Ten Tropical Treats - The Cape Verde Islands

Freelance journalist Lynn Storey-Smith travels to the islands of Sal, Boa Vista, São Vicente and Santo Antão and discovers the uncommercialised, laid-back appeal of Cape Verde.


Lynn Storey-Smith is a freelance journalist with over 20 years' experience as a travel writer and editor. She spent a week exploring the Cape Verde islands of Sal, Boa Vista, São Vicente and Santo Antão.


The pick-up lurched round a bend then swung sharply left to avoid a donkey laden with a leafy crop topped precariously by an elderly man cradling a goat in his arms. He grinned broadly and I reached for my camera but too late. The donkey, its cargo and the dog trudging behind were out of view as our driver accelerated and the 4x4 bumped down another incline on the dusty track towards the beach. We were exploring Boa Vista, one of the ten islands that make up the archipelago and independent state of Cape Verde.

We'd just left Povoacao Velha, the island's oldest village where its salt economy was first established back in the 1620s. It looked as if it had barely changed. Goats wandered freely along the black cobbled streets lined by brightly painted houses. There was no mains water supply so most residents bought their supplies for a few escudos (CVEs) from a large tank and carried it home. The ultimate mod-con was a tank installed on the roof which could be filled by a visiting tanker.

The pick-up juddered to a halt at our next stop, Santa Monica beach about five miles away and we clambered over the tailgate and on to the sand. Stretching before us was one of the island's stunning beaches. Santa Monica is 25 miles of silky fine sand edging the turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean and it was deserted apart from a few crabs that quickly scuttled off into the sea.

No esplanade, no bars, no ice cream van, no beach vendors, no deck chairs nor parasols; there was absolutely no commercialisation. I took off my sandals and paddled along the water's edge then flopped down to watch and listen to the waves. The motto I'd seen displayed on Tshirts for sale at the airport on our arrival on Sal the previous day suddenly made perfect sense: 'No stress, Cabo Verde'.

It's easy to see the appeal. These islands are the nearest tropical islands to most of Europe including the UK and since direct flights started from London a year ago, they are just five and a half hours away. Located off the west coast of Africa, south of the Canary Islands, Cape Verde is on the same latitude as Jamaica but just one hour behind GMT meaning jet lag is no problem. Year-round temperatures average 24 to 30 degrees in the coastal areas but the weather varies from island to island producing widely diverse landscapes. Of the four islands I visited, Sal, Boa Vista and São Vicente have virtually no rainfall and are fairly barren whereas the higher peaks of Santo Antão sometimes get two metres in a year making the land lush, green and fertile.

The sudden and unexpected change in scenery from the east to the west side of Santo Antão, the archipelago's most westerly island, is spectacular. The black rock road leading from the port of Porto Novo climbs steeply as it snakes its way inland. We passed abandoned terraces and derelict cottages as we headed towards the mountainous ridge that divides the island. With the wasteland behind us the minibus stopped and we climbed out to peer over the edge of a precipice. Hundreds of feet below at the base of huge volcanic crater we could make out a patchwork of cultivated fields circled by green terraces. Crops including sugar cane, yams, mangoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, cabbage, carrots, bananas and coconuts are grown on Santo Antão and distributed throughout the islands.

Hiking and riding trails crisscross the terrain offering plenty of opportunities to explore the slopes and valleys. Our hotel, the 20-bedroom Pedracin Village was an ideal spot for hikers to stay, located on the side of a mountain on a farm that produced tropical fruits as well as its own milk, cheese and meats. After a long day in a minibus, sipping beers on the terrace overlooking the valley as the sun went down was the perfect way to relax before dinner. During my visit there was a constant gentle breeze on every island which was very welcome except for one afternoon on São Vicente when it became too blustery to sit by the pool at the Foya Branca Hotel.

Sometimes the hour-long ferry crossing between São Vicente and Santo Antão can be rough but it was perfectly smooth in both directions when we cruised across providing a chance to doze in the sun on deck. The winds make the islands one of the world's top destinations for windsurfing and at certain times of the year, the northeast tradewind can be strong on some coastlines so it's wise to get advice on the best place and time to go depending on the type of holiday you have in mind.

Many tourists just come to enjoy the tropical climate but it's easy to combine relaxation with a whole range of activities including water sports, hiking, horse riding, cycling, bird watching and fishing. You can spend your holiday based at one hotel and perhaps take a day's excursion to see the rest of that island or divide your time between two or more islands as we did, making use of flights by the national airline TACV.

The highest proportion of tourists are Italian and the influence on the cuisine is noticeable. Nearly every menu included pasta which suited me fine. On the island of Boa Vista, we dined one evening at the hotel, Parque das Dunas which is Italian owned and excellent Italian wine was served to accompany the penne arabiatta and tuna steak with fries.

I was warned before departure that tourism is still in its infancy in Cape Verde and standards of service in hotels and restaurants might not always be up to normal international standards. Yes, we did have to wait a long time for our meals in a couple of places but why take an hour over a meal when you can take three? We weren't in a hurry so there was 'no stress'. A bonus is that tourists are not just tolerated but welcomed here - sometimes with friendly curiosity. A former Portuguese colony, Cape Verde gained independence in 1975 and mass migration has continued over several decades. Tourism may well now stem the flow as it offers employment and opportunities for local people.

Despite Catholicism being the predominant religion, marriage and the traditional family unit is not the norm mainly because of the migration of workers. By the Morbeza Hotel on Sal's Santa Maria beach, I chatted to Nilson, a 29-year-old local, who was keen to tell me he'd crewed on a yacht to Falmouth. Talking about his family, he said that his father had 17 children with three different women although so far he only had two children himself, both with the same woman but he was no longer with her. He didn't attach any particular significance to either of these situations; it was just the way things were.

This is Cape Verde: 'No stress'. None at all.

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