Cape Verde may only be five and a half hours from London by plane, but this archipelago of ten volcanic islands off the coast of West Africa offers something more exotic than its northerly neighbour, the Canary Islands.
The sheer variety of its landscape, from lunar-like white sand dunes and lush jungle canopies to volcanic deserts and stretches of wild, unspoilt beaches lashed by frothy Atlantic waves, is just part of the fascination.
The people are unique, too. Part Portuguese, part African, their past is a tumultuous one, reflected in the seductive melancholy of its folk music. Add vibrant cities such as Sao Vicente and that famous Creole welcome and you have more than the perfect holiday; you have somewhere that’s impossible not to fall for.
Though resorts are springing up alarmingly quickly here, visiting Cape Verde still feels like you are on a tropical adventure. It’s not for the traveller who wants the dream island holiday on a plate, but best suited to those with an adventurous spirit.
What to do
Explore the greenest island, Santo Antao on foot, walking past banana plantations and sugarcane, to explore the views from stunning ridge tops, or sunbathe with entire beaches to yourself on Boa Vista – while you still can.
If you want lively, head to Sao Vicente, ‘the party island’, its pretty architecture reflecting a British colonial past. Sao Tiago is the most African island in feel and its Cidade Velha, the first city built by the Europeans in the tropics, is now a World Heritage site.
Where to stay
All the islands have a choice of good mid-range accommodation. If it’s luxury you’re after, try Sal, Boavista, Sao Tiago and Sao Vicente.
For something very different try an overnight stay in the crater of a volcano in Fogo, in a lava-brick guest house, Pedra Brabo), or spend a night in the company of a local family. Soak up the beauty of San Antao by staying in a ribeira such as Casa das Ilhas, or watch waves lash the seafront from a cosy pousada in Ponta do Sol.
Where to eat
Cape Verdean food is a mix of Creole, African and Portuguese cuisine, and quality seafood abounds. Taste the ubiquitous catchupa (a slow-boiled stew of beans, vegetables, corn and marinated tuna), canja (a stodgy chicken soup with rice) and local fruits with brilliantly exotic names like tambarinas, goiabas, azedinhas, tamaras and cocos.
Taxis are generally easy to find in bigger towns, but as drivers can get ‘creative’ with fares, always agree a price first. A euro a mile is more than reasonable. Much more fun, however, is packing on to the often crowded aluguers (buses) which the locals use. They run until around 7.30pm.
Travelling between islands takes infinite patience. It can be fun to take the ferry but it’s more practical to fly, although delays and even cancellations are the norm.
When to go
These islands are balmy all year long. It’s a pleasant 24°c in January and hits 30°c in September, with rainy season from July to mid-October. If you travel during this time you may be unlucky, particularly in the ribeiras of Santo Antao, and be unable to travel for a day or two due to flooding.
February is a popular time to visit for the Sao Vicente carnival, May for the Gamboa music festival in Sao Tiago and August for the Baia das Gatas music festival.
Three things we like
- Cape Verde offers a unique taste of both Africa and Brazil in one holiday, and is still relatively unspoilt in parts (something sure to change soon).
- The jaw-dropping spectacle of hundreds of turtles coming out of the sea to populate the beaches of Boa Vista (July-Oct) and lay their eggs.
- A concert of hypnotic morna, the folk music sung in Cape Verdean Creole, makes for an enchanting evening.
Something we don’t like
The main tourist island of Sal, which most tourist flights arrive at, should be a drop-off point and no more. It’s regularly sold as an alternative Caribbean or the new Gran Canaria, but is nothing of the sort.
It’s wonderful if you’re into your water sports, but other than that it’s bleak, flat, barren and there is little indigenous culture to be had (though there is a vibrant expat scene). Beware of street vendors trying to persuade you to buy hippy jewellery, sometimes even attaching bracelets to your wrist in the hope that you’ll part with some cash just to get rid of them.
High50 insider tips
- Boavista is the best spot for whiling away entire days by the beach. Drop into one of its laidback beach bars (such as Bahia The Beach, Vista Sal-Rei) for a bowl of fish soup, or later on for a cocktail as you watch the sun go down.
- To meet the locals make a beeline for Laginha, the city beach of Mindelo, on Sao Vicente. Pretty much every hour during the day a different crowd of locals, from teens to elderly couples, will arrive bringing music, drinks and lots of friendly banter.
- If you’re in Santiago on a Saturday, a trip to the bustling market of Assomado is a must. Chaotic, it fills up quickly with locals buying and selling their wares, from unusual fruits to live chickens.
- Don’t bother packing dressy clothes for Cape Verde. The emphasis here is strictly on keeping cool (think ‘beach chic’!).
Need to know
- Flight time from the UK is five and a half hours
- There is a small airport on almost every island, but international flights come for the most part into the main airport at Sal
- Two-pin 220V plugs are standard
- It’s GMT -2
- Currency is the escudo. Euros are widely accepted, credit cards not