In the 1960s, when the Portuguese wanted to drink Coca-Cola on their own sovereign territory, they had to go to Mozambique. Under the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar, the corrupting devilry of US influence was curbed. But out in the colonies, the mood was understandably more relaxed, necessarily more cosmopolitan. Nowhere more so than the Mozambican capital, Lourenço Marques, the jewel in Portugal’s fading empire. To the Portuguese, and later to a global elite, the city was a playground. Blessed with a handsome natural harbour, its development had begun to outstrip that of its mother country. It was a bold fresh city in white, of daring skyscrapers and modern apartment blocks and leafy squares. The roads were new. The pavements were clean. Under its spreading trees, in the hum of its muggy afternoons, a European cafe society the equal of any on the mother continent took hold. For a while, Lourenço Marques – later to be renamed Maputo – held the future in its hands.
Nowadays, the city still wears the long scars of two decades of civil war. Yet up on the hills above the harbour, the hotel that once toasted the likes of Grace Kelly and Gregory Peck continues, under new ownership. The Polana Serena embodies all the high-colonial aesthetic and charm that once attracted them to this most sought-after district in Maputo.
Whereas high-colonial with a twist is the flavour of the month throughout much of Southern Africa’s elite hotels, the Polana remains redoubtably un-postmodern in its values. Low-bowing waiters in cocktail waistcoats offer you the spread of their seafood buffet, smiling white-suited attendants shut the black steel cage door inside its wooden lift to take you up to your room, where you’ll find old wooden furniture, conservative cream fabrics and a carved bedhead with a mahogany frieze.
The subject of a facelift nearly four years ago, the Serena hotels company has kitted out the Polana with a spa that turns around a secondary pool in its central courtyard, also enclosing a thoroughly-equipped gym. But beyond that, the central pool remains the thing that sets the Polana apart – often described as ‘the most graceful on the continent’ it’s certainly up there with Cape Town’s Mount Nelson in terms of colonial langour, the bud in the hotel’s flower, perched like a bird’s nest where a small cliff drops away to the green bay below. Few today ever had the chance to see the now-vanished Atlantis of Lourenço Marques. The Polana remains the closest link to that brief belle epoque.
The Polana Serena ranges from $425 a night for a Standard Room, to $645 a night for an Executive Room, to $925 a night for an executive suite. Maputo has a tropical savannah climate – it’s warm enough throughout the year, even in July, mid-winter, the average temperature is 19C. There is a rainy-season from November to March, though it’s less pronounced than many similarly-located rainy seasons.