Fernando de Noronha, Brazil

Dive! Dive! Dive! No, not a line from a submarine movie but the call to Fernando de Noronha, Brazil, a great dive and snorkel venue which is not very well known to many people other than Brazilians.

“Noroonya,” as it is pronounced, is a volcanic archipelago about 250 miles off the northeast coast of Brazil. Brazilians call it “The Emerald of the Atlantic” because it is so pristine. I visited the island for four days, March 4-7, 2007.

Fernando de Noronha was first described by Amerigo Vespucci in 1503, was used off and on by French, English and Dutch pirates and finally was occupied by the Portuguese, then Brazil, which used it as a federal prison. In 1942 the Americans, who were also in Natal, ferried planes and equipment to North Africa, using the island as a military base. The U.S. also had a missile-tracking station there from 1957 to 1962. It continued as a prison until 1972 and in 1988 became a national maritime park, opening to the public.

The island developed slowly under strict environmental controls. No more that 100 people are allowed in each day, and a fee of $15 per person per day is collected in advance at the airport. They know you are coming because you must apply for entry ahead of time. Incidentally, no one, even Brazilians, may move there unless they marry in.

Pousadas, small B&Bs in private homes, abound on the island. Some may be ideal; all come with breakfast and very friendly hosts. The bed-and-breakfast that was booked with my tour was unacceptable to me, so I stayed at Zé Maria (Rua Nice Cordeiro, 01 Floresta Velha, Fernando de Noronha, Pernambuco, Brazil; phone 81 3619 1258 or visit www.pousadazemaria.com. br). A suite for about $350 a night, including breakfast, was all that was available. With a large bedroom, living room, complete kitchen and private patio, it was more than I needed by myself, but I loved it.

Zé Maria is a small resort hotel with about 20 rooms and suites, an excellent restaurant, a pool, hammocks in the trees and a killer view of the rock that is the signature landmark of Noronha. It is very eco-friendly, too, with hydroponic vegetables such as lettuces, herbs and tomatoes growing along balcony rails and around the grounds. Diners may choose their own veggies for salad, and the chef will toss them up for dinner.

Being surrounded by water, it is no surprise that the sushi there is excellent. Meals ran about $25 and were fantastic. Zé Maria belongs to a collection of gourmet restaurants in Brazil that are judged by many high standards.

Among the many attractions on the island are the spinner dolphins. Every day at sunrise, about 200 to 300 dolphins swim into “their” bay to rest, play and reproduce. They go out in the late afternoon en masse to search for food at night. The government, scientists and students who do research closely protect them. You cannot swim or boat in their special bay, but you can watch them come and go from a bluff above.

Turtles are also protected when they return to shore to lay their eggs and again when the eggs hatch and the little ones go to sea. Only one or two in a thousand hatchlings will reach adulthood, they claim. Five of the world’s seven species of turtle call this island their home.

There are over 200 species of birds there and several kinds of lizards. One day I watched a 15-inch lizard (mostly tail) slither along the hydroponic railing near me in search of insects. He was successful.

One afternoon I took a small boat cruise (included in the package) along the inland coast. Spinners were slicing the water alongside. I also saw a few turtles inspecting our boat. On this trip we snorkeled a bit, then were served barracuda sashimi, complete with soy sauce and wasabi — high tea on Fernando de Noronha!

Another day, I tried a different type of snorkel adventure, being towed behind a boat going 5-8 mph while holding onto a clear plastic Plana Sub board and wearing a mask and snorkel — no fins needed. It was the lazy man’s way to see the fishies. The concierge at Zé Maria booked this for me for $40 including tip. We also saw manta rays, needlefish, more turtles and sergeant majors big enough to eat. A beautiful damselfi sh, “donzelinha,” is unique to Noronha and is easy to spot.

Divers will find a plethora of deeper-water sites, 16 close in, with many wrecks, lemon and nurse sharks (not considered dangerous), rays, curious dolphins and turtles large and small. Truthfully, I didn’t see as much coral as I have in other places, but there are reefs and submarine rock formations to explore along with the wrecks, 80- to 100foot visibility guaranteed.

Solo diving is prohibited, and there are only three dive schools to take you out. In addition to the cost of the boat, there is a $10-per-day environmental tax. You can rent any equipment you need. I did not dive on this trip but spoke to several divers who said this area was among the best, including Palau and Hawaii.

Surfing is mild, good for beginners or intermediates, and the beaches are incredibly clean and not crowded, some even deserted at times. The water temperature is delightfully warm, around 77 degrees year-round.

Other land activities include dune buggies, hikes, guided walks and historical tours, all under strict ecological supervision, of course.

The island is warm and humid year-round but with a sea breeze all day.

Portuguese is spoken all over, but some English-speakers can be found to help you out. They didn’t seem to like my fractured Spanish.

Gas, food — everything — is imported and fairly expensive, as you would expect on a small island. Bottled water is recommended.

The electrical outlets supply 220V, so bring adaptors and converters.

Noronha is not easy to get to. You must leave from Recife or Natal. Flights on TAM take one hour and 20 minutes. There is a 2-hour time change from Miami.

You will need a Brazilian visa, of course, and be prepared to pay $100 by postal money order ONLY for this.

I made my land arrangements with Sol International (Box 970814, Boca Raton, FL 33497; 800/765 5657, www.solintl.com); Cecelia Wraga runs this and is very knowledgeable about designing a personal itinerary, especially for Brazil.

The air portion of the trip — from Miami to Manaus, then to Noronha through Recife both ways, then to São Paulo and back to Miami — cost about $1,300. The land

portion — including a 4-day stay in Manaus and a 5-day stay in São Paulo, both at 5-star hotels and with breakfasts, plus port/hotel transfers and several excursions in the Amazon and Noronha — cost about $2,000.

It is worth going if you want peace and quiet, eco-awareness and a great snorkel, beach and dive experience in truly beautiful surroundings. Plan to spend at least four days, but don’t forget that $15-per-day fee!


San Francisco, CA