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Travel Are these Brazilian islands really the most beautiful place on Earth?

On my first day on Fernando de Noronha, I was grouchy. The journey to the island was exhausting. My partner Meril and I staggered off the third flight in nine hours only to face reams of Brazilian bureaucracy – a conservation fee to pay in one line, registration in another, a park pass to buy across town. Our $300-a-night hotel room had a view of an alleyway, and only enough room for a bed. The famous ocean trail we’d heard about was already booked full for the duration of our stay, and the surf was too rough for diving.

When you have made the trek to the place known as the most beautiful spot in the world, when you are paying so much you can barely breathe if you think about it, when you are one of just 246 visitors permitted onto the island each day – well, you expect to be having A Really Good Time. Right away.

Fernando de Noronha, however, will make you work for it.

Writing this now, a week after I left, I find the memory of my time there is like embers, sitting quiet until a gust of breeze causes my brain to flare with memories of the unearthly blue of the water, the sharks and the turtles, the cobblestones, the volcanic rock on the beach – black and hot and pressing its curves into the arches of my feet. There is a peace that comes with just thinking about Fernando de Noronha, as though my view of the world was paused and tilted just a bit, and it is a welcome sensation.

Condé Nast deemed it “quite possibly the most relaxing, and most beautiful, place on earth.” I was skeptical. The travel industry is perpetually in need of a new best-thing-ever
Stephanie Nolen
Baía dos Porcos, Fernando de Noronha, Brazil.

I had never heard of Fernando de Noronha before I moved to Brazil 18 months ago – but just as Brazilians started telling me I must go, The New York Times put it on the 2014 must-visit list. Then I found earlier stories: The Guardian called it “an outrageously attractive wonderland;” Condé Nast deemed it “quite possibly the most relaxing, and most beautiful, place on earth.”

I was skeptical. The travel industry is perpetually in need of a new best-thing-ever, and having savoured some truly magical islands, from Ibo in the north of Mozambique to tiny Gili Meno, this once-obscure destination 350 kilometres off the coast of northern Brazil seemed like the kind of place that makes the list when all the first-tier choices have been used.

Very few Brazilians, it emerged, had actually been there (the fact that entry is controlled is part of the mystique, after all), but nevertheless insisted that it was incomparably wonderful. And so I found myself sweaty and exhausted, flopped on my overpriced bed, irritated with all of them.

But the next morning the sky was an absurdly bright blue, and we wandered into breakfast in the garden of our B&B, Pousada do Vale: I snacked on a sticky coconut cake, Meril drank weird Brazilian fruit juice. Blossoms drifted down off the frangipani tree like fragrant snow, and I started to get over it. I picked up my bikini and notebook, and headed out the door to flag a bus to the other end of the island.

Fernando de Noronha is not, in fact, one island, but an archipelago of 21 tiny volcanic outcroppings. Only the largest, just 10 km long and 1.5 km wide, is inhabited, with fewer than 3,000 permanent residents. Nearly three-quarters of the main island is a national park, and the remaining area is a controlled conservation area. It gets its name from the Portuguese merchant to whom the territory was gifted by the crown, although it’s not clear if Fernando himself ever set foot there.

Praia do Leao (Lion Beach) – a vast expanse of peach-coloured sand. (Andr Maceira)

At one of the main park entry points, we flashed our passes ($75 each) and set out on a trail. It felt like walking into a page in National Geographic. The black rock, the turquoise water, the hills – the air felt thinner, as if we were somehow more fully in this environment than a person is in normal life. The island, like most of the rest of Brazil, is in the grip of a severe drought, and much of the vegetation is scrubby and brown. It does not have rain-forest lushness, but a more stark, bleak beauty, particularly the abrupt transition from sea to rock. Before the Portuguese colonized it, our guide told us, the island had giant rubber trees and other thick cover, all of it long since cleared for cattle and, during the island’s career as a penal colony, to keep prisoners from being able to build rafts.

We walked a few kilometres along the clifftop and came down on to Praia do Leao (Lion Beach) – a vast expanse of peach-coloured sand with waves that shifted from emerald to turquoise and back, and that was utterly devoid of humans. We walked the length of it, unbelieving, and finally lay down at the tide line and just let the water break over us. Eventually another couple wandered by with an amicable nod. After an hour of lounging, we found a small shack used by the Tamar Project, a top-notch sea turtle conservation project whose biologists carefully monitor the beach during nesting and hatching seasons.

It went on like that for the rest of the trip. We wandered out the door and something amazing happened. The days unspooled with one small pleasure, one breathtaking view, one friendly conversation, one exhilarating discovery, repeat.

