Painted Faces Amp Pristine Beaches

Mozambique's Quirimbus Archipelago is a brilliant example of a nation putting measures in place to protect its natural treasures while they're still in an unspoiled state. Even more amazing is that these bold and visionary steps were carried out by a government that coalesced only 10 years ago, following centuries of brutal colonial rule, civil wars, and natural disasters. By declaring both the Quirimbus Archipelago and the southern coast's Bazaruto Archipelago protected national parks, Mozambique has, in the words of the World Wildlife Fund, become a "global leader in conservation." In the process, it has helped preserve two of the most exquisitely untouched regions in the world.

A 250km (155-mile) stretch of 27 coral islands that traces the country's northern coastline, the Quirimbus Archipelago has breathtaking Indian Ocean seas and pristine coral beaches where the sand is so white it almost burns your eyes. Some of these islands have never been developed; others, like historic Ibo Island, burned brightly as vital trading posts centuries ago but now exist in a suspended state of grand decay.

These northern isles have a sleepy, spellbinding charm -- it's like stepping back hundreds of years into an Africa of ancient mosques and colonial architecture. The islands have some of the richest, most pristine coral reefs in the world, and the government is taking great pains to oversee all tourism initiatives. A lovely slip of sand in a turquoise sea, the 1km-long (1/2-mile) Medjumbe Island has gentle surf and outstanding diving, snorkeling, deep-sea fishing, and windsurfing. New reefs are still being discovered. A stay in one of the resort's 13 chalets is like owning your own tropical isle. In the southern end of the archipelago, Matemo Island not only has a luxury resort but is also the home of several indigenous villages, where locals make a living on subsistence fishing and build traditional wooden dhows. The island turns into Little Italy in August, when beach-loving Italians come for month-long stays.

From Matemo, it's a 30-minute boat crossing to Ibo Island, next to the Ilha de Mozambique. This island was once East Africa's most important trading center. Some historians trace the island's origins back to 600 AD, when it developed into a port for Arab traders, who dealt in gold, ivory, and slaves. The Portuguese took control of the archipelago around 1590, erecting a star-shaped fort, a cathedral, and beautiful public buildings. Today, the once-elegant buildings are abandoned, left to rot when the Portuguese fled the country in 1975. Blanketed in mossy vines, the village is rich with the ghosts of the past: faded Portuguese tiles, rusted ironwork, old prison cells. Many of the Ibo Island women wear white painted faces -- a practice known as Muciro painting, a beauty regimen using a cream made from an indigenous plant. (And be sure to look for the beautiful filigreed silver jewelry made locally.)


Getting There: Flights from Johannesburg, South Africa; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and Nairobi, Kenya, to Pemba. Fly from Pemba to Quirimbus on charter flights arranged by lodges (20 min.-1 hr., depending on the island).

Where to Stay: Ibo Island Lodge (tel. 27/021/702-0285; Matemo Resort (tel. 27/011/658-0633; Medjumbe Resort (tel. 27/011/658-0633;