Imagine a cluster of 10 paradise islands, all still relatively undiscovered, surrounded by translucent, turquoise waters, with acres of unspoilt beaches, pristine white sands and spectacular natural scenery. That’s exactly what you’ll find when you visit the Cape Verde islands.Sal, Cape Verde | from Pure Offers
It’s an exquisite archipelago, on the Atlantic ocean, located just 600km off Senegal, off the west coast of Africa.
All the islands combine a tantalising mix of African, Brazilian and Portuguese cultures. But, each island also has its own unique attractions. Santiago is the largest and most populated island, and home to the capital city, Praia. The tiny Brava, or ‘island of flowers’, is known for its beautiful hibiscus, jasmine and bouganvillea flowers. The other islands include: the Windward islands in the North – Sal, Boa Vista, Santo Antao, Sao Vicente, Sao Nicolau and Santa Luzia. And, the Leeward islands, in the South – Maio, Santiago, Fogo and Brava.
Until recently, Sal, attracted the most visitors, as it was the only island to have an international airport. But, over the last two years, things have been changing rapidly. A general push to attract more holiday makers, means that Praia now has a large airport. Another one is due to open shortly on Boa Vista. Transfers between islands are also easier, and there are more hotels. So, if you’re tempted to visit – now’s the perfect time. Go while the islands are still totally unspoilt and idyllic.
Getting there, getting around Cape Verde
There are two main international airports at Praia and Sal. A number of airlines operate regular flights from Gatwick, Manchester and Birmingham, in the UK. These include TACV, the Cape Verde national airline, TAP Air Portugal, Astreus, BA, and several charter airlines, including Monarch Airlines. Flights from the UK are around five and half hours.
TACV also operate regular internal flights between all the islands, except Brava. If you’re planning on doing a lot of island hopping, it’s best to get an Air Pass (available through TACV and tour operators). This offers internal flights at discounted prices and is valid for 21 days. There are also regular passenger ferries from Sao Vicente to San Anatao, and from Santiago to Fogo and Brava.
The easiest way to get around on the islands is to use local taxis. These are readily available. Just make sure you fix a price before you start your journey. Alternatively, you can get around by ‘aluguer’ – one of the mini buses or vans, that you just flag down and hop on as and when you need to. These are very inexpensive, but can get very crowded and don’t always operate in the evenings. Public buses, which run regularly and are of a high standard, are another cheap option. Most hotels also offer a car hire service.
Cape Verde beaches
It’s hard to believe that the beauty of the Cape Verde beaches has remained a secret for so long. But, that’s exactly what makes these spectacular shores so alluring. There aren’t many places left where you can walk for miles along wild, deserted ‘Castaway’ style beaches. Even in the more popular resorts, Santiago and Sal, you’ll only ever see the odd hotel dotted along the coastline.
You’ll find the most enchanting, white, sandy beaches on the islands of Santiago, Sal, Maio and Boa Vista. The main beach resort on Sal is Santa Maria, a picturesque coastal town, with Portuguese style buildings and windy, cobbled roads. The azure waters, palm- fringed, flat, rolling beaches with powder soft sands make this an idyllic spot for sun bathing and to enjoy watersports such as windsurfing and diving.
The endless, white sands of Boa Vista, have a more dramatic, desert like quality. You’ll also find plenty of sand dunes here. The beaches on Maio are similar, only even more serene and peaceful. Santiago, has a mixed landscape with green, lush vegetation, banana and coconut plantations, mountains and miles of stunning white, sandy beaches.
The beaches on mountainous Sao Nicolao, are wild, rugged and encircled by sheer cliffs. This is the best island for deep sea fishing. The wild beaches on Santo Antao, are more desert -like in the west, and surrounded by greenery and mountains in the east. This is a great place to go hiking. Tiny Santa Luzia is the only island to be totally uninhabited. The only way to get here is if you can hitch a boat ride from a local fisherman.
Cape Verde sightseeing
Ideally, try and plan your trip so that you can experience four or five different islands. Santiago, or Sal are both good starting points. Santiago is rich in history and culture. Many world famous explorers such as Captain Cook, Sir Francis Drake and Vasco de Gama, sailed into the old harbour at Cidade Velha. Other places of interest include the old capital, Cape Verde, where you can see the Grand Cathedral and Forte Real de Sao Filipe, once a main slave trading point. Visit too the botanical gardens at Sao Jorge.
In Sal, take a wander round the cobbled streets of Santa Maria and admire the delightful, colourful Portuguese style houses. Also worth visiting is the salt lake that lies within the extinct Pedro de Lume volcano, on the north side of the island. If you’re based in Santiago, the closest island is Maio, which is only a 12 minute flight away. Visit Vila do Maio and see the wonderful Portuguese and British colonial style buildings. There is also a pretty lagoon in the north of the island. Other islands nearby, are Fogo, where the main attraction is its live volcano. The last eruption was in 1995. And, if you’re a nature lover, visit Brava, the ‘island of flowers’.
