Emily Laurence Baker finds ghosts of glamorous days past in paradise
We’ve just been swimming with turtles, gliding above their prehistoric bodies as they swoosh through shoreline waters. Still wet from the swim, we take a stroll inland, up a small cliff where Eric, my Mozambican guide, will show me a glimpse of a bygone world. We climb over a low wall that used to house a door and enter an abandoned hotel. Stepping over chunks of plaster, I follow him through a series of hollow grey rooms that once hosted grand parties.
I’m, literally, in Paradise. Santa Carolina, the smallest of five islands in Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago, is also known as Paradise Island. Its heyday was some 50 years ago when a Portuguese businessman, Joaquim Alves, built a 250-room hotel spanning 10 buildings on this two-mile-long island. It was no small feat, considering that materials for the concrete structures were transported by dhow — ancient Mozambican sailing crafts, which still ply these waters as fishing vessels.
Throughout the 1960s, wealthy South Africans and Rhodesians partied here, until Mozambique’s struggle for independence from Portugal exploded and the complex was abandoned. A day on the island of Santa Carolina is a window on Mozambique’s history. After the holidaymakers fled, the hotel was occupied by soldiers from the Mozambique Liberation Front, the group that ultimately drove out the Portuguese after 400 years of control. Since then, the buildings have deteriorated thanks to the battering of frequent cyclones and are now just shells.
Suddenly Eric leaps onto a cement slab and mimes mixing a cocktail. “Madam, what drink would you like?” he asks, flashing a lightning smile. Behind him, a faded mural of mermaids hints at the glory of past parties. Legend has it that Bob Dylan composed his song Mozambique in this very room.
Despite the crumbling surroundings, it’s easy to imagine couples dancing cheek to cheek as music floated across the surrounding turquoise waters. Now the island is uninhabited, except for a few national park officers who collect daily visitor fees, implemented in 1971 when the Bazaruto Archipelago Marine National Park was created. The only people who come here these days are fishermen and day-trippers from mainland Vilankulo or the Bazaruto Archipelago.
About 10 years ago Rani Resorts, which operates a hotel on nearby Bazaruto Island, announced plans for a flagship resort on Santa Carolina. But, it’s unclear if those plans will become reality; the scale of work to make this remote island habitable is daunting.
Tourism is on the rise here but Mozambique’s islands aren’t as accessible, or as developed, as other Indian Ocean destinations.
I feel privileged to have explored Paradise while its ghosts remain undisturbed.