Diving with turtles (Courtesy of Stephanie Nolen/The Globe and Mail)

On the way in, our plane was caught in turbulence, flying low over water that, I told Meril, has one of the highest shark populations in the world. (I had learned this while researching another story.) So even were we to survive a crash, things would not end well, I pointed out. Yes, I’m that sort of travelling companion.

“I’ve never seen a shark,” he replied wistfully.

We soon fixed that. Minutes into our first foray into the water with snorkels, off the beach in Sueste Bay, a two-metre-long shark appeared in front of us. It was sleek and so … shark-like. We maintained our studied cool for a few seconds, grinning at each other through our masks. Then we looked around. More sharks. Eight or nine more. Looking at us looking at them. The water was only a metre deep, and the surf was pushing us right into their space. We abandoned the pretense of cool, finned away fast and staggered up on the beach almost incoherent with exhilaration.

The next day we snorkelled in pools on a hike along the coast – and came upon more sharks. The next day, we went diving – and found a two-metre nurse shark. By the time we encountered another shark, back in Sueste, we were so chill we swam after it.

The water off Fernando de Noronha is a crazy colour that I can best describe as like those electric-blue Popsicles you had as a kid that stained your lips and tongue. It’s also astoundingly clear, with visibility frequently stretching to 50 metres, and so the island is one of Brazil’s top scuba destinations. You can beach dive in Sueste, or go out with one of the local companies on a boat, but the national park decides which dive sites can be visited each day and strictly controls numbers. The surf died back on our third day, and we dove with schools of barracuda, big jittery purple lobsters, turtles and coral reefs with caverns and tunnels and spires.

(Stephanie Nolen/The Globe and Mail)

The Tamar Project has done such a good job protecting the endangered green turtles that nest on the island – and the leatherbacks that come through – that their populations are actually increasing. Happily, the project has a strategy to engage visitors in conservation efforts. If you visit during hatching season, you can volunteer to monitor as tiny babies flipper their way to the surf. And every day, on one beach or another around the island, a burly Tamar biologist named Luis Felipe Bortolon throws on his fins and heads out to sea, and comes back sooner or later with a turtle. Sometimes it’s a juvenile, the size of a large pizza pan; other times it’s a mature adult the size of a patio table, under whose weight Bortolon staggers as he comes up on the sand. Visitors gather in an excited throng, and a pair of Tamar experts measure the turtle, and tag it (if it’s not one they have seen before), or record its movements (if it already has one of their metal bands), all the while explaining to the crowd what they are doing. It’s riveting.

The conservation authority does its best to balance the needs of those who live on the island, whose families have in many cases been there 500 years, and the ecological agenda. The end result is a somewhat schizophrenic sensibility: People seek out Fernando de Noronha because of its preserved environment, but there’s nothing remotely ecological about the trip, starting with the three flights to get there. Most of what visitors eat is flown in, too. We had ambitious plans for travelling around the island by bicycle, which you can rent by the day, but the hills are continual and steep and the roads are rutted. The preferred mode of transport is the “boogie” – the dune buggy, rented in various states of souped-upness, which might gratify a fantasy about bombing around with sun-streaked hair flying, but is hardly low-carbon.

(Stephanie Nolen/The Globe and Mail)

A sign at the park advises that 70 per cent of the rubbish generated is from plastic water bottles – but it’s impossible to find anywhere to refill one and even park authorities buy them. Signs posted at the entrance to some of the trails explain the rules – don’t swim in the tidal pools (which are fish and shark “nurseries”) wearing sunscreen, don’t touch anything – but we saw visitors stomping around on the coral, excitedly pointing at fish. Entry to sensitive areas is controlled, in theory, but we nevertheless spotted people randomly wandering down on the rocks.

I asked Ricardo Araujo, the park director, whether it’s worth it: If Fernando de Noronha is so precious a habitat for rare and threatened species that UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site, wouldn’t it be better just to keep the people out? He ran a hand through long brown hair and sighed, but then said he didn’t think so. “This is the most fashionable place in Brazil to go right now – everybody wants to come here,” he said. “So we can see it as an opportunity. You can’t have protected areas everywhere – people need to live somewhere and make a living – but for a lot of people who come here, they have never really thought about conservation. And when they come here, they can really see it, why it’s important, how they have an impact. And that’s valuable.”

