12 October 2011 - The Independent - Tracey Macleod
Families of Britain, gather round. I have found it – the holy grail of holiday destinations. It's hot. It's cheap. And it's less than a six-hour flight away. I'm talking about... Cape Verde! (Cue embarrassed silence, and some shuffling.)
That's pretty much how it went after we came home, when my burbling enthusiasm for our recent destination was met by blank looks and polite murmurs. Name recognition of this archipelago of mid-Atlantic islands 310 miles off the coast of Senegal is almost zero, and most of those who've heard of it know it only as the homeland of the footballer Nani, or the just-retired world-music goddess Césaria Évora, the "Barefoot Diva".
But for anyone looking for guaranteed tropical sunshine, miles of unspoiled white-sand beaches and a low-key, laid-back family experience, it's a fantastic option; like discovering the missing link between the Canaries and the Caribbean. Cape Verde's 10 islands, formerly Portuguese colonies but independent since 1975, have only recently opened up to mass tourism, with the completion of international airports on Boa Vista and Sal. Some of the islands are lush and jungly. Our destination, Boa Vista, is basically a lump of parched volcanic rock. But it has beaches – oh boy, does it ever have beaches.
It was the sheer quantity of sand that came as a shock when we first arrived. Acres of the stuff, dumped over the Atlantic by winds from the Sahara, stretched away in every direction in front of our hotel by the pristine Praia De Chaves beach, on the island's west coast. To a family whose last five holidays have been spent combing Mediterranean islands in vain for a pebbly strip to swim from, it wasn't so much a beach as a mind-blowing parallel universe. A constant wind naps the sand into a desert-like landscape of ribbed undulations and heaps it into spectacular Saharan dunes that tower over the beach.
On the other hand, the wind also whipped the sea into huge breakers – the kind of conditions only a kite-surfer could love – making it a place for children to paddle and splash in, rather than swim. Our hotel, the Royal Decameron, operated a flag system, indicating when the sea was safe. It seemed to be red-for-danger most of the week, though I did get a couple of opportunities to push myself through the broiling white foam to the clear green water beyond the breakers.
A beach where you can't really swim sounds disappointing, but it wasn't. Just sitting and watching the waves, and the zip-wire effect as cross-currents ripped across the surface, was blissful, and there was always the possibility that a humpback whale might put in an appearance.
"No stress", we were told several times, is the Cape Verde motto, and the package offered by the Royal Decameron delivered on that promise. We'd never been on an all-inclusive family holiday before, but after a week, we were converts. What had we been doing all these years in our self-catering villas, renting cars, and shopping, and cooking, and washing up (the use of "we" is a formality, obviously), when we could have just been lying around by the pool drinking unlimited beer? In Cape Verde, we got a proper, relaxing break, with all the convenience and ease of a package holiday, but without any of the crowds.
Best of all, from a "no stress" point of view, was the lack of fuss and fretting around mealtimes. Usually on holiday, I torment myself and my captives, forcing everyone to drive for miles to sample the amazing grilled sardines in some far-flung taverna I've read about on TripAdvisor. What a liberation to be limited to only three restaurants – the one in the hotel, the other one near the beach, or the snack bar. When I explained to my 10-year-old, who was tucking into his second pizza, that you didn't even need to pay for anything, he breathed: "This has got to be one of the best hotels in the world."
We were one of only a few British families, our native tongue signalled by a coloured wristband. Most of the staff spoke a little English, but our nationality meant we could move around almost unnoticed, safe from the forced jollities of the dreaded "animation" team. By day, this tireless troupe of French and Cape Verdean youngsters staffed the kids' club and conducted exercise and dance classes by the pool. At night they put on dance shows, and dragged lumpen Europeans up to salsa with them.
Music is everywhere in Cape Verde, from the jaunty piped Afro-pop that was played by the main pool all day, to the visiting musicians who performed murmuring fado-like mornas at night. Like so much about the islands, the music fuses influences from Europe, Africa and South America – a product of the islands' history as an important provisioning call for sailing ships en route to South America, and later a trading post for the West African slave trade.
The last century hasn't been kind to the Cape Verde islands: economic emigration, mostly to Portugal, became the only option for many of its men. Boa Vista, whose only natural resource is salt, was plagued by droughts. A few years ago, members of a remote coastal community were desperate enough to resort to eating the rare loggerhead turtles that breed there. However, in recent years, the Cape Verdean government has been investing heavily to promote the poorer islands as tourist resorts. Boa Vista opened up to international flights in 2007, and new roads and hotels are springing up. While the island still feels undeveloped, it probably won't do for long.
The main town, Sal Rei, still shows its colonial bones beneath the gaudily painted concrete and rubble, but it has a long way to go before it's a tourist destination in its own right. I joined a French excursion from the hotel to watch a service at the evangelical church. The poverty, and the persistent attentions of hawkers trying to sell me bad art (and in one mortifying encounter, trying to arrange a night-time rendezvous on the beach), made for a dispiriting experience.
Much more fun was a day-trip we took with a local guide, Dada, to Santa Monica beach, 11 miles of undeveloped white sand. Reachable by 4x4, down miles of bumpy track, it's on the southern, sheltered side of the island, which means no wind and no waves. We finally got our swim.
The journey home – with Dada driving straight at vertical sand dunes, the car straining to the top and careening down the other side – the boys declared to be the best adventure they'd ever had.
Our last day in Boa Vista presented us with the ultimate leaving gift. As we sat on the beach, I spotted a burst of white water, then a flash of white belly, and a humpback whale came cresting out the water quite near to shore. We watched it pass along the length of the bay, twisting and diving, as 500 excited guests came pouring out of the hotel to film it.
At my children's insistence, we are planning a return to Cape Verde. Boa Vista isn't smart, or cool, or designery. Nor is there a huge amount to do, unless you're prepared to throw your lot in with the French, and allow the animation team to teach you to Charleston, or zumba, in the broiling mid-morning heat. But it's hot, it's fairly close to the UK, and it's relatively cheap. And we loved it.
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