Leisure  :: Travel


Prawn with a view
Denise Slabbert
Published: 31-JUL-06

I know there’s more to Maputo than a plate of prawns drizzled with lemon butter and a cold cerveza, but one simply can’t visit this city without transforming into a guzzling globetrotter of sorts. Whether it’s the extra-large tiger prawns at the famous Costa do Sol, the mountains of barbequed babes at the Polana hotel’s seafood extravaganza or the modest plate of piri piri crustaceans at a seaside restaurant…washed down with a perfect Maputo sunset.

There is no doubt in my mind that jumping on a flight on a Friday afternoon in Joburg’s mid-winter to land in Maputo — land of the endless palm tree and a mean prawn curry — is a great weekend getaway option.

The moment the door of the aircraft opens the mugginess of this coastal city begins to speak of long lunches under a palm tree and an itinerary where absolutely nothing is planned. The city is every inch an African city and the combination of laid-back almost island-type attitudes and an urban buzz collide to make a weekend away that’s far from ordinary.

These days travel operators like Flight Centre have put together almost ridiculously affordable packages in conjunction with hotels like the famous Polana hotel, which means it well, almost, costs more to stay at home.

The Polana is still the grand old gal she’s always been. She retains the charm of great African hotels like the Victoria Falls Hotel and the Mount Nelson — and like her counterparts she has a mean history to boot. This famous building, designed by Sir Walter Reid, first opened her doors in 1922. The hotel was the stuff legends were made of and cost 300 000 pounds to build — which was a huge amount of cash in its time. During World War II the Polana enjoyed its reputation as the the meeting place for secret agents of both sides of the war. With the major changes that occurred around Mozambique’s independence, the hotel became property of the state. In 2002 the Serena Hotels group took over the operation of the Polana and the hotel remains in pretty good shape (with a major refurbishment programme just around the corner).

The hotel is every inch as gorgeous as she was in her heyday. Having a leisurely meal on the terrace overlooking Maputo Bay is the stuff impromptu holidays are made of and the spectacular pool setting is as mesmerising as usual. There is a wide choice of rooms available from the standard rooms to the opulent Executive Suites and if you’re really planning on going big — you can always hang out with the likes of the world’s celebs and Africa’s political honchos in the Executive Suite. [Recent guests to the Polana included Maria Fernandez de Lavega, Vice-President of Spain, Bill Clinton and Germany’s President Horst Kholer].

While Maputo is definitely a popular tourist destination, The Polana is very much geared to the business market. According to Vicente Simango, Rooms Division Manager, “Business people from all over the world stay at the Polana. We have 30 percent of guests from Africa, 30 percent from Europe and the final 30 percent is from Asia, America and other countries.” He says the South African traveller is a major market with more than 70 percent of the total arrivals from Africa coming out of South Africa. He’s happy to brag about the wealth of business facilities available (including wireless internet that is accessible even around the pool) and also points out that conferencing is a main thrust of the hotel’s income.

Simango says that the Polana has set the trend for corporate types visiting Mozambique. “It’s still the first choice for business people. It really is where everyone wants to be. The excellent thing is that the business market is accessible to us all year round.” He points out that weekend traffic is also on the increase and that the end of year bashes are hugely popular. “Maputo itself is not really a tourist destination point, most people want to head northwards for the beaches and diving — but things are changing especially now that there are no tourist visas for neighbouring countries”.

Certainly the Polana is an excellent launch pad for exploring the city. Although the comfort and luxury (not to mention the service) at the Polana hotel means that it’s pretty hard to drag yourself away.

Due to what looked like an impending blizzard we ditched our full-day tour to the island of Inhaca for a half-day tour of Maputo. Enter Kenny Khan, ex-security manager for the Polana and now security guru-cum-tour guide. We couldn’t have asked for anyone more passionate about his city. Khan is one of those insiders that gives an honest overview of his city. Whilst he showed us the regular tourist spots and famous buildings he also displayed prowess in getting rock bottom prices for some superb street craft (carved Coca Cola bottles with attitude).

With a population of around 19 million, 14 million Mozambiquans are said to live in Maputo and while the city is thriving — on a Saturday afternoon it’s relatively quiet in terms of vehicle and human traffic. After seeing all the sights (including the famous CFM railway building, the worker’s fortress and the local market) Khan insisted on driving out of town to show us the Mozal plant that is putting Mozambique’s name up in lights in terms of industrial prowess. The imposing factories built in ‘the middle of nowhere’ is definitely a sight to behold. This billion US dollar aluminium smelter is bringing specialists from all over the globe. “It’s putting Mozambique right up there with the best in the world,” said Khan rather proudly.

What is amazing to grasp is the sheer size of Maputo as you take a drive around this sprawling city.

There are a number of tours available for those who want to experience Maputo with a guide — there are half-day cultural and city tours, then there are full-day tours to places like Inhaca and rather longer tours to the beaches of Bilene and Xai Xai. Another tour option is the Maputo by Night Tour that starts at 23h00 and goes on until 03h00…only party animals need apply.

I wish I could say that we spent the entire weekend in Maputo finding out more about the history and culture of this fascinating city, or that we at least had a bout of snorkelling or went on the sunset cruise. To be quite honest we lived from one meal to the next — exchanging the views and varying our meal choices only slightly (shall we have the small/medium or large-sized prawns?). So yes, there is more to Maputo than prawns and beer, but I’d settle for the latter and come back again for the former.

By the way, did I mention the food?

Maputo highlights and essential info

  • Fantastic buildings such as the CFM Railway building, the city mosques, churches and old government buildings.
  • The spectacular nightlife – don’t forget to pop into Mambo’s and Coconuts for a real good time.
  • Sunset Cruises – overlooking the Maputo skyline, gin and tonics are compulsory.
  • Costa do Sol Restaurant is a definite, but also try the beach restaurants of Restaurant Maris quera Sarges and the Miramar along the beach (close to the embassies and Maputo mansions). Well-known local actor advises only one place for the best meat dishes around – Rodizio, in the city centre.
  • Buy off the beachfront hawkers and bargain your price. Be firm, but they are pretty fair and prepared to haggle. Fantastic woodwork and beads are all up for grabs.
  • South African rands are accepted widely and of course the odd dollar is pretty popular.
  • South Africans don’t need visas.

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