Fernando de Noronha, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the island guaranteed to make Brazilians go misty-eyed, is a stunningly beautiful place which is also a strictly protected eco-wonderland. Welcome to paradise
“And have you been to Noronha yet?“ is a question I am regularly asked by Brazilians when they hear I am travelling. The question has an almost reverential undertone, as Fernando de Noronha is as close to the Brazilian idea of paradise as any other place in this vast country. It has a stringently protected natural environment; there is hardly any crime worth mentioning; there are no slums controlled by drug barons. Instead, what the island has are strictly limited numbers of tourists, a dozen of the most beautiful beaches in the country where bathers can snorkel with turtles and swim with dolphins, a handful of truly excellent restaurants – and the high probability of encountering a celebrity. Unlike the biblical paradise, this Brazilian one never left its prelapsarian state.
So now, at long last, I’m here. The wind blows as hot as a hairdryer, blasting across the turquoise waves and onto the land. Besides myself and several other visitors, the small propeller plane is carrying at least a case each of champagne and lobster – probably destined for the tables at the Zé Maria restaurant, where well-heeled tourists converge twice a week for the gourmet buffet. I hail an open beach buggy as a taxi – a rental car really would be overdoing it slightly on this tiny island where the sole main road is a mere six kilometers long. As we fly past dry bushes, the driver explains that the longest journey in his taxi costs the equivalent of around ten euros.
Which beach shall I choose today?
He drops me off outside a blue house where hibiscus and oleander bloom in the garden. The Verdes Mares guesthouse looks like the holiday cottage of people with pretty good taste: minimalist wooden furniture, art with island motifs on the wall, a flower arrangement on the table and books on the sitting room bookshelf. There are three rooms to rent in this former private residence, and one of them is mine. The staff only come in the morning to make breakfast. Cicadas chirp, the wind rustles through the leaves of the strange trees – otherwise, it is beautifully quiet.
There are two sides to Noronha: the side facing the rough open sea for surfers and wave freaks, and the calm side facing the mainland for everyone else. I decide to stroll down to the peaceful beach at Atalaia, which is part of the strictest nature conservation area on the island. To access the beach you have to pay an admission fee: Like in a public swimming pool, visitors pass through a turnstile to get down to the picturesque bay with its golden-yellow sand. On a wooden deck with sunshades diving instructors wait for customers. I spot an instantly likeable blonde woman with freckles: Xoxa offers to show me the best spots for snorkeling.
The sea is the temperature of bathwater and crystal-clear. I slip into a life ring and Xoxa pulls me through the bay. Beneath us, aquatic plants sway gently in the current. There! She points down: Directly underneath us a giant sea turtle grazes on the tender sea grass. For minutes on end, we swim in synchrony with the archaic animal, like a primeval dance. Then Xoxa pulls me on. We pass yellow striped fish which gambol around in schools like inquisitive children. And smooth sharks which are perhaps a foot and a half long. Xoxa explains that these are baby sharks, and they are completely harmless. Nonetheless, I am still thrilled and anxious in equal measure to experience these angular mouths – luckily all closed – so close to me.
The sky turns a rosy orange much too fast: It’s time for my date with the sunset at the Praia do Americano, where the glowing, blood-red sun sinks down between the Morro Dois Irmãos rocks, the island’s landmark. For almost half an hour every day it puts on a magnificent performance. I enjoy it from the comfort of an open-air bar with a caipirinha and some savory fritters. As it gets dark, the beach buggies come racing up, and my driver lets his dance over the dunes in a dust cloud as he drives me back to my guesthouse. Returning to Verdes Mares almost feels like coming home, although I’ve only been on the island for one day. Perhaps this is part of the charm of the place: Everything here is so small and intimate that you soon start chatting to people and end up feeling like a member of a large, extended family.
The people I sat next to while admiring the sunset recommended a boutique which sells designer clothes and crafts, and also doubles up as a restaurant and a lounge. This is my destination for the evening: I walk the kilometer and a half to O Pico, enjoying the warm night air. Outside O Pico a basil hedge infuses the tiny garden with a fragrant scent; several musicians are in the process of setting up their instruments. I sit down on a coffee sack and gaze at what simply has to be the most beautiful starry sky in the northeast. The velvet-toned singer croons: “Viver e não ter a vergonha de ser feliz!” Live and do not be ashamed to be happy. That sounds like Fernando de Noronha in a nutshell.