The Cape Verde archipelago, off Senegal’s coast, stays warm all year and is perfect for family island-hopping adventures from music to mountains to beaches
Who doesn’t love a bit of island-hopping? It promises romance, adventure and argument-settling variety: you get the chance to wring multiple holidays from one; to please multiple family members of diverse ages and interests; to collect multiple fridge magnets. The thing is, it really requires sunshine — and I wanted to go in autumn, just as Croatia and Greece would be cooling; the Scillies chilly. But instead of turning east to Thailand or west to the Caribbean I looked south, to an archipelago served by flights of about five hours, where minimal time difference means minimal jet lag, and October temperatures float serenely around the high twenties. Cape Verde ahoy.
Like a skein of geese aiming east towards Senegal, Cape Verde is a loose mid-Atlantic V formed of ten islands. Our family planned to fit three of them into a week’s half-term holiday. We’d start in northeastern Sal (blue water and beaches for the ten-year-old), skip a few islands west to Sao Vicente (music and art for me), then take the ferry to northwesterly Santo Antao (lush mountains and home-brewed grogue for my husband) before retracing our steps day by day to Sal — a sort of matryoshka-effect holiday within a holiday within a holiday.
First, some background. If the names don’t give it away, the escudo currency does; Cape Verde was once ruled by the Portuguese, only achieving independence in 1975. Unusually for a colony it was uninhabited when Antonio de Noli turned up in 1456, so at least the land wasn’t nicked from anyone — but enslaved west Africans were brought here to work the new sugar cane and cotton plantations, and the islands became an important trading post for slaves, with population, established early, of mixed-race European-Africans.
Cape Verde took on other roles over time — as a stop-off for ships to restock with food and water, coal and oil; as a transatlantic telecommunications hub; as a tourist destination. Serving the needs of outsiders has brought Cape Verde a cocktail of cultural influences but left it exposed to the buffeting winds of international fortune, and the islands’ history of feast, famine and seafaring has made emigration a fact of Cape Verdean life. The million-strong diaspora is twice the size of the islands’ resident population; the former’s international wire transfers are key to the economy (the pandemic-related drop in remittances from communities in New England, Portugal and the Netherlands had more impact than Covid itself).
It follows that Cape Verde’s national heroine — “our queen” — is a singer: Cesaria Evora, the late, Grammy-winning “barefoot diva” whose plaintive, yearning morna music brought the islands to the modern world’s attention. Sao Vicente’s airport is named for its most famous daughter and we saw her face everywhere – on T-shirts, bags, postcards, bottles, the 2,000 escudos note.
She was watching from a two-storey mural as we sat after dark on Praca Dom Luis, beers and nuclear-grade orange Fanta in hand, to enjoy the musicians playing morna and mellow coladeira outside Casa Café Mindelo. We found live music on all the islands we visited — often simple groups of two or three with a guitar, a cajon box, a pair of lungs — but Mindelo has long been at the heart of it. “In our school holidays we’d sit in Praca Nova and play all night,” Edson said.
When the café’s band paused between songs we’d hear another from a place a few doors down. Stepping out of the Oasis Porto Grande hotel on Praca Nova we’d seen one 20-strong group of dancers practising in the street; on a harbour jetty couples moved together to a slower beat. There was art too — at small galleries and the brilliantly colourful Centro Nacional de Arte, Artesanato e Design, at the market on Praca Estrela, in municipal statues and cheering murals on peely-painted older buildings and modern blocks — but it was music we were inhaling.
Except in Sao Pedro, where we mostly held our breath. At this village near the airport the murals are of turtles rather than singers; the fishermen run a rudimentary sideline taking visitors a few hundred metres offshore in their wooden boats to swim with the loggerheads. “It makes them valuable alive, so it helps protect them from poaching,” Edson said.
Didi, the boat owner, threw some sardine scraps into the water to attract the turtles but told us to avoid touching them — though he could have warned the turtles not to sneak up behind swimmers kicking to tread water, oops. Touché, away! But it seemed they were forgiving as well as peckish and our time in the warm, clear water with the turtles was a joy; I wish I could have bottled the grin on my son’s face.
Hang on, though, this was the music island. Nature was supposed to come a ferry ride away the next day on Santo Antao. And it did, as we waved au revoir to the musical Edson and ola to the hiker Neu Rodrigues and his driver son, Helio. A fast asphalt road runs round the coast but we drove up into the mountains above Porto Novo on the more scenic road, acacia and sun giving way to pines and mist as we met a raft of cloud run aground on the island’s heights. Now the basalt-cobbled road — very Portuguese — took on a fairytale look. We passed increasingly lush smallholdings; stopped at the world’s tiniest kiosk for local coffee and homemade cheese and coconut sweets. Neu insisted on paying, later telling us that what made Santo Antao different to its sister islands was not only its topography but also its morabeza, the Creole word for hospitality
The cloud meant we had to believe Neu when he told us we’d now crossed into the well-watered, fertile north — but we’d emerged again, thank goodness, by the time we reached the Delgadinho ridge. The road here skims along the top of a narrow partition dividing two plunging valleys — Ribeira Grande and Ribeira da Torre — and the views it yielded were astonishing. Greenery folded around slopes too steep even for goats; day-old waterfalls slashed white down the cliffs; and when I tore my eyes away from one side there was even more on the other. Looking down on terraces and unlikely patches of cultivation, it looked almost Machu Picchu Andean. Later, down in the valleys, Neu pointed out banana trees, breadfruit, manioc, almonds, mangoes and, above all, sugar cane. We’d found nature. (And a sugar cane grogue distillery for a potent tasting.)
We didn’t have time to take advantage of the island’s hiking trails (was that a ten-year-old’s sigh of relief?) but even an early evening stroll from our hotel, the Aldea Panoramica at the head of the five-mile-long Paul Valley, gave us another shot at the natural beauty, the shifting light and the put-you-in-your-place scale.
Back on Sal there was nature too — giant butterflies, orange-legged stilts, baby lemon sharks swimming in the shallows — but really this was the straightforward holiday island of Strela beers on the beach and hotel pools; the huge specimen where we were staying, the Hilton, may be the best I’ve swum in. It’s the island where, for visitors at least, the ubiquitous “Cape Verde: no stress” slogan comes into its own. (For islanders, who rely on desalinated water and pivoted to tourism when agriculture gave up, it might be a different matter.) There are water sports to book and tours to take, but the best thing about ours was our guide, Paulo Soares. He talked frankly about island life, took us to the pretty fishing village of Palmeira just as the grilled-grouper smells were at their most irresistible, and told us where to find the best live music in the main tourist town, Santa Maria. He was about to go on holiday himself — he’d chosen Santo Antao.
The closest thing to a grande dame in Santa Maria is the Hotel Morabeza, a 56-year-old institution in pole position by the fishing pier. Dinner on its twinkly terrace was a guitarist-soundtracked buffet, and as I helped myself to a spoonful of cachupa, Cape Verde’s national corn dish, to an excellent piece of bonito, to a slice of banana cake (separate plate, don’t worry), it struck me that, in centuries-old European tradition, this was what I’d been doing all week — concocting my own version of the islands’ best bits. My island-hopping pick’n’mix had given me Cape Verde’s greatest hits.
Liz Edwards was a guest of Cape Verde Experience, which has seven nights’ B&B from £1,879pp, including flights and transfers (capeverde.co.uk)
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