The nearest island to Sal is the desert like Boa Vista, where one of the main attractions is the old ceramic factory, in Praia de Chaves, which is completely covered in sand. Also near, is the lush, fertile island of Sao Nicolau, which is still almost totally untouched by tourism. Come here to see the wildlife. Also, to do some fishing.
If you’re a music lover, Sao Vicente, is a must. Many of Cape Verde greatest artists and musicians live here. The main town is Mindelo, where you will see some stunning colonial style buildings. There are also lots of great bars where you can listen to live music. From here, you can take a boat to Santo Antao, the greenest island. So, a great place for nature lovers.
Eating out in Cape Verde
Expect to feast on a fantastic mix of African, Brazilian and Portuguese style dishes. The National dish is Cachupa, a stew made with corn, beans, maize, vegetables such as sweet potatoes, cabbage and pumpkin, and a selection of meats, or fish, usually tuna. Also try the local pastries, or corn paddies with papaya, red currant or coconut jam. Diable Dentro, pasties stuffed with tuna, onion and potatoes are also delicious. The local drink is Grog, a potent brew, made from sugar cane. Or, try the local beers.
Cape Verde is also renowned for its sensational seafood including lobster, octopus, giant prawns, rock barnacle and tuna. Good seafood restaurants to try, in Sal, are Barracuda and Restaurant Americos, which also offers traditional Cape verdean dishes. Or, for some Creole cooking, try Cafe Criol.
If you’re in Boa Vista, try Parque das Dunas, for some authentic, Cape Verdean cuisine. This restaurant is also fantastially located overlooking the sea. Or, dine with the locals at Sodade di nha Terra. Other good restaurants to try include the Alkimist, for seafood, in Santiago. Also, Alex’s, at Pestana Tropico Hotel, in Praia. Also, for fish and meat dishes, try Hotel Porto Grande, in Sao Vicente.
Nightlife in Cape Verde
You’ll find the liveliest nightlife in Santa Maria, on Sal Island, with plenty of bars to choose from. Most hotels here also have bars where you can enjoy a drink and listen to some local music. There are also bars in Praia, Santiago, but these are more low key. Of the main islands, Boa Vista, is the quietest.
The best place to listen to music, see live bands and go dancing is in Sao Vicente. This is the cultural hot spot of all the Cape Verde island – where all the major musicians, poets and artists live and hang out – including the world renowned musician, Cesaria Evaron. You’ll find plenty of great bars and clubs in Mindelo, where you can dance salsa, samba, zouk, funana or coladeira.
Cape Verdean music combines Brazilian and African tribal influences to create a powerful and unique sound. Two of the most important music events are the Baia de Gatas – a three day musical festival in Sao Vicente, that takes place in August. Also, in February, starting on Ash Wednesday, Mindelo has a big Carnival, similar to the Rio Carnival.
Shopping in Cape Verde
Cape Verde isn’t exactly the hottest shopping destination. So, don’t expect lots of shops – as there simply aren’t any. Instead, you’ll find each island has local markets where you can buy things like carved, wooden masks, beautifully crafted local jewellery, clothing, local arts and crafts, local produce.
One of the most colourful markets is the African market, at Assomada, in Santiago. There is also a large indoor marker at Santa Maria where you will find clothes, jewellery, coloured canvas goods, baskets, pots, ceramics, clay figures, kitchen utensils, fruit and vegetables.
Family attractions in Cape Verde
You’ll find plenty to keep the whole family occupied on the islands. Forget theme parks though. Tourism is still in its infancy here – so, family attractions tend to centre around the huge variety of outdoor activities that are available. You can do every type of water sport, go dolphin watching, deep sea fishing and snorkelling. And, if you’re lucky you might see some hump back whales.
The greener islands, more mountainous islands, such as Santo Antao area are also great to go hiking. Of all the islands, Sal with its lively beach resort at Santa Maria, has the most to offer for kids – great beaches, watersports, swimming. They will also enjoy a visit to the salt-water lake at Pedro de Lume volcano, where they can float around in the salty water.
Day trips around Cape Verde
For a surreal experience, take a trip to the famous mirage at Terra Boa, in Sal, which appears as an ‘ocean’ in the middle of the desert. if you’re staying on Santiago, take a trip to Fogo, and see the live volcano. If you’re in Sal, visit Sao Vicente, where you can listen to the best music. Then take a relaxing one hour boat trip to Santo Antao. Visit the mountain village of Fontainhas, where the houses are built on a rock with a sheer drop beneath them.