1. Hit Santa Maria beach
Sal is home to some of the best beaches in Cape Verde, and Santa Maria is where you’ll find clean white sands stretching off to the horizon in either direction. There are good snorkelling opportunities offshore and a turtle hatchery near the Riu Funana hotel, where you can see the impossibly cute hatchlings make for the waves in the evenings during November-December. Despite its increasing popularity with holidaymakers, the 8km beach itself remains relatively unspoiled. For more fantastic Atlantic beaches, check out our guide to the best sands in the Canary Islands.
2. Go surfing
The trade winds blow steadily from November to June, making Sal an ideal destination for surfing of all kinds. In particular, you’ll find the place crawling with windsurfers and kiteboarders in January and February, all keen to make the most of the winter breeze. Punto Preto is one of the main breaks, perfect for riding if you’re experienced, and gazing out onto if you’re more confident on the sand. On Kite Beach, east of Santa Maria, is where to head to see expert kitesurfers cartwheeling over the waves (introductory lessons from €90).
Cost for a surf lesson in Cape Verde: Surf Zone Cabo Verde offer surfing lessons – €115 for a beginners course, €40 for an hour
3. Visit the inlet of Buracona
Sal island has some fantastic underwater caves to explore, as well as unbelievably clear reefs. About five kilometres to the north of Palmeira port is Olho Azul, a water inlet that you can peer into and witness an iridescent ‘Blue Eye’ of seawater gazing back at you.
Address: Sandstrasse von Palmeira Richtung Norden, Ilha do Sal, Cape Verde
4. Go bathing in the salt sea in Pedra Lume
The town of Pedra Lume’s main claim to fame is a volcanic crater filled with what’s known as the ‘salt sea’. Sal means ‘salt’ in Portuguese, and the island was an important source of this precious mineral during colonial times. Nowadays, the salt sea is the perfect spot for a relaxing float – the warm pools are saltier than the Dead Sea, so it’s practically impossible to sink.
Opening Hours: Daily 9am-6pm
Tickets: Entrance is around €5, plus €1 for a coldwater shower to rinse the salt off!
Address: Pedra Lume, Ilha do Sal, Cape Verde
5. Ride quad bikes across the surface of Mars
At 35 kilometres long by 12 kilometres wide, it’s easy to explore Sal by bike or car, and the dusty interior is out of this world. The parched desert that covers much of the island has been compared to the planet Mars, and there are plenty of options for bumping across it in a 4×4. Try No Limits for guided hummer tours with a spot of local history thrown in (from €50 pp). Up for a solo adventure? You could always hire a quad bike and go it alone – Cabo Quad (Tel: 242 1590) in Santa Maria is just one of several rental places.
6. Go island hopping
Cape Verde is made up of ten islands of varying size, and they differ remarkably in terms of size and geography, so it’s worth saving a day for island-hopping. Whereas Sal is largely flat, Fogo has a volcanic peak rising to more than 2,800 metres, and the spectacular island of Santo Antão is strewn with beautiful canyons and tropical plants. Meanwhile, the beautiful Bay of Faja D’Agua on nearby Brava island provides a green contrast to the red sands of Sal. São Vicente is the place to experience the national music, morna, the Cape Verdean version of the blues, which owes much to the islands’ sad history as part of the slave trade. The distinctive sounds of strings and famous voices like Cesária Évora spill out of cafes and bars across the city of Mindelo – sit and listen over a drink at Bar Lisboa, on Rue de Libertad d’Africa.
7. Try Cape Verdean food
‘Fusion’ is the perfect word to describe the Cape Verde islands in general, but nowhere is it more appropriate than when talking about food. With a Portuguese flair for fresh fish and seafood mixed with African flavours and Brazilian spice, you should take every opportunity to experience Cape Verde culture through the stomach! Santa Maria has the best offering on Sal: look out for Chez Pastis tucked away on Rue Amilcar Gabral for the delicious lobster and steak – but book ahead, as it’s fairly small and very popular. Make sure you try national dish cachupa, a colourful stew with maize, yams, tomatoes and cabbage that you’ll find at generous buffet restaurants like Lanchonette Angela on Santa Maria Beach.
8. Visit the botanical gardens of Sal island
Considering that the interior of Sal is mostly desert, it’s quite a surprise to run across the oasis of green that is the Viveiro Botanical Garden. A pleasant stroll among the palms, surrounded by bright yellow hibiscus and fragrant oleander flowers, makes for a very different experience from careening across the desert on a quad bike – and they’ve even got a tiny zoo complete with donkeys, goats, rabbits, ducks and peacocks.
Tickets: Free to enter
Address: Zona da Fátima, Santa Maria, Ilha do Sal 4111, Cape Verde
9. Take a luxury boat trip
Always Sailing offers the chance to cap off your Cape Verde holiday with a trip across the Atlantic, in a beautiful white racing yacht no less. A full 8-hour day costs €99 and includes lunch and snorkelling stops. Pick up is from Palmeira, and full-day excursions are available on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. If your idea of heaven is more like floating along on a catamaran, flanked by wild whales and dolphins, then Sal has that option too – enquire down at the pier in Santa Maria.
10. Stay at the Morabeza, Sal’s first hotel
The four-star Hotel Morabeza in Santa Maria was the first hotel on Sal and remains one of the best. It was founded by an ageing Belgian industrialist and his wife, who were looking for somewhere reliably warm to settle in the sixties. Business has expanded ever since and there’s now an oceanside beach club attached, but you’ll still find it full of family-run touches, including friendly staff only too pleased to give you tips for the restaurants and bars down the road. If you’re staying on a Saturday, claim your free caipirinha at the hotel’s ‘Cape Verdean Night’ in Les Palmiers restaurant, with traditional music and dance performances, displays of local crafts and a buffet of island specialities. Book a night in the hotel now.
Address: Hotel Morabeza, Santa Maria, Cape Verde
11. Go scuba diving in Cape Verde
The best views in Cape Verde are from below and while you won’t find the kind of coral damage that plagues more famous diving destinations, you’ll still have the chance to come eyeball-to-eyeball with mantas, turtles and even sharks! Scuba Team Cabo Verde offer diving trips into the cave that forms the Blue Eye (Buracona), as well as excursions to 19 different dive sites along the coast and even into an old shipwreck. For more on the best dive sites see our guide to the best diving spots in the world for more inspiration.
12. Sail around Ilheu Rabo de Junco
This protected islet is opposite Cape Verde, and only 253 metres in length. This is an underwater volcano, which means it’s a great dive site too. If you’re climbing up Monte Leao, you’ll get a great view of Rabo de Junco. Catch a glimpse on your sailing trip, or ask to bypass it if you’re taking a quad bike tour of the island.
13. Horseback ride along Santa Maria beach
Imagine: spend 2 hours horseback riding along the beach at sunset, turquoise waters behind you and your favourite person riding alongside you. This doesn’t have to be a daydream – Santa Marilha Horse Excursions have excellent trainers and the horses are all happy and healthy. Check them out if you’re heading down to Santa Maria beach.
Opening Hours: 8.30am-6.30pm
Tickets: €40 across the salt flats, €50 for a beach ride
Address: Santa Maria, Ilha do Sal 4111, Cape Verde
14. Stretch it out with yoga at Cabo Verde
Plane ride got you a little stuff? This is one of the best yoga studios on the island offering traditional hatha and vinyasa right on the beach. Their teachers Sheena, Paola and Karen are all trained to gently ease you into yoga if you’ve never tried it before.
Opening Hours: Check the timetable before visiting
Tickets: One class for €10, or €40 for 5 classes over a month
Address: Porto Antigo 3 | Unit 4, Santa Maria, Ilha do Sal 4111, Cape Verde
15. Get a taste of the local culture at Funana Casa da Cultura
This is a restaurant, museum, bar hybrid on Santa Maria. If this calm beach holiday has been lacking in nightlife for you, this is where it’s at. Every weekend, and on their Thursday club night, Casa de Cultura hosts evenings of dance typical of Cape Verde, which typically descend into all other types of dance after a few of their heady Caipirinhas. The museum is also worth a look in if you happen to be stopping by for a seafood lunch.
Opening Hours: Museum: 9am-12pm, 3pm-6pm weekdays, Restaurant: 12pm-3pm, 8pm-late every day.
Tickets: Free to enter
Address: Santa Maria Beach, Santa Maria, Ilha do Sal 4111, Cape Verde
How to get to Sal, Cape Verde
The Cape Verde islands are located off the coast of West Africa, and Sal is the most north-easterly of the group with its own airport, Amílcar Cabral International, making it handy for direct flights from the UK. In fact, you can fly non-stop from London, Bristol, Manchester and Birmingham in just six hours and from Glasgow in six hours 30 minutes. Thomson Airways and Thomas Cook Airlines also run direct flights to another popular Cape Verde island, Boa Vista, from UK airports like London Gatwick and Manchester.
Once you’ve arrived in Cape Verde, island-hopping is best done via the local airline, TACV, although some islands don’t have an airport so you’ll need to jump on the ferry between São Vicente and Santo Antão, and between Fogo and Brava. On the islands themselves, your choice is usually between the fun – and slightly madcap – experience of the aluguers, or local buses or relatively inexpensive taxis around the main resorts.
Where to stay on a break in Sal, Cape Verde
If you’re looking for a hostel:
Hotel da Luz is close to the bay of Santa Maria, and offers affordable private rooms.
If you’re looking for a hotel:
You can get a great deal on suites and family rooms in Central Hotel on Santa Maria – and there’s a cafe right downstairs.
If you’re looking for luxury:
Hotel Dunas is perfect for couples escapes, as they have a spa on-site and rooms look out onto the ocean.
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