Walk the streets of any Brazilian town in the evening and youâ€™ll hear the sound of Brazilian soap operas echoing from televisions in houses, cafĂ©s and bars. Latin America has produced more than 100 soaps a year for the past 40 years, and the superstars of these dramas are adored by millions of fans.
To escape their legions of devotees, many TV idols flee to the seclusion of Fernando de Noronha, a cluster of 21 lovely islands and rocky islets 545 kilometres off the coast of Recife in Brazilâ€™s tropical north.
Ilha de Fernando de Noronha, the only inhabited island in the group, is home to Pousada Maravilha, an exclusive hideaway overlooking the ocean. Here, suntanned celebrities wearing minuscule swatches of lycra, known as â€śdental flossâ€ť bikinis, bask by a sparkling infinity pool sipping Brazilâ€™s favourite drink, the Caipirinhaâ€”a cool brew of cachaĂ§a (sugar-cane brandy), lemon and sugar.
Celebrities and travellers alike love the relative isolation of the islands, 70 per cent of which were declared a national marine park in 1988. To protect its delicate ecosystemsâ€”Fernando de Noronha is blessed with multitudes of birds and is home to one of the worldâ€™s largest resident populations of spinner dolphinsâ€”the Brazilian Government limits tourists to 420 per week. They join the roughly 2,500 locals at this 15-kilometre (nine mile) long slice of paradise which is devoid of traffic, harried commuters or mobile phones.
Foliage-covered islets surround BaĂa do Sancho, acclaimed as South Americaâ€™s most beautiful beach. To reach this heavenly strip of white sands one must descend a precarious-looking metal ladder down a steep cliff face. But the difficult access is well worth the effort: with colourful fish darting through the turquoise, temperate waters and flocks of seabirds gliding overhead, BaĂa do Sancho is simply magical.
Diving is sensational around the islands, and local operators compete fiercely to show visitors this underwater aquarium rich with colourful reefs. You donâ€™t need to be a qualified diver to take to the waters: escorted by guides for a â€śbaptismâ€ť dive, novices can descend into the transparent sea, which have visibility of up to 30 metres (98 feet), to check out the teeming marine life.
There are ample accommodation choices for less well-heeled visitors to the islands, ranging from room and board in modest private homes to some reasonably-priced pousadas (Bed and Breakfasts). One reasonable option is Pousada do FrancĂŞs, which has pleasant rooms with air conditioning and typical Brazilian breakfasts of fresh fruit and crusty rolls.
Vila dos RemĂ©dios, the islandâ€™s largest village, is perched on a hill above crumbling RemĂ©dios Fort (officially Nossa Senhora dos RemĂ©dios Fort), the oldest of ten forts around the islands built by the Portuguese in the late 1700s. The stately former governorâ€™s residence, baroque church, and several cafĂ©s surround the villageâ€™s steep cobblestone plaza.
Ilha de Fernando de Noronha has two distinct sides: the leeward sea, facing Brazil, is sheltered from prevailing winds and its beaches are generally calm, while waves pound the shores of the Africa-facing windward coast. Praia do LeĂŁo on the windward sea is surrounded by an open, almost treeless landscape. Its sweeping beach, buffeted by wind, is a breeding ground for green and hawksbill turtles, whose hatcheries are spread across surrounding sand dunes.
The biggest task you face each day at Fernando de Noronha is deciding which of its 23 glorious beaches to visit. Hundreds of dolphins pirouette from the waters of BaĂa dos Golfinhos in the early mornings, when the yellow-pink of a tropical dawn begins to light up the sky.
Later, snorkel and swim amid the unspoilt splendour of beaches like ConceiĂ§ĂŁo Beach, and laze under shady trees while the sun blazes down from clear skies. Smiling staff of beach kiosks called barracas, nestle around the islandâ€™s beaches, keeping you supplied with icy Caipirinhas, slice the top off chilled coconuts, or whip up a fresh juice made with exotic fruits from the Amazon region.
Balmy evenings, when the sky is dotted with bright stars, are perfect for al fresco dining at one of Ilha de Fernando de Noronhaâ€™s ten restaurants. Wonderful seafood platters and stews can be found at Ekologicus and Nascimento restaurants in Vila dos RemĂ©dios, or try feijoada, Brazilâ€™s national dishâ€”a potpourri of beans, meats and charcuterie served with kale and farofa (manioc flour)â€”at restaurants across the island. The coffee, naturally, is excellentâ€”this is Brazil, after all.
Due to its isolation, Fernando de Noronha is more expensive than mainland Brazil. Although there is no limit imposed on the length of time you may stay on the island, visitors pay an environmental preservation tax of around $15 per person per day which increases to around $1200 per month. Given the limited numbers of visitors permitted on the islands, itâ€™s wise to book well in advance. Varig Airlines flies daily from Recife to Fernando de Noronha.