These lesser-visited islands are a brilliant alternative to the Canaries

Icon 12 de March, 2024
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With little rainfall and year-round sunshine, the Cape Verde archipelago is ideal for crowd-free sun — and even better when explored by boat.

This place is fascinating; the rocks are so fresh,” says Peter Barkmann, a geologist from Colorado, pointing out some rich grey lava under gloriously blue skies and the oven-hot December sun. “I work with rocks that are millions of years old, but here you can see exactly how they were formed; it’s so in-your-face.”

We’re on Fogo, one of Cape Verde’s ten volcanic islands, situated 350 miles off the west coast of Africa. The rocks here certainly are pretty new in geological terms, consisting of lava flows from the towering volcanic crater we stand next to, dating from as recently as 2015. It’s an incredible feeling to be immersed in this dramatic landscape, of huge expanses of grey peppered with the occasional hardy, vivid green plant.

A road ahead suddenly ends, having been engulfed by the latest lava flows, which also drowned the nearby village. The local people are so resilient, they simply built a new road and are reconstructing their village.

“I study geological hazards and a volcano is about as dangerous a geohazard you can get,” says Barkmann, peeking up at the summit. “These people live among this and they rebuild, knowing any day it could happen again. It really shows the strength of the human spirit.”

With a dry tropical climate, little rainfall and year-round sunshine, the Cape Verde archipelago makes a great winter-sun destination. Yet it’s often overlooked as a holiday option and tourism is gloriously low-key — fewer than one million people visit these islands annually, compared with the 16 million who descend on Spain’s Canary Islands. Cape Verde is hotter too.

I’m on a seven-night cruise of the islands, an ideal way to explore their diversity. Barkmann is one of the passengers on the motor yacht, Variety Voyager, which belongs to the family-owned Greek line Variety Cruises. The ship takes up to 72 guests served by 32 crew, so everything is on a relatively small, pleasantly manageable scale.

Guests are from countries including the UK, US, France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Portugal, Belgium and Australia, which, along with the crew from Greece, Egypt, Italy, Malaysia and others, makes for a very international voyage and diverse conversations at dinner. The food is pretty good, if not exceptional. It’s generally European and often Greek — although I’d rather have seen more local dishes.

“We’ve been on Variety cruises six times,” says Bill Beattie, from Co Antrim. “We like that they’re on relaxed, small boats.” I notice that a number of other guests are Variety veterans. I suspect one big reason is the crew, who are remarkably friendly, helpful and efficient.

The cruise begins at Sal, the island most geared to tourists. “Sal is my favourite island, as it has everything: shops, restaurants, bars, a hospital …” says Chan Raes of Sal Experiences, who is providing me with a private tour (from £20pp; salexperiences.com).

We drive from the port towards the island’s compact capital, Espargos, and there are few buildings along the way; instead we see vast expanses of sand and earth and little vegetation, with mountains beyond.

We stop at the salt evaporation ponds of Pedra de Lume in the crater of an extinct volcano. The salt pans were once worked on by enslaved west Africans, brought by the Portuguese who landed on what was then an uninhabited island in 1456. Today, a few people are bathing here. “Soak for 15 minutes and your skin will be as soft as a baby’s,” Raes says.

Raes takes me to the neighbourhood where he lives, a few neat streets of low-level apartment blocks and small houses. There’s a sense of the laid-back pace of life in Africa, with people sitting at a corner, just watching the world go by.

“Although we’re off the west coast of Africa, Cape Verdeans don’t see themselves as African; they feel something in between,” explains Pietro Asilli, Variety’s cruise co-ordinator, who has been visiting the islands since the 1990s.

“We have the music, dance, clothes and vibe of Africa, but we’re not African,” Raes says. “We are a mix of the genes of the Portuguese and the African. People from Africa say we are not African, we are Cape Verdean. And when we talk to Europeans, we are not European. It’s complex.

“The first expression of our identity was the language, creole, the mix of Portuguese and African words.”

