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Under African Skies

Zubin Shroff The entrance to Pembo Beach Resort Hotel.

Photo: Zubin Shroff

The hotel's speedboat is crewed by three jolly locals in navy-blue sailor suits, former fishermen from Quirimba. (Money is scarce on the archipelago, and jobs at the resorts are in high demand among the islands' Quimvani and Macua tribes.) After a four-mile ride to Quilálea we pull into a secluded cove; stone-and-thatch pavilions peer down from higher ground. My bags are whisked away by uniformed porters—and, yes, here comes that froufrou cocktail, served in a coconut, which I sip in an open-sided, tile-floored bar decorated with tribal wood sculptures and chess sets. A dugout canoe hangs from the ceiling. On a stone-and-mahogany deck overlooking the beach, a saltwater pool glistens in the sun. It seems I'm sharing the resort with just one other guest, a sunburned executive from British Airways.

Quilálea's nine thatched-roof villas were hewn out of rock, teakwood, and mahogany and furnished with ornate wooden carvings by the Makonde, a tribe from the northern mainland. Each villa opens onto a small private beach; from my sprawling king-sized bed, through flowing white cotton curtains, I can gaze over the mirror-like surface of the bay.

Isolation has been an ecological blessing for the Quirimbas: the marine life here is among the most exotic on earth. In 2002 the Mozambican government, with endorsement from the World Wildlife Fund, declared Quilálea a marine sanctuary; the lodge offers deep-sea diving excursions over the island's protected reef. Manta rays, hawksbill turtles, and humpback whales populate the waters here, not to mention the exceedingly rare dugong, a near-extinct mammal with human-like breasts, from which the ancient myth of the mermaid likely derives. The sanctuary protects a two-mile radius around the island. Beyond that are the storied fishing grounds. Predictably, dinners at Quilálea are feasts of exquisite seafood, all of it caught by Quirimba fishermen: yellowfin tuna, steamed in a banana leaf; spiny lobster, stuffed with crab; and tiger prawns, grilled in the Portuguese piripiri style with spicy chiles and olive oil.

On my second morning I follow a sandy path through a dense mangrove forest teeming with birds, to snorkel the waters off Turtle Beach. I spot neither dugongs nor turtles, but the bay still recalls a Darwinian paradise. Schools of exotic fish glitter against pink coral; snakelike moray eels devour crabs right in front of my nose.

Mostly, however, I take Quilálea at its word—or, rather, its name, which comes from the Swahili lala, meaning sleep (the island's cove was a resting place for Arab ships). In the course of two days I nap on the beach, by the pool, and, during languorous deep-tissue massages, in a candlelit treatment room perched on rocks over the water. My new friend from British Airways does much the same. Over a poolside game of chess I ask him whether BA is considering flights to Pemba. Flushed by fine wine, he gives me a blank look that suggests he's lost all interest in the outside world.

The Portugese came to Mozambique in 1498, but for centuries before and after their arrival, Arabs sailed these waters and settled the islands, trading in cloth, tortoiseshell, and slaves. To this day, the Islamic in?uence endures in the north: coastal tribes speak Arab-­influenced Swahili, not Portuguese, and the majority are Muslims. (Mozambique is said to be named for a 16th-century sultan, Mussa-Bin-Tiki.) Today, the north is being transformed by a modern-day sultan of sorts—a Saudi tycoon, Adel Aujan, president of Rani Resorts. In 2001, Aujan erected a $20 million hotel on Pemba Bay when the town was little more than a backwater. Now his company has opened two exclusive resorts in the Quirimbas archipelago, on Matemo and Medjumbe islands—both decidedly flashier affairs than the Quilálea Island Resort, and perhaps a sign of things to come.

Getting to Matemo requires another 20-minute puddle-jumper flight. The drive to the resort passes through seaside villages of thatched mud huts shaded by swaying palms. The hotel car draws stares from beautiful Quimvani women standing along the roadside, their faces masked in white: paste from the mussiro plant, used to moisturize the skin. The shoreline is patrolled by bare-chested men wielding miniature bows and arrows, hunting fish. I've stayed in dozens of resorts in Africa where a depressing, faux-tribal scene is served up to Westerners; there is nothing ersatz about this village or these people.

My first glimpse of the resort is breathtaking. Framed through the sweeping Moorish arch of the entrance is a crescent-shaped beach fronting water so radiant it hurts the eyes; for a moment I'm convinced I'm staring at a trompe l'oeil painting. The resort's man-made elements are equally stunning, all Afro-Arab opulence: a thatched-roof lounge is brightened by Zanzibari daybeds piled high with colorful Moroccan cushions; stained-glass lanterns line the walls. Persian rugs and teak four-poster beds outfit the 24 identical wooden villas, all of which are set along a private beach. Villa bedrooms are a little too dark and busy for my taste, but the sliding glass doors open onto a private porch equipped with a sea-facing hammock.

Matemo's good looks are not yet matched by the service. Upon my arrival, a porter escorts me to my villa, then realizes he's forgotten the key. "Shit!" he says, before running back to get it. At the hotel's restaurant, few of the waitstaff speak English. Such teething problems will likely be solved in time—and, in any case, they don't seem to bother my fellow guests, among them a well-dressed Middle Eastern gentleman and a glamorous Austrian couple who spend their days windsurfing and diving the oceanside reef.

Over beers in Matemo's lounge I meet David Rissik, a South African environmentalist employed by Rani Resorts as a consultant for its conservation programs. Rissik is well-versed in anthropology as well, and he speaks with wonder about the Quimvani people. "I've seen fishermen catch eight-hundred-pound blue marlin—in dugout canoes, with hand lines! They'll hook this huge fish and be towed out to sea for sixteen hours." Rissik explains that those tiny arrows used to spear fish are similar to those used by San Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert, and are likely related, and that the local dugout canoes, with their single outriggers, may have been modeled on Madagascan warships, which raided the islands for slaves in the 19th century. The archipelago is a living, breathing museum.

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