Cheaper than the Caribbean, warmer than the Canaries – Cape Verde is a winner for winter sun

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Everyone here is beautiful. The women, watching the men, passed gracefully in their form-fitting dresses, their thick coils of curls stacked high.

The men, over 6 feet, dignified, long-legged, thin-fronted, stare back at them. The children, adorable enough to whine, ogle the stray dogs. And even the dogs are healthy and elegant. I had landed here briefly once before, unplanned on a transatlantic flight.

One of the other passengers was apparently deceased. But I knew nothing then of this extraordinary archipelago, over there in the middle of the ocean.

Rugged Charm: Kit Hesketh-Harvey roams the islands that make up the Cape Verde archipelago. Above is the stunning Tarrafal Beach on Santiago Island – Kit’s first stop

The nearest Cape Verde landing, Dakar, is 400 miles away

The nearest Cape Verde landing, Dakar, is 400 miles away

I should have done. You should. It is called Cape Verde. Nowhere else is particularly close. Brazil is a five and a half hour flight, the UK six.

The nearest landfall, Dakar, is 400 miles away. In the 1460s, Portuguese explorers zigzagged along the west coast of Africa. A large zig led them to these ten islands where, miraculously, they discovered a source of fresh water. No need to zag further.

Cape Verde would become a crucial stopover for maritime routes, airlines and geopolitics. Incorporated in 1951 as an overseas department of Portugal, its people have continued to campaign for independence. They finally succeeded in 1975.

More than likely, coming from the UK, you will be flying to the capital of the islands, Praia, on the island of Santiago. Most of your fellow travelers will be package holiday families, heading to the powdery white sands and azure seas of the island called Boa Vista.

At European longitudes, there is no time difference. “And beaches for everyone,” a chatty NHS nurse told me on the plane from Birmingham.

‘Kite-surfers, lizard-loungers, turtle-watchers, deep-sea anglers, honeymooners. . .’ Close to the tropics, cooled by Atlantic breezes, Cape Verde’s winter sunshine is cheaper than that of the Caribbean and warmer than that of the Canary Islands.

At arrivals, tour guides are waiting, with comfortable taxis and quiet good manners. Mine is Santiago, named after the island. He wears an Arsenal stripe and a baseball cap.

He takes me to the posh Ocean Hotel in Praia, dramatically situated on a cliff, where pharmaceutical CEOs, Russian families, an American military figure and Chinese mining magnates all whisper as they huddle together and look to Africa.

On the other hand, lunch the next day is at a terrace restaurant, Mar di Baizo, in the northwest of the island.

This is delicious. Caldeirada de peixe: fish braised in a spicy carrot, yam and green banana broth. A lot for both of us, and it cost us ten. We had been to see Cidade Velha, this first Portuguese settlement and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Colored:

Colourful: “More than likely, coming from the UK, you’ll be flying to the capital of the islands, Praia, on the island of Santiago,” Kit reveals. Above is a vibrant market on the island

Kit describes Cape Verde as

Kit describes Cape Verde as ‘extraordinary’

The miraculous freshwater spring is still roaring. There’s a sprawling mountaintop fortress, a cathedral razed by pirates, a few single-story streets.

Its small vaulted church was built by the Jesuits, who were obviously able to close their eyes to the slave market a stone’s throw from the cobblestones. At this Crewe junction of the slave routes, the hideous trade rumbled for centuries.

His physical scars are fading, but the story darkens the faces of the descendants with a touch of melancholy. Many are still forced to work abroad: Santiago’s wife is a nurse in Cardiff. “Ex-wife,” he qualifies, with a sad nod.

Santiago suggests visiting the beautiful Botanical Gardens or hiking the mighty mountains. But for me, the deepest fascination of the islands lies in the shadows.

After independence, the republic endured a quasi-Cuban communist tyranny. Tarrafal is a museum: a concentration camp where opponents of the regime died in the heat of their cells.

Kit's guide tells him that the island of Sao Vicente is where artists and musicians go.

Kit’s guide tells him that the island of Sao Vicente is where artists and musicians go. “Their carnival (above) is better than Rio’s,” he reveals

GOATS, CORN STEW AND WHALES

  • The islands have one goat for every two people.
  • The waters are a breeding ground for humpback whales.
  • The long-eared bat is the islands’ only native animal.
  • Corn is a staple and cachupa, a stew of slow-cooked corn, beans, sweet potato, and fish or meat, is the national dish.
  • Sugar cane liquor — grogue — is the national drink.
  • Nine of the ten islands of the archipelago are inhabited.
  • The country has one of the most stable democratic governments in Africa.

