Sal, Cape Verde, April 2015

Cape Verde is a country consisting of 10 volcanic islands 350 miles off the coast off west Africa. Originally discovered and colonised by the Portuguese, it gained independence in 1975. In recent years, the construction of international airports on the islands of Sal and Boa Vista have opened them up to package tourism from Europe.

I first went to Sal in Cape Verde in 2008 and stayed in the town of Santa Maria at the Hotel Pontão on a bed and breakfast basis. My intention had been to do much the same this time, but there where no seats left on the Thomas Cook flight. Thomson were quite a bit more expensive and the only scheduled option is TAP via Portugal. There were still package holidays available with Thomas Cook so I ended up booked on a week at the all inclusive Clubhotel Crioula. I paid extra for 20kgs of hold luggage which, with the measly 5kgs of hand luggage allowance, was just enough for my dive kit without a wetsuit. Divers may get an extra 5kgs allowance on showing a card, but from the website, it's impossible to be sure.

The flight out was on a newly refitted plane, a 757 300 series. This had been configured for short haul, so there was no entertainment, the seats didn't recline and were very 'firm'. Unfortunately the flight to Sal is 5½-6 hours, hardly short haul. The food was also extra, but a Boots meal deal from the airport fixed that. My tablet solved the entertainment problem, sadly there was little to be done about the rock hard seats.

Just before arrival, we were told that anyone who had booked more than 7 days in advance should have had their visa arranged, which was good and €25 saved. It would have been nice if it had been possible to find this information out when booking but the Thomas Cook website had very little useful information in this regard.

Immigration was reasonably quick, the bags came and then the biggest queue was to be checked off by the Thomas Cook staff, of which there were only two, and be told which bus to go to. The transfer is only 25km and the road is dual carriageway so we were soon at the Crioula. We checked in and had to pay the €2 a night hotel tax in cash. I expect this if I've booked myself, I don't really expect it on a package holiday. There was no mention of it in the booking documents just in the fact sheet they handed to us on arrival in Sal.

The room at the hotel was spacious, had air con which was a little noisy but it wasn't that warm at night anyway. Cape Verde lies in the trade winds so it's windy most of the time. The day temperatures were in the high 20s but it didn't feel that hot. The sun is strong though as evinced by the number of pink bodies around the pool. When the sun dropped, you needed a light jacket or hoody as it was too cold for a shirt. The wind means that it's a popular place for kite surfing. They hang out on the east beaches. The dive sites are on the south and west coasts.

Food at the hotel was buffet style though it wasn't self service. The food was about the standard you'd expect for that class hotel on an all inclusive package and the variety was reasonable.

Boris Wreck

The drinks were less good. The beer was allegedly craft beer, but it didn't appear to have a name, was cloudy and was served in very small glasses. It was drinkable but not the best. The fruit juices were actually more like watery squashes and the fizzy drinks were made by a company called kul. The lemon and lime varieties weren't bad, the cola was terrible. The only resemblance to Coke was the colour. Some cocktails were included though they suffered from containing these ingredients. I tried a caipirinha for research purposes and it was possibly the worst I've ever had. The red wine was definitely the safest option. Bottles of water weren't included and cost €1.50 and you could only pay by a card that you charged at reception.

There was also an animation team who did dance lessons and step aerobics by the pool in the afternoon. There was a daily show at 10pm apparently.

Fortunately town is only a 20 minutes walk or a €3 taxi ride away. There you can get a pint of Strela or Super Bock for €3 and you can actually see through it. There are several bars and restaurants in town and the liveliest seemed to be the Ocean Cafe. Most places in town take Euros or escudos. The escudos is fixed at 110 to the euro though most places round that to 100, so if you're spending a lot of money, it makes sense to get escudos. There are a number of ATMs.

I'd booked my diving with Cabo Verde Diving who I'd used last time. They were also conveniently located in the hotel next door, so it was a 5 minute walk down the beach though they picked us up the first day as we had kit. You pack your kit at the centre, put it in a string bag that they supply, then they bus you into town to the jetty and the diving is from one of their two RIBs. As RIBs go, they're nice boats, probably the best I saw of all the operators.

