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I have a brief moment of panic on the boat back from the Ilha de Goa when I realize my shorts are hanging off a stunted cypress back on the reef. I'm wearing just my skimpy red trunks and a snorkelling mask – okay for exploring an abandoned lighthouse on a deserted coral atoll, not so much for the alleys of the ancient city to which we are headed.

We are on a dhow, the iconic sailboat of the Indian Ocean; a fishermen's vessel that sails with the tides. And right now that tide is taking us toward the medieval fortress and minarets of the Ilha de Mozambique. No turning around.

I lean back against the wooden mast and resume my search for sea turtles off the starboard bow. Everything is going to be fine.

Northern Mozambique, after all, has become a destination for the global elite. The Quirimbas archipelago, deep in the Indian Ocean, has become the setting for numerous eco-resorts. Wealthy guests land at private islands where they're treated to marine-life safaris and luxury enclaves. But in searching for the tropical-island ideal they miss what makes Mozambique unique.

Other East African cities, like Zanzibar in Tanzania, have become popular travel destinations due to their status as former spice-trade sultanates and their stunning natural surrounds. After decades of apartheid-fuelled civil war that ended in 1992 with a UN-sponsored transition to democracy, Mozambique Island, a UNESCO world heritage site, remains largely undeveloped. This will change.

That evening, on Mozambique Island, as the muezzin sings the evening call to prayer, we sit in a stone courtyard drinking dark Laurentina beer and chatting with our garrulous host, Luis. Alongside his wife and daughter, he runs Casa Luis, a charming little guesthouse on the island – which is a city, really, separated from the mainland by a narrow causeway. We are surprised when he suggests heading to the nearby night market for dinner. In much of southern Africa, locals warn visitors not to walk around at night. Here, we are told, the safety is a source of pride. We bravely head out, tin bowls in hand.

In the square we find a chaotic scene of laughing kids, flickering firelight and old women trading stories while grilling ears of corn. We graze from the daily catch laid out in large reed baskets. I am excited to try boiled cassava, sweet potato-like tubers, and small fried fish, lightly spiced and crunchy. The octopus, which we'd seen people diving for earlier, possesses such fresh flavour that I realize my previous forays must have been with the frozen kind.

As the heat of the day disappears, the surrounding streets fill with people: teenage girls sitting on a low wall flirting with boys on mopeds, old men in skullcaps congregating on steps. Two little boys come up to me speaking a mock Chinese. When I respond boa noite, amigos they run away giggling – it's a reflection of the growing Chinese influence on the region that their innocent game sounds a lot like Mandarin.

On the way to bed we notice whole families, our hosts included, bedding down on reed mats spread across their stone verandas. It's the best way, they say, to beat the heat, and, more important, the breeze serves as a defence against malarial mosquitos. After midnight they head inside, waking a few hours later for the day's first prayers. We decide to go with the fans and mosquito nets back in our room instead.

After a slow morning searching the open air clothing market for decent shorts, we go in search of lunch. Since arriving on the island we've been told by just about everyone that Marianne's is the best place for authentic local food: a Creole cuisine heavy on seafood and spices tempered by coconut milk and lime.

We find it at a breezy shack on a plaza across from the old hospital. Marianne is a large bustling woman with a head of ironed hair and expressive hands that, despite the language barrier, tell us she will take care of us. We dine on fragrant coconut rice with shrimp, buckets of steamed crabs and grilled king-fish accompanied by cold Manica beer. The highlight is a pudding made from what I'd though was melons but is actually a kind of green squash mixed with sweet coconut milk. The lowlight is a Celine Dion tape amidst the Mozambican crooning.

After lunch we wander over to the Hospital de Mozambique, a neo-classical complex of whitewashed columns and ornate outbuildings that was for decades the largest hospital south of Cairo. We walk through arches and rotting doors, side-stepping tree-like vines growing through the stone. To our surprise, parts of the structure are still a functioning hospital. One Cuban doctor and a handful of beds service 13,000 island residents.

Nearby, the former governor's home is a legacy of the city's rich cosmopolitan history: The 17th-century Mediterranean palace is full of stiff aristocratic portraits, teak furniture and Ming-era Chinese pottery juxtaposed with modernist murals depicting the arrival of Catholicism in Africa. The most decadent room was once reserved for the king of Portugal, the guide tells us, with a poster bed that was made every day for 400 years in preparation for his majesty's imminent arrival. He never came. It took a bitter independence war before Samora Machel, hero of the revolution, finally slept in it.

The war is over, and the complex city is going to welcome many other guests. A glimpse of the future can be seen at Bar Flor. Once in ruins, this stone building has been painstakingly transformed into a chic, high-ceilinged restaurant by a young Italian architect. On the last night of our stay we sipped expertly made Caipirinhas here, on a plush rooftop patio while the sun set. It was the perfect end to our stay, a luxurious counterpoint to Mozambique's rough charm.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Pack your bags

Getting there
South African Airways flies from Toronto and Vancouver to Maputo through London, New York and Johannesburg. From Maputo you can take Mozambique Airlines to Nampula and take a taxi the rest of the way, about two hours.

Where to stay
Patio dos Quintalinhos
Rua do Celeiro 17; 258-26-61-0090; From $29. Private rooms in a colonial mansion.

Casa Luis Off Traversa dos Formos; 258-82-436-7570. About $20. Private air-conditioned rooms, dorms and friendly camping in a courtyard.

Hotel Omuhipiti Off Rua dos Comdatentes; 258-6-610-101; From $67. The Ilha's only upscale hotel, with a restaurant and air-conditioning in all the rooms. Next to a swimming beach and the Fort of São Sebastião.

Explore a deserted island
Take a dhow (a small boat) to the Ilha de Goa, a deserted island paradise with an abandoned lighthouse and a coral reef. Dhows can be rented through all hotels. Make sure to bargain.

Explore the area's history The Museum of Sacred Art in the beautiful Church of the Miseriacorda features local 17th-century crucifixes.

The Fort of São Sebastião was the seat of Portuguese power for four centuries. It is also the site of the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere.