Inside Africa

Mozambique by Mini Cooper: Small car, big adventure

Sarah Duff, for CNNUpdated 10th June 2015
(CNN) — When most people think of overlanding in Africa, they think of organized tours in big trucks or 4x4s with roof tents, fridges and boxes full of tools.
It's true that there are many parts of Africa where you need a fairly sturdy vehicle to traverse potholed blacktop or kilometers of dirt roads.
But much of southern Africa is traveled in an ordinary sedan with no more specialized driving knowledge than the abilities to read a map and change a flat tire.
Mozambique is an amazing country for a road trip, especially for anyone looking for beaches.
It has a good tarred road -- the EN1 -- that hugs the Indian Ocean coastline.
The EN1 can be easily driven.
It reaches all the way from the South African border to Vilanculos, 700 kilometers up the coast -- the gateway to the famed Bazaruto Archipelago, a group of five idyllic islands some 30 kilometers offshore.
The route calls in first to the city of Maputo, and then through beautiful landscapes, past turquoise lagoons, seas of palm trees, giant gnarled baobabs and clouds of butterflies.
I choose a Mini Cooper for my trip, which attracts waves and smiles.
The real highlights don't come until the Mini turns off the EN1 and drives the smaller roads that lead to Mozambique's spectacular beaches.
The beaches range from near-deserted stretches of dune-fringed sand to traveler-friendly seaside resorts complete with surf schools and yoga retreats.
Convertible Minis can be rented from DriveSouthAfrica.co.za.
Drivers can take a rental car across the South African border into Mozambique, but need to let the rental car company know so it can provide a letter of permission for the border crossing.
Note: Many of Mozambique's off-the-beaten track beaches are accessible only with a 4x4 vehicle, but with forward planning, pick-ups can be arranged with hotels.
Tip: It's advisable to stick to the speed limit when driving in Mozambique -- the EN1 is well patrolled by traffic police waiting to dole out hefty fines even for minor breaches of the speed limit, which range between 60 and 120 kilometers per hour.

Maputo

The largest city in Mozambique, Maputo sits on the shores of the Indian Ocean.
The largest city in Mozambique, Maputo sits on the shores of the Indian Ocean.
Sarah Duff
Only 120 kilometers from the South African border, Mozambique's coastal capital feels like a different world.
An intriguing mix of Europe and Africa, Maputo is home to crumbling colonial buildings, lively markets, wide avenues named after communist leaders, art deco apartments the colors of fruit sorbets and a vibrant live music scene.
It has eclectic architecture, including the century-old elegant CFM Train Station, which made an appearance in the movie "Blood Diamond" and is home to Kampfumo (+258 82 986 0137), Maputo's most unusual bar, sandwiched between two platforms.
There's also the Casa de Ferro, a bizarre-looking metal house designed by Gustav Eiffel.
Visitors can catch bands performing at the Franco-Mozambican Cultural Centre, while away afternoons drinking South African wines and eating Greek food on Dhow Cafe's couches (Rua de Marracuene No.4, Maputo; +258 21 492115), which overlook a bay crisscrossed with dhows.
Mozambique's Portuguese-influenced cuisine is available at Manjar dos Deuses (Avenue Julius Nyerere, Maputo).
Undoubtedly the best place to stay in the city, the Polana Serena (1380 Av. Julius Nyerere, Maputo; +258 21 241 700) is one of Africa's most famous grande dame hotels.
The hotel, which dates to 1922, is elegant and atmospheric, with a marble lobby and antique elevator, expansive verandas, a massive swimming pool and lavishly decorated sea-facing rooms.

Chidenguele

Just more than an hour's drive north of the popular beach resort of Xai-Xai (pronounced "shy shy"), Chidenguele, a tiny blip on the map, is largely overlooked by travelers, which means it's quiet.
Naara Eco-Lodge and Spa (+258 84 321 2209) is the best pick of accommodation options.
If arranged ahead, cars can be left in the village and a ride hitched on a 4x4 up a hilly, sandy road to the lodge.
This is a collection of 10 safari tents with outdoor showers surrounded by bush overlooking the calm water of Nhambavale Lake.
It's a bit of a walk to the beach, but anyone who makes it will have a vast stretch of sand virtually to themselves.
The lodge organizes fishing, kayaking, wind surfing, birding and community walks, but it's also acceptable to do next to nothing.

Tofo

With its prime position and azure waters, Tofo has been attracting travelers for decades.
With its prime position and azure waters, Tofo has been attracting travelers for decades.
Joseph C Lawrence
A longtime backpacker favorite, the small village of Tofo, with its enticing stretch of golden sand beach, now also caters to a more upmarket crowd, with a crop of luxurious beach houses for rent and boutique hotels.
There's plenty to fill up the days, from surfing lessons (Tofo beach is a great spot for beginners while nearby Tofinho, with its reef break, draws more intermediate surfers), kite surfing, kayaking, yoga lessons and horseback riding, as well as diving and snorkeling.
There are occasional chances to swim with whale sharks, humpback whales and manta rays.  
Tofo has a selection of good eating options: thin-crust pizza and prawns cooked over lava hot stones at Branko's (Tofo Beach; +258 84 066 6470) or fresh seafood and traditional Mozambican dishes such as crab matapa (a stew made from cassava leaves, ground peanuts and coconut milk) at Tofo Tofo.
Stylish sea-view bungalows at the Baia Sonambula Guest House (Tofo Beach; +258 29 329 032), only 50 meters from the beach, include a beautiful little garden and delicious breakfasts.

Vilanculos

Vilanculos is a busy, dusty town that's worth escaping almost immediately on arrival.
Cars can be dropped off at the airport and a pick-up arranged from the owners of Marimba Secret Gardens (Vilanculos; +258 84 686 4373). They'll drive guests in a 4x4 on a thick, sandy road to reach their laid-back retreat, 23 kilometers north of town.
Simple huts made from wood, reeds and thatch are set on stilts and surrounded by gardens and thick bush, a short walk from a beautiful beach shared with only a few local fishermen.
Guest can hang out in hammocks, do a guided walk through the neighboring community of Chipongo (a chance to see what Mozambican rural village life is like) or go on snorkeling trips to the islands of the Bazaruto Archipelago.
At night, meals are served outside under the stars and often feature the catch of the day with coconut rice.

Bazaruto Archipelago

While day trips to the archipelago from Marimba Secret Gardens are great, the Bazaruto islands offer overnight accommodation.
There are only a handful of resorts to choose from, all of which will organize boat pick-ups from the mainland.
Azura (+27 11 467 0907) on Benguerra Island offers 17 "barefoot-luxury" villas on the beach.
These are equipped with their own plunge pools and beach huts.
There's also horseback riding on beaches, deep sea fishing and diving among shoals of technicolor fish on one of the coral reefs.