Santiago repeats this nod, takes off his cap and waits for me outside. All I can mutter on my way out is that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

It was Russian Aeroflot crews who, during the collapse of communism, spotted a potential tourist industry.

Decades later, new airports spread across the archipelago are convenient and efficient. The variety of islands is amazing. From each you see the following sign.

“In Brava, says Santiago, the water supply is not very good. They have black teeth. Sal is the island of windsurfing. Maio and Santa Luzia are protected reserves, with rare seabirds on the lagoon, strange reptiles, humpback whales. Sao Vicente is where artists, musicians go. Their carnival is better than Rio.

Then there’s Fogo, known for its crisp, modestly priced and remarkably good white wine. “Over there, see? fogo. Island of fire.’

The flight to Fogo takes you over the crater of the volcano. The last eruption, in 2014, engulfed much of the island that had not yet been destroyed. Like black candle wax, jagged layers of spilled lava solidified as they hissed toward a charcoal shore. Whole villages were buried, the tops of churches peeking through the apocalyptic pumice.

But, say the Fogoans, “what the volcano takes, it gives back.” The soil is miraculously fertile. Subsistence farmers are rebuilding their cabins on top of the originals and risking the next eruption: due, apparently, around 2034.

For now, kids like chimney sweeps dig through the rubble heaps to pay for their school supplies while the mangoes ripen purple and drooping in the scorching sun.

A series of 19th century plazas rises from the port of Fogo. Here are the sobrados, the merchant dwellings: slaves and cattle below, family above.

One of them is my hotel, the Colonial, restored by the most remarkable man I have met here. Vincent Marten is a Danish force of nature.

Close to the tropics, cooled by Atlantic breezes, Cape Verde’s winter sun is cheaper than the Caribbean and warmer than the Canaries

Colossally muscular, inked like a mercenary, he is a marlin fisherman straight out of Hemingway, a wreck scavenger, an ice hockey player for Canada, a boat builder, an authority on Portuguese colonial architecture and an interior designer to knock out Shoreditch. “I buy a ruin. I put Dire Straits on and sit alone in the room figuring out how to put it all together,” he says.

There’s a power outage, but it’s no big deal. Candlelight shines on the massive interior shutters and on a high ceiling. Above the antique bed, the headboard was fashioned by Vincent from industrial corrugated iron. Turkish rugs, Malagasy marine chests, sculpted armchairs. I feel like Rimbaud in his later years. In the star-studded streets of Fogo, I find the Tropical Club, where you eat whelks and percebes (barnacles), then poached grouper in Madeira sauce. That the bill climbs to £30, I blame the local grog: a light rum with a heavy punch.

We are joined informally – because everything on Fogo is informal – by newlyweds from the next table.

She is the black sheep of an Angolan political dynasty, who fled to join the Foreign Legion: she, a beautiful Swiss doctor, heiress to a cheese fortune. Visitors to Cape Verde, I conclude, are more interesting than most.

Fogo Island is known for its crisp white wine, which is

Fogo Island is known for its crisp white wine, which is “modestly priced and remarkably good”. Above is a colorful church on the island

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Kit traveled with Cape Verde Experience (capeverde.co.uk) whose island-hopping packages to Sal, Santiago and Fogo start from £2,099 pp for seven nights.

Morabeza means “hospitality” in Creole: the secret language of slaves, now defiantly claimed as a lingua franca.

On the island of Sal, the Hotel Morabeza defines it beautifully. Spacious, cool rooms look out over the pools and beyond to a safe, golden beach.

The formal dinner, served under white lanterns, is reminiscent of Cap d’Antibes but without the exorbitant price tag. Breakfast is plentiful and includes cachupa, the corn and fish stew that is the national dish.

Along the beach promenade to the windsurfing grounds of Sal, locals sing funana: those alluring calls and responses, halfway through Brazil, accompanied by accordion.

Preppy northern Europeans are measured for unique pieces by African tailors: beach dresses in hand-painted Ghanaian textiles, at £30 a pop.

In a turbulent global market, what are Cape Verde’s chances of maintaining its high tourist reputation?

A British cabin crew on a layover in a cafe tells me that whereas two years ago they weren’t assessing his chances, they are now. One of them imports Winalot for the local canine association.

On departures, waving goodbye in his Arsenal cap, Santiago’s sad nod turns to silent laughter. He knows that I am sold in Cape Verde.

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