My Kind of Place Olivia Gunning Bennani reveals the highs and lows of Santa Maria, a pretty beach resort on Sal, one of the Cape Verde islands.
Surrounded by turquoise waters on Cape Verde's Sal
Why Santa Maria?
Staying in Santa Maria, Sal, is like lodging in a tropical aquarium. Flung 550km off the flank of West Africa, this Cape Verdean island is set in tropical Atlantic waters, enticing a plethora of multicoloured fish to its shores.
Santa Maria is a compact town organised on a grid pattern that stretches out along the coastline. Espargos is the island's main administrative centre, leaving Santa Maria to visitors. With a kind of unkempt appeal, it's the most animated of Sal's scattering of towns, even though its population just tips 20,000. Temperatures generally loiter between 20 and 30 degrees. Rain is somewhat rare: although the "rainy season" is between August and October, don't expect anything resembling a monsoon.
You can't help but spend much of your time in the water, which rarely dips below 24 degrees and is usually warmer. If you want to learn to dive, do it here - it's safe and utterly divine. Expect to see anything from sharks (non-dangerous ones) to barracudaand albacore. The waters are chock-full of the flashing colours of fins and scales. A host of diving schools operate on the beach and trips are easily arranged to visit underwater caves, eerie wrecks and the famous statue of Christ, a gift to the island by Brazil purported to shield fishermen from harm.
You might be lucky enough to spot a turtle. The turtle egg-laying season, which runs from around May to October, is respected here, so vehicles are banned from the beach during this time. Should you feel like keeping your toes out of the water, you can always take a trip in the glass-bottomed boat and visit the marine sites while staying dry.
This is also a musical place. Cesario Evora, of course, has made Cape Verde famous for many and her music is ubiquitous here. Each day seems to be a homage to the eminent barefooted diva.
A comfortable bed
The Odjo d'Agua is a small and very pretty boutique hotel (www.odjodagua.net; double rooms from US$148 [Dh544] per night, including breakfast and taxes). There is a distinctly unflustered, small-scale atmosphere to it, a far cry from the increasing number of hotel complexes springing up in the region. The cute private beach area has its own bar, as well as a small plant-bordered pool. Rooms are unfussy and restful - try to get one with views across the ocean. The open-air restaurant, also excellent, covers two terraces overlooking the bay and the Atlantic.
If you want something on a larger scale, try the Morabeza hotel. The restaurant is set on the beach and there's no nicer place to devour breakfast than on the tree-edged esplanade. Well-equipped rooms and suites gaze onto the Atlantic or the blossom-filled gardens. There are a couple of freshwater swimming pools, as well as tennis and volleyball courts, for those who manage to make it off the sun lounger (www.hotelmorabeza.com; double rooms from $161 [Dh590], including taxes). The Hilton Cape Verde is due to open this year.
Find your feet
Walk barefoot along the most idyllic of beaches. A sarong, a smudge of suncream, a bottle of water and you're ready to go for a good while. The sand is glossy and the warm sea is there for a dip as needs be. Set off from the wharf, always busy with local fishermen selling fresh catch, and head westwards with the ocean to your left. Your feet can also be put to good use on a bicycle. Sal is very, very flat - the highest point is Monte Grande at 406m and the rest is pancake-like. The island measures only 30km in length and 12km in width, so it won't take long to circumnavigate.
Meet the locals
Cape Verdeans like to be out and about, both visibly and audibly. A former colony of Portugal, the official language remains Portuguese. The local dialect, referred to simply as Creole, is abuzz with a Portuguese twang. A saunter through the rather scruffy streets with a stop-off in a cafe or two will inevitably lead to conversation. Locals are adept linguists, so don't worry about comprehension difficulties. A good place to get talking is at Café Criole, located right in the centre of town (00 238 995 3690). It's family-run and attracts a friendly bunch. It serves a local speciality, catchupa, a stew of pulses with meat or fish.
There is also a sizeable Senegalese population, many of whom run small craft shops. Their friendliness will, without doubt, lead to a little natter. There is many a story to be told of voyages from sub-Saharan Africa to this diminutive island.
Book a table
There is a good handful of respectable restaurants in Santa Maria. Bear in mind that little grows on this salty, parched terrain, so vegetables are almost luxury items and practically all imported. Menus mostly feature fish and grains. The Barracuda is famed for its refined dishes - lobster, swordfish and octopus - on local catch. Set right next to the beach, count on a heavenly view to accompany your meal. Eating al fresco comes no better than at Café Cultural (www.culturalcafecv.com; 00238 995 3690), which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in the main square. Service may be leisurely but that's the Cape Verde way. Leonardo's (www.leonardocafe.com; 00238 981 0057) dishes up Italian food at slightly exaggerated prices, but is nonetheless good.
Santa Maria's open market is full of African handicrafts - batiks and carvings, bracelets, paintings, masks and musical instruments - all carrying a Senegalese imprint. There are also some original boutiques selling locally made summer and beachwear. A classic local souvenir is a little bag of local salt - straight from Sal's very own salt mines.
What to avoid
All-inclusive deals offered by the large hotel complexes. Get out and explore local places.
A jaunt out of Santa Maria. The natural swimming pool set in the rocks at Buracona is well worth a dip. With the Atlantic waves battering just below, it is a breathtaking experience, although prudence is advised - the sea is quite savage here.
Pay a visit to the Pedra de Lume salt mines. Inside a dormant volcano crater, the mine has salty pools in which you can float - a kind of pocket-sized Dead Sea. The guides are genuinely friendly and may even give you a hunk of salt to take home for good luck.