Brazil's Noronho aims to lure naturalists, divers

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FERNANDO DE NORONHO, Brazil -- There are places travelers visit just because they are there, and Fernando de Noronho, an archipelago lying 330 miles off the coastal city of Recife, Brazil, is an example.

Noronho is pristine and offers mostly deserted beaches fringing crystal-clear waters that are nirvana to snorkelers and scuba divers.

Nature lovers can enjoy hours of bird-watching including four species of pelicans, boobies and frigates as well as green and hawksbill turtles that come ashore between January and March to lay their eggs.

In addition, the bay is full of cavorting spinner dolphins, which are only found here and off Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii.

Said to have been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci in 1503, the main and only inhabited island has a population of about 1,500.

Dune buggy is the best way to travel the bumpy tracks on Fernando de Noronho. The landscape is dotted with remnants of past residents, from occupation in the 1600s and 1700s by the Dutch and the French, who reportedly used the island for pirating and mainland invasions; from the 1800s when the Portuguese arrived and later set up a prison, and from the 1900s when the U.S. established a military base (as well as water supply lines, roads and other infrastructure necessities) for air transport to the Africa theater during World War II.

Present-day invaders are almost always tourists, who come for Noronho's attractions. Most of these are under the jurisdiction of Ibama, the conservation group in charge of protecting some 70% of the archipelago, which was declared a marine national park in 1988.

Under Ibama regulations, a maximum of 420 tourists are allowed on the island at any one time. Upon departure, they are required to pay a $13.50 per day conservation tax for a full week's stay and a higher rate for additional days.

Most lodgings are small and modest and in private homes scattered about the island.

Accommodations must be booked in advance.

Among those I found acceptable in the "top" rank category (which means private bath, electricity and a little restaurant) are:

  • The Hotel Dolphin, currently with six rooms, pool, Jacuzzi and sauna.
  • By the end of the year, it will add 12 more units.

  • The Pousada Solar dos Ventos with five cabanas (each with a bedroom and living room with sofa bed).
  • Pousada Ze Maria Paraiso with three rooms.
  • Pousada da Morena with four air-conditioned rooms and six more being added.
  • I stayed at Pousada Recanto, in the main village of Vila dos Remedios.

    It offered eight twin-bedded rooms with air conditioning and a bath, a little dining room (for breakfast, included in the price) and an entry salon where one could sit and watch TV with the family.

    Although most pousadas offer full board, guests can venture out by taxi or on foot to reach various restaurants around the island.

    On most of the local menus, fish is the favorite dish.

    Vila dos Remedios is a historical center on the island, from which a short walk can reach the hilltop ruins of an 18th century fort (one of eight on the island).

    It overlooked the island's first church, Nossa Senhora dos Remedios, where at the 10 a.m. mass, one can hear Gregorian chants during the Latin mass.

    Getting about the island usually requires a dune buggy, a vehicle necessary for driving along the island's one paved highway, and essential to navigate off the main drag and on to deeply rutted tracks that fan out to one beach or another.

    Beaches on the north coast include Baia dos Porcos (Bay of Pigs), a beautiful cove at the beginning of the marine park and Sancho Bay, which is accessible by ladder through a narrow cut in the cliff or by boat.

    The Baia dos Golfinos is the lookout point for watching spinner dolphins and boarding excursion boats for trips that include swimming and snorkeling on a nearby beach.

    The port (a good place to eat or pick up a picnic lunch) also is the departure point for diving expeditions. There are three dive shops that rent equipment and make daily trips with dive masters who offer PADI certification programs.

    Noronho is Brazil's best dive destination, and its underwater scenery includes sharks, stingrays, sea turtles, more than 200 fish species, caves and caverns.

    The best times for diving are January and February and between July and October.

    The destination's prime time for surfing is between November and March.

    Snorkelers should enjoy the schools of colorful fish found off Baia dos Porcos, Baia de Sueste and Atalaia beaches.

    Noronho is a friendly place, but almost no one speaks anything but Portuguese.

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