By Catherine Leech, Director, 101 Holidays
Cape Verde is one of the world’s fastest growing tourist destinations, according to a new report from the World Travel & Tourism Council. And it’s not hard to see why, as I found on a recent visit to one of the islands.
Tell most people you are heading to Sal for a week’s holiday and they will ask you a) to repeat yourself and b) tell them where it is. It’s pretty much the same for the Cape Verde Islands themselves, made up of 9 inhabited and 1 uninhabited island plus 8 islets in the Atlantic, 300 miles off the west coast of Africa (Senegal and The Gambia are the nearest mainland countries).
I have just returned from a hot and sunny week’s R&R on Sal, which I can best describe as Marmite Island – Sal is a place you will either love or loathe, with very little in between. My boyfriend and I loved this strangely idyllic island, largely because it is decidedly – and charmingly – rough around the edges.
The basics on Sal tick virtually every winter sun holiday box – a non-stop 6 hour flight from Gatwick, only an hour’s time difference, 15-minute hotel transfers, no mosquitos or other nibbling nasties, dreamy white sand beaches, crystal clear turquoise waters, no rain, a handful of hotels and lots of diverse, well-priced restaurants. I’m always loathe to describe somewhere as safe but we felt genuinely welcome and completely safe everywhere we went.
Sal itself was the first of the islands to have an international airport and is relatively developed in terms of tourist accommodation and infrastructure.
The locals speak Portuguese and/or Creole, the ever-present music – often played spontaneously on the beach, in bars and in the cobbled streets of the main tourist town of Santa Maria – is a passionate blend of Brazilian, African and Portuguese rhythms (the Cape Verde Islands were a Portuguese colony until 1975 since when they have been an independent republic). It’s exotic, vibrant – and pretty scruffy, in the nicest possible way.
From that 1st Caipirinha in our favourite beach shack (€3 for a huge glass or a litre of excellent local beer) to our final lunch of caught-that-morning wahoo steak, chips and salad for €6, we were intoxicated – it felt as if we had landed in an un-manicured mix of the Caribbean, West African coast and Albufeira in the ’70s.
We stayed in the Hotel Morabeza, probably the best hotel on the island – it’s brilliantly positioned behind a stunning beach and a gentle stroll from the (beating) heart of Santa Maria. The staff were delightful and efficient, the food delicious and the rooms (and blissful beds) comfortable with particularly good bathrooms. There are 2 lovely pools and a terrific Beach Club. We could see the sea from our small balcony although some overlooked the crazy golf course and the back of another room block – I would have been disappointed. That said, if you want a pampered room-centric hotel experience with hot and cold running luxury, Sal probably isn’t for you.
My boyfriend was keen to fish – an understatement. He headed off on day one to the jetty in Santa Maria, a manic hive of activity from 6am to lunchtime – barrow-loads of shiny fresh fish, animated local ladies doing a fast trade as they scrape off scales and banter with the fishermen, and tourists crowding round when a big fish comes in. He negotiated a half day with a local fisherman for €100, split with a fishing-mad French chef. They caught 30 species between them – no tuna but they were as thrilled as two schoolboys with a new bag of colourful marbles. The big game fishing season – for marlin for example – is in the summer months and has built up a deserved reputation worldwide for good value and exciting sport.
What could the Marmite-haters possibly find to dislike in Sal….? Well, it’s windy – but that makes it a) relatively cool (those with pale skins beware – it’s between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator so the sun is exceptionally strong and the wind is deceptive) and b) exceptionally attractive to wind-surfers and kite-surfers. Sal is a mecca for surf dudes who congregate with their colourful gear and dare-devil speeds off the more exposed beaches. We were mesmerised by the scene at Kite Beach, from beginners learning the ropes (literally) in the dunes to the speed merchants wheeling high above the waves – we could have spent an entire day just watching them.
I guess you could dislike the flat and arid “brown-ness” and relative lack of sightseeing opportunities – but we were there for fishing, relaxation and beach life. Anything else would have been a bonus – and there are other islands in the archipelago, such as Santo Antao, Santiago and Fogo, which are positively brimming with lush green hillsides, historic towns packed with colonial architecture, quaint fishing villages, hiking, biking and fishing.
There was a development boom in the early ‘noughties’ which has crumbled, along with several half-built or empty hotel, apartment and villa complexes but they are pretty unobtrusive (as are the mega Thomson-dominated all-inclusives which no doubt offer good value for money but which miss out on the colour and vibrancy of the main tourist centre of Santa Maria).
There’s no fine-dining in the Michelin sense but the restaurants are varied, fun, universally spotless (kitchens and loos) and outstanding value for money. We dined almost exclusively on fish, shellfish and even the rare delicacy, Percebes (barnacles, much sought after in Spain and readily available in Sal). A strong Italian presence also meant we could indulge in authentic pizzas, toes in the sand, when we felt like a change – and work off the calories in a funky rooftop reggae bar!
We had two disappointments – we generally avoid group trips so hired a 4WD for a day (€50). However, we simply couldn’t find some of the places visited on the island tours – they are reached only by off-road, un-signed tracks. With only 50 vehicles for hire on the island and scant signage, it seems the authorities are keen to encourage escorted tours rather than self-drive – good for employment and, with a local guide, undoubtedly a better experience for visitors. We spent €33 each for a trip on the ‘Neptunus’ semi-submersible and saw……well, not a lot. The viewing windows hadn’t been cleaned and the poorly-maintained engine poured out black smoke and black soot across the water throughout.
We’re hooked and intend to return next year, probably a little later, in April, in the hope that the tuna might be in – but we’re torn between another week on Sal or a visit to one or more of the other islands.
We travelled with Cape Verde Experience – they really know their stuff (both the team in the UK and their excellent rep, Tracey who has lived on Sal for 7 years). They offer a wide range of hotels on Sal, Boa Vista, Santiago, Fogo, Sao Vicente and Santo Antao with flights to both Sal and Boa Vista from Gatwick, Manchester and Birmingham. They also arrange island-hopping holidays – inter-island transport is somewhat limited for now but it will come, I am sure.
As tourism slogans go, ‘Marmite Island’ will never catch on for Sal but it struck us, from day one, as the perfect description for this beguiling and unique island. And if you have been and loathed it, then I would hazard a guess that you simply didn’t pick the right place for you.
Catherine and her boyfriend paid for their holiday with Cape Verde Experience.