The isolation and the exclusivity (and just the Brazil factor) combine to make prices high, but the island is not luxurious nor elitist, which soon came to feel like a nice thing. The one high-end destination is Pousada Maravilha, built right above the beach (somehow circumventing laws about building near the water); it has individual bungalows scattered over its lawn for prices starting at $800 a night. Otherwise, accommodation is a scattering of B&Bs, some rustic, some mid-level. We were pleased with Pousada do Vale, although its most basic rooms are fairly austere. But the staff are lovely and some speak a bit of English; they serve a free afternoon tea to guests (really more of a meal, with two or three entrées and even more types of cake) at 5 p.m., and we came to love this, wandering in chilled off a dive boat to something hot and delicious we could eat as dark settled in on the garden.

The island has a handful of reasonable restaurants that serve fish – line-caught around the island – and the thick stews of northern Brazil, made with coconut milk, palm oil and cashew nuts. Bar do Meio, on Meio Beach, is so on the beach that the waves nearly lick the chairs. Mergulhao has an open front on a cliff above the port, chic chandeliers made of pearly shell fragments and an odd nouvel fusion Brazilian menu – but it’s a stellar place for a sunset cocktail. Three-quarters of the tourists who visit the island are Brazilians – it’s a top honeymoon choice – and they make for amiable folks to share a restaurant with. We swapped diving tips and struck up conversations on the bus; one family insisted we share birthday cake when we passed by a celebration.

(Courtesy of Stephanie Nolen/The Globe and Mail)

Fernando de Noronha is small, but it boasts 100 ways to have a perfect day. You can watch the sun come up from a cliff on one side of the archipelago, when the spinner dolphins arrive in giant pods to rest and play after a night of feeding in deeper water. (You are not allowed to swim with them.) You can watch the sun set again sitting on the crumbling stone wall of an old fort, while indigenous skinks dart out to flick their tongues in the condensation on your cocktail glass. In between, you can hike trails of between two and 12 km, sail around the islands in a schooner (with stops for snorkelling), track rare birds and meet the turtles.

Is this the most beautiful place I have ever been? No. Do I think it’s the world’s best beach destination? Mozambique retains that title, in my book. Visitors from abroad will likely find the inaccessibility, the total absence of English and the many small confusing bits of Brazilian-ness (a line for this, a separate place to pay for that) frustrating. The prices are absurd.

But Fernando de Noronha has an utterly distinct sensibility, and I can understand why, for all those list-makers grown numb to white-sand resorts, the island stands out. There’s a quicksilver magic to the place, and the peace it imparts, and that feels like a precious find indeed.

IF YOU GO

How to get there: Two Brazilian airlines (Gol and Azul) fly into Fernando de Noronha once a day, from the city of Recife, which has good connections from Sao Paulo and also a couple from Rio de Janeiro. Expect to pay at least $1,000 for just the Brazil portion of your flights.

Where to stay

The mid-range rooms at Pousada do Vale have balconies with hammocks. Staff will book your diving and your hiking, and send you off to the beach that is five minutes down the hill after equipping you with an umbrella, towels and a bucket of cold beer. Rooms start from $300 a night; pousadadovale.com

Casa de Joab is a tiled-roof colonial home on the Praia de Conceicao, a wide crescent of yellow sand sloping into azure waves and stellar snorkelling. It’s basic but homey, at about $175 a night. You can book the Casa, and other small options, through the helpful Adriana at Your Way, a small Brazilian ecotourism company (yourway.com.br).

Another charming option, good for families, is the Canto do Boldro – at the top of a cliff above gorgeous Boldro Beach, with room for just 13 guests and rates from about $175. It only takes reservations through booking.com or Your Way. All hotels will require you to prepay at least half your bill.

What to do

As soon as you arrive on the island, buy your park pass and then apply to hike the Atalaia Trail, as only a few visitors are admitted each day – most B&Bs will apply for you. Similarly, if you hope to dive, ask the hotel to get in touch with one of the three dive shops, and sign up quickly: Dive excursions are controlled by the park and also heavily dependent on conditions. Aguas Claras has a divemaster who speaks English. You can rent snorkel gear (including the mandatory life jacket intended to keep you from landing on coral) at the park office at Baia do Sueste for about $20 a person a day.

Where to eat

Bar do Meio has perhaps the most scenic location of any eatery anywhere in the world, right at the tideline. Just be prepared for loud music to compete with the surf when the DJs are spinning, and it might take you a while to get a drink.

Varanda is consistently voted the island’s best restaurant; it won’t change your life but it’s fine. Expect crowds and heavy Brazilian north-eastern food, including lots of stews with palm oil.

Mergulhao makes a semi-successful attempt at fusion with Brazilian ingredients. It is perhaps best for a cocktail at sunset.

Cacimba Bistro has thoughtful service and elegant food on a breezy balcony.

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