Only two hours behind GMT and home to one of the world’s finest beaches, this exotic archipelago is an intriguing option
Brazil is the most beach-loving country in the world. Its epically long coast probably has more swimmable and sunbathing-friendly spots than anywhere else on earth. Brazil’s music, sports, food and fashions have their source right on the beach. Even Brazil’s newly re-elected president – the left-leaning, trade union hard man Lula da Silva – spends his hols on a beach.
So, the 31-million real (six million dollars in local) question is: which one is the best? 
Answering that, you might think, would involve a long discussion beside the coconut stall, perhaps with a chilled Brahma in hand. After all, Brazilians get very worked up about football (Pele or Neymar?), cities (Rio or São Paulo?) and, right now, politics.
But when it comes to praias or beaches the consensus is that Fernando de Noronha – an archipelago of 21 volcanic islands and islets in the Atlantic Ocean, 220 miles from Natal on the northeast coast – is most definitely the winner. 
Getting to Fernando de Noronha involves a longish flight via Recife, though the islands are only 3,400 miles from Lisbon (the best city for connections) – and even less than that from the Algarve. When you get there, you’ll notice the clocks are only two hours behind the UK. Given that the only other places at GMT-2 are Greenland and South Georgia, this makes the islands a no-brainer winter sun option.  
All 16 beaches on the main island are beautiful, but one, Baia do Sancho, routinely tops the rankings of best in the world – according to travellers, guide writers, specialist bloggers and, most importantly, Brazilians. It’s a crescent of fine golden sand framed by cliffs adorned with tropical vegetation.
Shortish by Brazilian standards (its seaboard has many long, straight beaches more suited to jogging and landsailing than bathing) it has that protective, cove-like wraparound feel that makes a beach feel special – this is further enhanced by the fact that it’s accessible only by boat or via a ladder and steep staircase built inside a natural fissure in the rocks.
Once there, many people choose to flop and zone out. Located three degrees south of the equator the temperature is always hovering around a sultry 25C, while sea breezes moderate the heat. There are no bars or restaurants cluttering the backdrop, nor bothersome vendors. And the beach faces west so you can take in lovely sunsets.
Seventy per cent of Fernando de Noronha is a National Marine Park and a Unesco site. From the clifftop – and even from the stairway, if you dare look up – there’s a good chance of seeing dolphins frolicking in the calm blue-emerald water. Close to the shore the seabed is a whirl of colourful fish.
Swim out to the nearby corals and you might catch a sea turtle. The island is a feeding and breeding ground for these and for tuna, whales, porpoises and sharks. There is an internationally important population of spinner dolphins and the island offers protection for the endangered hawksbill sea turtle. 
So far, so Edenic – and, when you finally get back to the top of the ladder, Fernando de Noronha continues to delight. The population of 3,100 resides on the “big island”, which is seven square miles. It has one paved road, which goes to the airport. The other roads are either dirt with scattered stones or rocks laid as rough setts. It all feels very rustic and beachy.
But with 100,000 visitors per year, there are plenty of romantic bars and restaurants (it’s a honeymoon favourite with wealthy people from the cities of southern Brazil), and boutique hotels and pousadas (“inns” that feel more like posh resorts). The cuisine ranges from simply prepared fish to tasty dishes from the mainland nordeste region to Japanese restaurants and sushi bars for the demanding urbanite.
Fernando de Noronha isn’t cheap. Almost everything that makes life easy has to be flown or shipped in. Hotels and restaurants tend to be priced at the higher end. Tourist numbers are restricted by the number of flights and rooms; there is supposed to be an official limit of 420 or 450 passengers daily, but hard data proves elusive. In any case, all have to stump up an “environmental preservation” tax that costs R$87.71 per day – that is, R$557.85 or £94 for a seven-day visit.
Diving, swimming, massages, hikes, boat rides, surfing, renting a buggy: these are the things most people do. But there is some history, too. Fernando de Noronha was temporarily occupied by the Dutch and French before the Portuguese established dominion in 1737. Of the 10 forts they built, the largest is Nossa Senhora dos Remédios de Fernando de Noronha – named for the handsome baroque church at its heart.
The island served as a colonial penal colony, the ruins of which can be found buried in the jungle undergrowth. The archipelago was considered ideal for incarcerating dangerous criminals because of its remoteness. It’s said that when Brazil declared independence from Portugal in 1822, it took two years for the news to reach Fernando de Noronha.
Despite growing visitor numbers, Fernando de Noronha is regarded by environmentalists as a model for sustainable tourism. Revenues are used to promote electric transport, solar farms and mandatory recycling. Single-use plastic is forbidden.
Ex-president Bolsonaro once tweeted, “Brazil is the No. 1 country in the world in natural beauty, but one of the last in tourism revenue. Fernando de Noronha is an example of how not to do tourism.” For the notorious eco-sceptic, conservation measures were merely unnecessary red tape.
Lula, though, is a fan – spending two New Year’s Eves there with his wife during his first two terms – finding time to pop into a desalination plant between sightseeing and sport fishing excursions.
Whatever your political persuasion, though, you’d have to be mad not to vote for Fernando de Noronha. The island is a paradise from the ocean floor to the top of its black peaks to its table-topping beaches. If you want a bit of summer in winter, minus the jetlag, just turn right at Lisbon.
TAP Portugal ( flies from UK airports to Fernando de Noronha via Lisbon and Recife or São Paulo. Returns from around £1,000.
Aug-Jan is hot and dry. Feb-July is the rainy season.
Journey Latin America offers a 15-day holiday to Brazil visiting Salvador, the Chapada Diamantina, Recife, Olinda and Fernando de Noronha from £4,373 per person. The price includes flights from London, transfers, mid-range hotels on a B&B basis and guided excursions (020 8747 8315,
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