cocktail every evening and a plate of nibbles to accompany it.
Sitting on a deck chair, cocktail in hand, watching the startling turquoise of the sea changing to inky indigo as evening falls, you can’t help but feel supremely lucky. Who needs the Emerald City, when you can have this topaz and mother of pearl kingdom instead? For more information, visit www.azura-retreats.com.
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