It’s an enjoyable dive, but the complaint from the surface continues here; it feels quite disorganized underwater, which can be both frustrating and unsafe. The system discussed on the surface of who would lead, who would follow…. quickly evaporates, and our group of instructors, photographers and fun divers spreads out over a surprisingly large area. It’s hard to tell at times which direction we should be swimming in as the order becomes confused. More than once, I’m beckoned by one staff member, then told to get back into a position by another, which is both unnecessary and a little stressful.
We make a second dive at another site, Caieiras, where the rock formations are teeming with even more colorful life, including several Green Turtles. I swim alongside one of them at a polite distance. A nurse shark swims calmly, unthreateningly, among us. Later, I spot the “underwater American football” shape that is the Puffer Fish. And back on the surface, as we return to port, more than a hundred Spinner Dolphins swim and leap across the bay, more than making up for this morning missed sighting.
Fish Served 1,000 Ways
There’s every chance the same kinds of creatures from the day’s diving made it onto the menu at Pousada Ze Maria; there aren’t many kinds of fish not here in their twice–weekly extravaganza, Festival Gastronomico Ze Maria. There are 32 types of lettuce grown fresh on the restaurant’s balcony, the owner Ze Maria tells me, inside. Every inch of the long table is covered with ceviche, sushi, sashimi, baked fish, fried, fish, grilled fish, fish in various sauce, shrimp in various sauces, a giant bowl of paella…
A guitarist plays “The Girl From Ipanema” and other mellow Brazilian tunes, then the seafood is replaced by an equally impressive array of desserts: cakes, ice cream, mousse, and liquers. Ze Maria proudly gathers the diners to the table before each course so he and the chefs can introduce them to the dishes and applaud their work.
Patricia picks me up in the morning in a rented beach buggy for a tour of the historic sites on the island. These buggies are the most common way to get around an island, not overly comfortable or glamorous, but fun and useful on the bumpy sandy roads.
Interestingly, given Noronha’s current status as a paradise, the island was a penal colony from 1736 all the way up to 1937. And later, during the political upheaval of the 1900s, political prisoners were brought here. From a coastal vantage point, Patricia points to the adjacent island Ilha Rafe (Rat Island), which was used to separate troublesome or revolutionary figures from the other inmates. The islands feel nothing like a prison anymore.
Patricia drops me at the port to meet the Projeto Navi. This impressive–sounding name is matched by the cool futuristic vessel that floats in to pick up a dozen or so passengers, many straight from the visiting cruise ships that stop here. Once inside, it is, essentially, a very swanky take on the classic glass–bottomed boat.
We go out for an hour. There’s no English spoken on board, so I understand very little of the host’s talk, but I pick out a couple of lemon sharks, stingrays, turtles and a trumpet fish down below. But having got up close with both scuba and snorkel, I find it a little underwhelming. It’s a pleasant excursion, but can’t match being in the water with the creatures. And, as with the diving, I found the service quite impersonal, a “ship ‘em in then ship ‘em out approach.”
By contrast, Mergulhao (Gastronomic Brasileira), a recently opened clifftop restaurant overlooking the Praia de Porto, Morro do Pico and the Bay of San Antonio, is one of the places that gets everything totally right. The atmosphere inside, with customers in beachwear and young, attractive staff with punk-chic clothing and spiky hair, like Gap commercial models, creates an informal atmosphere. But there’s attention to detail where it matters: in the menu and food. As I sip my first caipirinha, the chatty waitress suggests a pre-dinner massage and leads me to a small wooden hut, filled with candle lanterns. The oil massage is professional, firm and relaxing. There’s a bit of traffic noise from the road not far away, but mostly I listen to the sound of waves breaking on the beach below.
Relaxing even further with a local beer back at the table, I tuck into a Tartar de Atum starter, sliced cold tuna with fresh mango and sesame, served with homemade bread. The menu offers Crazy fish and Zen Fish, but I take our waitress’ recommendation of Peixe Crocante (Crispy Fish), a hearty serving, stuffed with shrimp, heart of palm, and rich coalho cheese, fried and served on mashed pumpkin with a leek sauce. From our front table, we have a view of the sun setting over the port and the ocean which, along with the food and staff, make the meal here an undoubted highlight of a stay on Noronha.
I stay overnight at Maravilha in one of their three bright, modern apartments. The staff here are fantastic, as it the location; the hotel deserves it’s fine reputation. Breakfast served outside with views of the 6000 square meter garden, Baia do Sueste, and the Atlantic ocean is a steadily arriving selection of yoghurt and granola, warm breads and pastries with cheese, a very good cheese and mushroom omelette, plus tea served in one of the coolest little pots I’ve seen. It is finished off with a ridiculously big rich chocolate muffin.
I walk it off with a two kilometer hike to Praia do Atalaia, a shallow pool of exceptionally clear water that’s great for snorkeling, surrounded by black lava rocks. Groups are limited and there’s also a monitored time limit to protect the integrity of the site. Black and red crabs scuttle to shelter as I walk to the pool. Inside the water I’d estimate I can see 50 meters or further. Mostly, there are just small fish. I miss a small shark that another group sees, but do find an octopus, his body and eye just visible through a small hole in the rock.
Impressive natural wonders like this, easy to stumble upon here, means Fernando de Noronha lives up to the reputation it enjoys in Brazil. Although not everyone here manages to match the fantastic location and natural beauty with the quality of service Noronha merits, plenty of people—especially the folks at Mergulhao, Maravilha and Triboju—have really nailed how to make the best of this paradise island.
If You Go:
Dehouche runs tours of Fernando de Noronha that can be booked from abroad and you can find more information about the inland from the Noronha tourism site. See the links within the story for the top hotels and restaurants on the island.
Story by Graeme Green, photos by the author except where indicated.