Never heard of it? That’s sort of the point, and only one part of the charm of this discreet gem of a laid-back Indian Ocean getaway, says Christina Kenyon-Slaney
I WAS CONVINCED we were going to the Seychelles or the Maldives for our honeymoon, and had spent quite a long time on Google Earth deciding whether it was Denis or Bird Island, which had the nicest villas and who I might be likely to bump into, so when my husband announced it was Vamizi my dream holiday research programme rather took a setback. I had not until then heard of it, which is in a sense the point. Google Images reassured me.
Remote, unblemished and enchanting, Vamizi Island lies in the Quirimbas Archipelago just off the coast of Mozambique, close to the Tanzanian border. There are about 30 islands in the group and Vamizi lies at the northern end of the cluster. From the air it looks like an apostrophe on a page of crystal-clear water.
We had been greeted en route at the uncomfortably hot Dar es Salaam airport by a pilot called Ryan. He swiftly manoeuvred us to a tiny plane and then flew us 200 miles down the Tanzanian coastline. We soared over mile upon mile of uninterrupted sand fringing impenetrable bush, majestic river estuaries spewing into the ocean. It is reassuring that there is such emptiness left on earth.
After bumping through kilometres of inland bush in an ex-army Land Rover, we emerged from the mangroves at the main lodge, the nucleus of the development, which sits resplendently on a stretch of perfect sand. We were greeted by our hosts Hungry and Leo, who run the island with hospitable enthusiasm, rather like a large house party where everyone is a new friend. There was immediate and genuine warmth, and the number of guests rarely exceeds 30 (for a time we were the only guests on the island, it being off-season). The main lodge is simple — an open terrace with tables and chairs, and a bar area in colonial comfort with plenty of places to relax, and a strictly no-shoe policy. (It is worth investing in pedicures for the family before you set off.)
The villas radiate from the main lodge in both directions at respectable intervals along the beach and are designed to blend imperceptibly with the mangroves. Kicking off our shoes for the last time in two weeks, we padded down the beach to the furthest villa, dodging hermit crabs and being distracted by the beautiful shells strewn along the tide mark. Red periwinkles, small conches and pink coral are as plentiful as limpets on North Berwick beach.
Our villa was idyllic. It really did gaze straight at the ocean and was spacious, tasteful yet simple: African artefacts, white linen curtains which fluttered in the omnipresent breeze, a large marble walk-in shower in the middle of the room which was juxtaposed with rustic but elegant mahogany furniture, most of which was made on the island by Leo and her team of craftsmen. There were no frills, and by that I mean no chocolates on the bed, weather printouts, TVs or telephones.
The bedroom at Vamizi Lodge
The villa was kept immaculately clean and there was always a member of staff close by should you have a sudden urge for a Campari and soda. There were no locks on the door. Here the only sound was that of waves, monkeys, crickets and warblers busily building and re-building nests that seem to get blown away every other day. Rupert, my husband, nearly stood on a little green (apparently harmless) tree snake and I had an encounter with a large millipede that looked as if it was wearing a suit of armour. The communion with nature had begun.
TWO WEEKS ON Vamizi really does awaken the senses if they have been stultified by the relentlessness of city life. On our first snorkel we saw a shoal of parrot fish (we could hear them underwater crunching the coral), a turtle and (from the boat) dolphins. Under the expertise of the very professional and charming Cedric, Rupert ventured forth. He said the diving was a magical experience — like swimming in an aquarium of tropical fish with such vibrant tones they could have swum off the page of a child’s colouring book. The glimpse of the odd reef shark added a little spice.
In the evenings we would gather on the lodge terrace for cocktails and establish the plan for the following day, while eyeing up other guests surreptitiously. They were well-heeled but low-key types on the whole, who would be as likely to pack a bag of books as a bag of cosmetics. A riveting read through the visitors’ book reveals that Sven and Nancy were among the first to grace the island at the apogee of their romance, Daniel Craig is an enthusiast and Lady Helen Taylor a regular. Then there is a healthy number of double-barrelled English names who Rupert confidently asserts were ‘at school’. The Russians have not yet arrived.
Don’t come here for night life and socialising — the busiest nocturnal activity is probably that of the hermit crabs as everyone goes to bed after dinner at about ten o’clock. There are no lights on the island — walking back from the lodge restaurant to the villa requires torches and often paddling. That said, one evening there was a jolly guest expedition amid a terrific thunderstorm to see a turtle complete the feat of laying and burying around 150 eggs, right next to the dive school, which was an odd choice given there was so much emptiness all around (but supports the theory that turtles always come back to the same spot to lay their eggs).
OUR DAYS PASSED in a lull of picnics in remote spots where everything was set up for us, bottles of rosé and siestas in shady places, dips in a sea like nectar and early-morning fishing trips. On one occasion deep-sea fishing, Rupert wrestled with a king fish for twenty minutes before finally it succumbed, along with a few barracuda, all of which we ate over the next couple of days.
That is the wonderful thing about having such close contact with the kitchen — you can practically christen your fish and be guaranteed to see it reappear on your plate that evening as sashimi or grilled on lavish barbecues on the beach. Tables were laid on the sand next to the lodge or under a little gazebo just above the tide line surrounded by lanterns, although with the intensity of the moon and starlit sky they are merely decorative. Service is impeccable and moreover the staff are genuinely charming and friendly — they do not convey the sense of jaded overexposure to demanding tourists one encounters elsewhere.
We often ate on the far side of the island at a sheltered lodge construction called Metinculo, overlooking a magnificent expanse of tide-swept beach which merges into a creek. One of the most memorable experiences during our stay was paddling up this creek in kayaks — it meanders for nearly a mile inland and halfway up we disturbed 50 mullet who had drifted up with the tide and proceeded to jump over us like flying fish. We saw herons, turtles and a baby black-tip shark, all of whom take advantage of the incoming tidal current. There was an element of drama when a mini-cyclone descended while Rupert was up the creek on his own (luckily with a paddle) but like all weather fronts here the storm disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. He emerged paddling somewhat wearily, drenched but fine.
A few people balked at us staying two weeks on an island that was only twelve miles long, as if we would have resort to cannibalism or Lord of the Flies behaviour by the end of it. I can honestly say that for not one moment was I bored. I am not a sun worshipper — both Rupert and I run the risk of turning shades of strawberry ripple and a bottle of factor 40 is never far away.
But the combination of breeze, shade, good food and gentle activities (or more strenuous, depending on your state of mind) meant that two weeks passed in no time at all, even if each day generally revolved around what to have for lunch, where to eat lunch and how to get to lunch, peppered with a dive, a snorkel, a kayaking expedition to the lighthouse or avid reading. Vamizi is a little gem, waiting to be discovered, and as yet still has a virginal blush. It is a veritable piece of paradise on earth.
Photography @ Vamizi Island (except for picture of author)