I can guarantee that the most frequent Creole word you’ll hear here is Sodade, the title of a beautiful, mournful song made internationally famous by the Cape Verde singer Cesária Évora. I hear it numerous times this week, whether by musicians on our ship, on the radio or by performers we meet on excursions.

At Boa Vista island I keep seeing signs saying “No stress” and it certainly lives up to that. Boa Vista is quieter than Sal and you may have beaches almost to yourself.

We take open-topped Land Cruisers to explore and it is glorious to have the wind in my hair under the scorching sun. We pass a couple strolling hand in hand, two boys tugging a wooden crate they’d fashioned into a toy truck, donkeys busy eating the scrub, and little more. An elderly man missing some teeth smiles and waves as we drive past. People waving to us is not unusual, this being such a friendly nation, although older people are — just 6 per cent of the population are aged 65 or older.

We’re on a bumpy dirt track, the mounds of sand either side creating an almost lunar landscape. Turning a corner we come to a wonderful panorama, a boa vista, a huge expanse of beach.

Nature’s emotions are really stirred up here, with a ferocious wind, crashing waves and a harsh sun beating down. A rusty sign announces that this is a loggerhead turtle nesting site (the waters are also a breeding ground for humpback whales), and the wreck of a cargo ship that ran aground in 1968 is a brown rusty hulk framed by bright blue sea.

More dirt tracks lead us to Viana, a desert of pale sand. The sands were transported by the ocean winds from the Sahara, and it’s a thrill to walk up the dunes to survey the striking, contrasting dark volcanic rocks beyond.

Lunch is nearby at Santa Monica beach, at a simple restaurant. The freshly caught barbecued fish and a cold Strela beer, the local brew, with the waves crashing in the background, are heavenly.

After such a busy day I retreat to my cabin, which is airy and comfortable, with a cream, brown and white decor. I’m impressed by what they’ve crammed into the vessel: spacious indoor and outdoor lounge areas, a restaurant, bar, fitness equipment, a small spa suite and sundeck.

At Santiago island I take a £2.50 taxi — with a cracked windscreen and the seatbelts surgically removed — from the port to a beachside restaurant, Linha d’Agua. It has a great location overlooking a lovely beach at Praia, Cape Verde’s capital. Lunch and several drinks later and I still have change from a tenner. I avail myself of the free wi-fi (one of the downsides of cruising here is that the cost of wi-fi on board is astronomical).

Santiago is the largest island in the archipelago and is an entrancing mix of dramatic mountain landscapes with lush, green valleys and plantations and quiet little beaches. Praia’s square, Praca Alexandre Albuquerque, is surrounded by elegant buildings of the colonial architectural style, such as the Palacio da Justica. Nearby is a lively food market, giving a glimpse of day-to-day life here. The ground floor is crammed with tomatoes, carrots, cassava, kale, squash, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, corn on the cob and peppers. The first floor has fish on one side, with huge chunks of tuna and grouper. On the other side is the meat, mainly pork, and rather unappetising plastic bags of innards.

While the major attractions of Sal and Boa Vista are their splendid beaches, the island of Santo Antao offers spectacular landscapes. Mountainous, with steep gorges and valleys, it is a hiker’s dream, its south side barren, its north full of green peaks and pine forests. It’s the kind of place where you want to stop every five minutes for jaw-dropping photographs. The greens and browns of the valleys create wonderful textures, and those with little houses at their base in vivid colours are ridiculously photogenic.

On the last day I head for a café where a man is playing Sodade on his guitar. I reflect on the lyrics, describing the nostalgia that Cape Verde emigrants feel upon leaving the island. Gazing at this paradise now, I understand how they must feel.
Ben West was a guest of Variety Cruises, which has seven nights’ full board on its Cape Verde islands archipelago cruise from £1,704pp (varietycruises.com) and Tui, which has return flights from £531 from Gatwick to Sal (tui.co.uk)

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