The first dive was supposed to be Pontinha but the current was too strong when we got there, so the revised plan was to drift between the two reef sites. It was quite a quick drift and we covered most of it in 20 minutes before finishing our dive in the shelter of the rocks. The site consisted of a rocky reef with some coral growth and plenty of fish in the ledges in the rocks. I seemed to spend half the dive avoiding people kicking me in the head. Maximum depth was 18m, with a dive time of 49 minutes. Sea temperature was a not particularly warm 21C.

The 2nd dive was the wreck of the San Antão, a small wreck which has collapsed in the middle but the bows and stern are still intact. The shotline is tied by the rudder though the prop has been removed. There was a lot of fish life including lots of juvenile porcupine fish. There was also a large turtle asleep on it. It's relatively shallow at 12m, which was fortunate given the short surface interval.

The following day, we dived the Boris. This was a boat which was seized by the authorities carrying illegal immigrants from Senegal and was then sank for divers. At 28m, it's a deeper dive. It was also very popular with 4 boats on it, so it resembled diver soup at times. The current was strong enough to make hanging on the shot a necessity and I wished I'd worn gloves because of the sharp growth on it. The wreck had some yellow coral growth on the hull and there were a few places that you could get inside. Coming back up the line in the current with all those divers was a bit of a pain.

2nd dive was Champignon, a rocky reef with some hard coral growth on it. The rocks had overhangs full of fish including lots of soldier fish. There was also a cuttlefish. Depth was 14m.

The third day saw us go up the west coast and dive a deeper reef called Peridão in 24m. This was followed by a shallow reef Farol (lighthouse) in 12m. We finished this dive on the wreck of the Calaia. This was an old steamship so is very flat apart from the boiler which was an impressive sigh, surrounded by a shoal of fish.

On the 4th day we did something different. In the north of the island are some caves which were formed as lava tubes during past eruptions. So we got a mini bus up past the capital, Espargos, and then past the port where the tarmac runs out. A bit further along a dirt road, we stopped at the rocky shoreline. Entry was a giant stride off the rocks and we descended to the seabed in 14m before swimming for 5 minutes to the entrance of a cave called Dois Olhos. It's a lot smaller than its Mexican namesake, but also has a twin entrance, like two eyes. The roof of the entrance is covered in soft yellow corals. The cave is a Y shape, so the plan was to keep the wall on our left and not go down the other tunnel which is a dead end. It's quite a big cave with plenty of room to swim two or three abreast. Inside were red coloured fish, trumpet fish and shrimps hiding in the cracks. We went out the exit, turned around and went back the way we came. It took about 15 minutes to swim slowly through and at the point where the three tunnels join, there is no natural light. Exiting the water was via a metal ladder which we'd brought with us and wasn't too tricky. Dive time was 50 minutes to a depth of about 18m.

Farol Reef

The second cave Regona was a five minute walk up the shore. Who knows how many of these caves there are on the island. The entrance was prettier than the other one as there were black coral trees in addition to the ceiling of yellow corals. This cave is a tunnel with 4 entrances so you're never that far from natural light though there are still dark places. Depth and time were much the same as the previous dive. The caves make a nice change of scene and are a must when diving Cape Verde in my opinion. They're not suited to beginners or unconfident divers, though the sandy bottom is very coarse, so you can't kick it up really badly. I think it be hard to get lost in them but I'm sure someone would manage.

On the last day, we went back to the Boris. It was a much more pleasant experience this time as there were fewer divers on it and there was no current. So we were able to do our safety stop near the line rather than hanging from it like the other 15 or so divers. The second dive was back to Farol reef.

It was an enjoyable week's break and the diving was good. There is less coral than some Caribbean destinations and the water is quite a bit colder because the islands are in the Canarian current which is a cold water current from the north. However, there are plenty of fish and the islands' isolation means that there are a number of varieties that aren't found elsewhere. The cave dive sites also add another dimension to the diving. That said, I don't think I'd want to do two weeks diving there. 10 dives was about the right number, making it ideal for a family holiday with some diving or a cheapish week of warm water diving. The big advantage over the Caribbean is that it is nearer. You can fly home the same day of the week as you arrived avoiding the overnight flight home typical with Caribbean destinations and save a day off work.

Given the choice, I wouldn't go there on a package again. I'd book flights and somewhere in town separately. Hopefully BA will start going there one day, so I can fly in a bit more comfort with a decent luggage allowance.

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