Off the coast of Brazil there's an island so protected only a lucky few are allowed to experience it. Those who do, have Fernando de Noronha's windswept cliffs and untouched beaches all to themselves
I inspected another pod, pulled out the seeds, and held them in the palm of my hand. As though hypnotized, my eyes roamed happily from the black seeds to the massive boulders. I caught a glimpse of Dona Gabriela rounding the corner from behind a pile of craggy rocks with a spring in her step. She called out, "It's utterly gorgeous down there. It's not a bad walk over rocks, perhaps ten minutes. I think you'd like it." She walked there with me, exhibiting a certain chivalry, I thought, and waited while I snorkeled using her mask and breathing tube. Swimming through passages in the rocks, I noticed an incandescent blue fish the size of a fingernail and a fat large one with mangy coloring, as though designed to provide camouflage in bean soup.
"What are you writing?" Dona Gabriela inquired later. I replied deliberately, "I am writing, 'Dear diary, today Dona Gabriela forced me to see half a dozen more beaches than I would have wanted to. . . .' "
Finally, the day came that had kept Dona Gabriela in a frenzy of expectation from the moment we landed on the island—the day when she was to experience her first mergulho, or scuba dive. Needless to say, I decided to wait for her at Praia do Boldró. I walked up and down the beach, swam, plunged into a deep, hot pool between the rocks and waded in it, admiring the shore. On her return, she reported that although the oxygen tank felt somewhat oppressive, the allotted half-hour had flown by. When her Japanese instructor motioned that it was time to go back to the surface she thought only a few minutes had passed. But—and she was gravely disappointed—she had not seen a single shark or sea turtle.
"We must have fried shark balls," said Dona Gabriela. Having been deprived of the sight of sharks, she wanted to know at least what they taste like. We went to the "shark café," Tubalhau, on a windswept veranda overlooking some wild, uninhabited cliffs. After sharing seven suitably fishy shark croquettes (bolinhos de tubarão) and a beer, we walked to Fluminense, on a terrace high above the harbor. There we had pirão, a creamy tapioca with fish sauce; casquinha de caranguejo, stuffed miniature crabs; sururu ao coco, clams in coconut sauce; and fried mandioca, which is similar to potato in consistency. Dona Gabriela knelt by the roadside and held out the remains of her lemon ice to a black doglet with a curly tail and calla-lily ears who licked it down to the bare stick.
Later at the pousada, the couple that had been scuba diving every day reported that they had seen turtles, barracudas, and even sharks in the ocean depths around Fernando de Noronha. Dona Gabriela sighed, "Now I am very sorry I did not snorkel at Ataláia."
On our last day, we walked to Praia Sueste again. I lay down. "Quick, come see!" Dona Gabriela hollered as soon as I closed my eyes. I got up thinking, This had better be good, and stood next to her, staring down a dark, curved tunnel in the sand. Then it happened: a crab sidled up its own engineering feat, propelling itself by its left claw, emerged into the daylight, and with one sweeping motion deposited a load of sand it had been clutching in its right claw.
On the beach we encountered a group of Italians who were dressed more for Mustique or St. Bart's than the ungentrified splendor of Fernando de Noronha. One of them had broken his nose, and could neither swim nor be in the sun. "I wish I could just take them in hand and show them the island," Dona Gabriela told me. A dreamy look came into her eyes. "I could open a restaurant here. It seems they'll just lease you the land if you want to start a business. My husband would love it here, don't you think?"
At the pousada, three elderly sisters and their husbands got into three buggies. Dona Gabriela said, "They're doing the seven-hour tour of the island. Aren't you happy I spared you that?" "Yes," I murmured gratefully, "yes, I am." Dona Gabriela and I are proof that you can do a thousand things on Fernando de Noronha—or you can simply be.
Fernando de Noronha isn't easy: for one thing, most residents speak Portuguese (ask for someone who can understand English). Also, getting here takes a three-hour flight from Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo to Recife, and then a one-hour flight to the island. Because only 420 visitors are allowed on Fernando at one time, you need to book early. To get around the island, hire a dune buggy at Tartarugão Rent a Car in Remédios (55-81/619-1331, fax 55-81/619-1142; $47 a day).
There are more than 100 pousadas on Fernando de Noronha. Most have air-conditioning and private baths, but are otherwise very basic. Here, the top choices.
Pousada da Jô Rua dom Juquinha, Vila do Trinta; phone and fax 55-81/619-1337; doubles from $100. Built in 1991, the pousada has five rooms, each with its own veranda. Praia do Cachorro is a 10-minute walk away.
Pousada Morena 2600 Rua Nice Cordeiro, Floresta Nova; 55-81/466-4300, fax 55-81/619-1414; doubles from $90. A five-room pousada that serves fresh pasta and other Italian dishes.
Pousada Sueste Estrada do Sueste; phone and fax 55-81/619-1164; doubles from $100. Four rooms overlooking the Bay of Sueste. The Praia Sueste is right nearby.
Solar dos Ventos Estrada do Sueste; 55-81/619-1347, fax 55-81/619-1253; doubles from $90, including meals. By far the best and most secluded pousada. The four recently built two-room wooden bungalows all have verandas and fabulous views of the sea.
Bar do Boldró Ladeira do Boldró, Praia do Boldró; 55-81/619-1400; lunch for two $20. A beach shack that opens at 11 A.M. to sell fried fish and shrimp soup.
Tartarugão 238 Alameda do Boldró; 55-81/619-1331; dinner for two $35. The island's most urbane and lively restaurant, on a terrace near the center of town. Fantastic steaks—a "small" order consists of a sizzling plate holding five rather substantial slabs of beef.
Tubalhau Avda. Joaquim Francisco, Vila do Porto; 55-81/619-1365; lunch for two $15. On a veranda next to the harbor, it's the place for shark croquettes, served in a basket with toothpicks instead of forks.
Quietest Beach: Praia Sueste, where the water is deep and, at the end of the day, deliciously warm.
Finest Beach: Praia do Boldró, so vast that you'll never be at a loss for something to do. When you need some shade, head to one of Boldró's cafés.
Top Snorkeling Spots: Praia dos Porcos; Ataláia.
Most Beautiful Sight: Sunset from the fort.
Hottest Nightspot: The very scenic open-air Bar do Cachorro, for dancing and live samba, with the sound of crashing waves in the background.
Best Walk: Around the red and white Palacio do São Miguel, near the historic center of Remédios.
Want to See Flipper?
Baía dos Golfinhos, the Bay of Dolphins, is loaded with the mammals—but is off-limits to visitors. If you want to observe the dolphins, hire a boat from the port of Santo Antônio; your captain will take you close enough to look without touching.