With a choice of direct flights, year-round balmy temperatures and a burgeoning array of resort options, Claire Dodd discovers how Cape Verde is bolstering its reputation as an ideal winter sun break on a trip with The Resort Group.
He means well, but I’m determined. Unused to the terrain and a little nervous, I’m taking things slow. A little too slow. Our little convoy of quad bikes is going nowhere fast. With a huge sand dune ahead of me and the Atlantic swell surging at the small strip of land I’m aiming for, our guide is trying to convince me to abandon my bike and ride shotgun on his. But I’m having none of it. I’m having too much fun.
While some travellers come to Cape Verde for total relaxation at its growing list of all-inclusive luxury resorts, others come for the destination’s growing reputation as an adventure sports capital. Me? I’m somewhere in the middle. But all visitors come for the climate.
With an average of 350 days of sunshine a year and temperatures hovering consistently between 25C and 30C, this archipelago off the west coast of Africa is fast becoming a winter sun hot spot. And with direct weekly flights that take around five and a half hours from London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Glasgow, this hitherto little-known destination is becoming a particular favourite of Brits.
Total visitor numbers across the 10 islands have increased 115% since 2000 and are expected to double again by 2024, according to a major player here, The Resort Group. And the World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that tourism accounted for 44.5% of GDP in 2016, and is expected to provide 22.6% of total employment by 2027.
So what is attracting visitors apart from the sun? While each island has its own identity and differing features, here on Sal the landscape is desert-like and otherworldly. There are few trees and just a handful of towns.
But Cape Verde has the third largest population of loggerhead turtles in the world during nesting season (June-September). In Sharks Bay, you can wade the shallow warm waters to see lemon sharks up close. And what Sal may be lacking in sites, it makes up for in activities. The near constant winds make the islands a hotspot for kite-surfing. There’s fishing, surfing and countless water sports.
Picturesque Santa Maria, the largest town on Sal has a distinct African identity. On the pier, locals fillet fish, paint or carve shells as souvenirs, or simply chew the fat and hang out. On Saturday night, the streets fill with live music from the drumming of street parties to reggae bands in the many bars.
The Resort Group is investing heavily in the upward shift in visitor numbers, cornering the market with varied all-inclusive resort offers to suit most demographics. Its first property, the Melia Tortuga Beach Resort, opened in May 2011 and attracts a honeymoon crowd and families to its beachfront villas. The family-friendly Melia Dunas Beach Resort & Spa followed in 2014. And last year it opened Cape Verde’s first premium beach club, Bikini Beach, alongside five-star luxury adult-only resorts, Tui Sensimar Cabo Verde and Melia Llana Beach Resort & Spa, where I’m staying.
Available via Thomson, occupancy rates across all properties averaged at 74% in 2016. The group has a further 10 projects in the pipeline here, including on the islands of Boa Vista and Santiago, adding 6,500 rooms. Founder Rob Jarrett is keen to invest in the community too, backing projects such as local schools through the Cape Verde Foundation.
In Sal, all properties are beachfront, and offer something slightly different. One of the key selling points of the Melia Llana is its swim-up rooms, which have a semiprivate pool accessed directly from the room.
Esther Montoro, the hotel manager tells me they’re already seeing repeat bookings for the rooms, which are “always full”, and are especially popular with Brits. Older customers prefer the quiet of a garden room, she adds. And although the property mirrors its neighbour, the Tui Sensimar Cabo Verde, it uniquely offers upgrade experience, The Level (see box).
While the Melia Llana – and indeed The Resort Group in it’s entirety – is very much geared up for those looking to fly and flop, agents can book some of the more adventurous activities for guests direct through Thomson. For example, quad biking costs from £64 for two hours. On our journey, we stop by the former salt mines – once a hive of industry, they’re now a place to relax. A half day excursion here (from £31.50pp) includes the chance to float in the salt lake, which sits inside the mouth of a long extinct volcano, and enjoy a therapeutic body treatment.
For those who prefer not to venture far, Bikini Beach offers thrill seekers water sports from jet-skiing (15 mins from €35) to hover boarding (30 mins, €40). Though the local currency is the escudo, euros are readily accepted across the island.
After a few hours of traversing the dunes, vast flat plains, and rocky coves where occasional lonesome fisherman wait by the turquoise waters, I’ve managed to convince my guide that I’m competent enough to go it alone and am keeping up with the best of them. Quad biking isn’t for everyone, but it’s an excellent way to see this starkly unique little place. And with visitor numbers climbing, there will soon be even more here to see it.
MELIA LLANA BEACH RESORT
THE FACTS: Opened in December 2016, the 304-room all-inclusive, adults-only property is located right on the beach, a 15-minute ride from the airport, and just a few minutes from Santa Maria. A spa, four restaurants and three pools are located on site but dining at premium restaurants on neighbouring properties is also available at additional cost.
THUMBS UP: Attracting a younger demographic than neighbouring property Tui Sensimar Cabo Verde (average age is 42 versus 52), Melia Llana has some funky touches, and though vast has some intimate areas for guests to escape to. For an upgrade of €30 to €50 per person per night (bookable only at the hotel), guests can access The Level. Described as a boutique hotel within the hotel, it includes a private lounge with all-day food and premium bar and exclusive beachside pool area. The waiter service means you can order cocktails direct to your sun lounger – a huge plus – alongside little perks such as priority booking at restaurants and the spa. Treatments at the bright and airy spa start from €80. Free daily activities range from yoga to cocktail classes.
THUMBS DOWN: The hotel feels geared up towards relaxation and tranquillity. With that in mind, the neighbouring Bikini Beach restaurant and club can get raucous at night. Rooms closest to the beach are likely to hear the music. Though the beach has sun loungers for all, drinks service isn’t offered yet but should be in place for peak season.
BOOK IT: Thomson offers seven nights all-inclusive during peak season (October-March) from £920pp, including Gatwick flights and based on two sharing.