Luxury resorts bring out the Mills-&-Boon-aphobe in Mr Smith. The more palm-fringed, coral-reefed, champagne-corked and canopy-bedded the setting, the more he exhibits a perverse delight in not falling for it. And vice versa. Once we went to Clacton-on-Sea off-season, just for the fun of it, and my mate came over all Byron and Shelley. To this day ‘let’s go to Essex’ is Mr Smith’s very un-Mills-&-Boon shorthand for you-know-what.
So it seemed to me that eco-boutique retreat Azura, on Benguerra Island off the coast of Mozambique, possessed everything necessary to bring out the romance refusenik in Mr Smith: a glittering coral coast stretching as far as the eye can see; off to the north, an ocean shaded in eighth notes of aquamarine punctuated by sandbar swirls; the island itself absolutely luscious with palms. We see all this from the six-seat Eurocopter that ferries guests over from the international airport at Vilanculos, a 10-minute flight. (Those terrified at the prospect can opt for transfer by speedboat, a 25- to 45-minute trip or trial, depending upon sea conditions, and should, as the website quite candidly notes, ‘be prepared for a knee-deep walk through the sea.’)
Mr Smith, who has been quite grumpy since landing in Johannesburg after an all-night flight, suddenly becomes a lava lamp of touch and talk. He takes my hand, says that he feels let out of jail, begins humming Cherubino’s mi fa palpitar refrain from Figaro, and wonders, sottovoce, if one is allowed to swim naked at the resort. ‘Let’s not make that our first question, darling,’ I say, trying to bank, not douse, the M&B flame.
Azura is a work of passionate determination. The first edition was blown away by a freak storm and the second one went up in flames. Three’s a charm, right? The 16 villas are luxurious in their own right, but extraordinarily so given how far off the map this place is. There’s a deeper side to Azura, though, a vision that allies creature comforts to serious social and ecological commitment.
The entire resort was built by the islanders – and by hand, as they had but one cement mixer and one truck at their disposal. The wood used in building the property is from sustainable sources, and the hotel turned a cyclone to advantage by harvesting brawny downed trunks for supporting beams. Some of the furniture was made on-island, the jekka (shaggy roof thatch) is supplied by women the hotel set up in business, the crushed oyster shells that compose the paths behind the villas are bought from local fishermen to supplement their income, and the hotel staff is drawn from Benguerra. Azura is, in effect, a construction- and hospitality-industry vocational school, which it calls ‘a policy of uplift’.
Mr Smith, meanwhile, has abandoned all sense of neutrality. As we sip a cocktail in the lobby, he gushes about the school of beaded fish overhead (charming, but not exactly Calder) and walks over to pet the wall textured to resemble a sand dune. Someone here has a shelter-mag eye, having adeptly juxtaposed solid tribal chairs with woven beach furniture and little glass tables. It’s at this point that we are introduced to our butler (every guest gets one), who takes us to our room at the far end of the beach.
Which is extraordinary. Like all the rooms, ours is tucked away and carefully screened. It has an infinity pool stocked with an ocean view (and a bar). In the two-car bathroom is a freestanding roll-top tub and a shower area set with mosaics and coloured hanging beads. We have twin showers outside, which are only just obscured from the beach, I note, at the same time thinking of some good clean fun. Then Mr Smith lays eyes on the bed – it’s massive and sumptuous with linen, cushions, and carefully colour matched hangings in greens and golds – and rolls his eyes. Our butler smiles shyly, I blush, our Man Friday exits stage right.
But before long, he is back with a bottle of bubbly from the owner’s French vineyard. Which somehow pulls the pin on Mr Smith. ‘Off to Essex,’ he shouts and disappears into the bathroom with the bottle and two flutes. I hear the bath filling, the sound of an electric razor, that Mozart theme. Butler Smith says, ‘I am just outside,’ and vanishes, at which point I strip, walk into the bathroom and, determined to nip Mr Smith in the bud, shimmy him into the tub for some good clean fun.
Byron never had jetlag, I suspect. Two glasses along, Mr Smith goes all glassy. The tub ends up being his hammock, the bubble-bath suds his comforter. The most risqué thing we do that evening is try to learn an ancient Mozambique backgammon-style game called tchuva with another couple in the Star Bar lounge and Gekko Deck over caipirinhas.
By the next morning, Mr Smith is almost himself, meaning the old cynic, however clearly tinged with a huge crush on Azura, meaning perfect. We have breakfast on the beach, letting the gentle surf lap our toes, then take up the itinerary that the staff had suggested to us upon arrival – was that only 24 hours ago? In the morning, before the heat cascades down, we take an eco-tour of the island, and after lunch, go sailing in Bazaruto Marine National Park. That evening, we have a holding-hands dinner in the laid back restaurant, which offers international dishes with some local twists. The next day, I discover that Mr Smith has signed us up for the desert island barbecue picnic, a catered lunch, after which the staff retreats and leaves us to comfy bean chairs, a sun canopy, a cooler box – and our imaginations.