[FERNANDO DE NORONHA,  BRAZIL] — It had rained all morning.  I was driving like a mad man in my bumble-bee colored dune buggy, down a rutted muddy road to a clearing on the edge of a steep cliff. Not intentionally crazy, mind you, but out of necessity. The little dune buggy was so small and my legs were so long that my knees straddled the teeny rubber steering wheel. I had to steer with my arms between my legs, crab-like.

Nearing the edge of the cliff, I had to slam on the brakes with all my power to slow down, not just because of the slippery mud, but because they brakes had as much grip as if I was rubbing a Teva sandal directly on the tire to make it stop.  I was sweating like a sailor as the buggy wouldn’t slow down. I prayed for a boat anchor I could throw out into the slop so I wouldn’t roll over the edge.

As it finally rolled to a stop, the fiberglass buggy’s tiny lawnmower engine gasped its last breath, just inches from the edge cliff. The spray of crashing surf soaked my face from waves thirty feet directly below.

“Now THAT was awesome!” I cried out to no one but me. (Nobody else was around.)

Welcome to Brasil.

Fernando de Noronha — Brazil’s Island Paradise

My sign of a perfect vacation?  Not seeing another American for the whole trip.  Fernando de Noronha is one of those places.

Fernando de Noronha  sits on the tippy-top of a giant underwater volcano that rises 4,000 feet from the ocean floor, about 300 miles off the state of Pernambuco and the northeast coast of Brazil. The 21 lily pad islands that make up the archipelago are all just peaks of the ginormous volcano below.

The geology is like nothing I’ve ever seen, the perfect set for a Bond film: soaring granite monoliths, wide bays with sea turtles and spinning porpoises and clear blue-green water that shimmers deep.

It’s the clearest, cleanest water in all of Brazil. Known for it’s scuba diving and snorkeling.

Dois Irmãos hero shot
I mean….

Its history is a little bit like Alcatraz; dating back to the 1500s, it was a Portuguese then Brazilian penal colony and military base for hundreds of years, even spent a stint of time as an Air France refueling base for those glorious flying clipper planes, the last fueling stop before the long crossing of the Atlantic.

Then they finally realized it was so amazing, they turned it into a huge nature preserve — now a protected UNESCO World Heritage site. About 70% of the island is protected.

Dois Irmãos coastal view
The view looking down the coast from Dois Irmãos.

Everyone in Brazil knows of this place, often cited as the ultimate Brazilian vacation paradise — “Ahhh, Fernando….the most beautiful.”  It’s a little hard to get to, you have to fly to São Paolo, then a five or six hour flight to Recife or Natal, then take another hour flight out. But that makes it better, keeps people away.

Almost everywhere I went during my week there everyone asked: “Where are you from? How did you find out about this place?”

Only a few handfuls of tourists are allowed on the island at any one time — which further assures you’ll have it all to yourself.  You’ll need a permit to even land on the island, in fact, you have to reserve a permit before booking your flight.

There are only a few decent hotels but a lot of extremely affordable independent hotels and B&Bs.

Fernando de Noronha map
The island is about an hour flight and 220 miles off the coast of Brazil’s beautiful northeastern coast.
Fernando de Noronha volcano
Fernando de Noronha is really a bunch of islands that are the tippy top of a huge underwater volcano.

Getting Around on Fernando de Noronha

The main island is very small, only 6 miles long and 2.5 miles wide. There are no cars, just the scary-safe dune buggies to rent for the week to zip around the island’s one main road and ride the muddy, bumpy roads to the blue edges. Just give the brakes some extra room to do their job…or bring an ⚓!

Fernando de Noronha dune buggy and surfboards
Basically, the little island has one paved 4 mile road that goes through the top middle of the island.  From there, you take some extremely bumpy dirt and puddle-strewn roads to the edges of the island, then paths down to the beaches. The main mode of transportation is dune buggies, even the taxis.  You need to rent a dune buggy for your stay, but they’re cheap. (Dune buggies are small, btw….and not necessarily known for their crash worthiness.)
Praia do Sancho Fernando de Noronha map

Clown Car. In these #buggieswithnobrakes there’s only “one-leg room.”  I  had to drive with my arms through the legs. And turning…I looked like a drunk piano player…. Amen.  There’s only one main road, so you can’t get lost.

It is an adventureland of fun with diving, snorkeling, surfing, beaches and boat rides on the agenda every day.

Dois Irmãos big surf
You really feel like you are on top of an underwater volcano, the rich volcanic soil rolling down into the sea.

Basically, the island is more Adventureland than a relaxing, sit-by-the-pool resorts place.  I brought five books to read for the week and only got through one.

Each day, you pick a different beach and then set off to explore. Or go snorkeling, scuba diving, take an awesome boat ride, swim, etc. And like the rest of Brazil, there’s usually a beach shack ready to sell you a caipirinha or cool coconut to chill your chill.

Each beach has its own character and challenge… just to get to it. That’s what makes it fun. Some you can drive right up to, others you must hike to, some you can only reach by boat.

Praia do Sancho from above
Praia do Sancho from above.

The island is pretty rustic, it’s been only 15 years since this whole conversion to protected tourist destination started — at the time I was there in 2012, the internet there was like the whole island sharing one dial-up line.  I’m sure it has improved.

It has a few nice restaurants, a few nice hotels, but the rest is pretty honest Brazil. Spartan, but good.  As in the rest of Brazil, the star ratings of most hotels are a bit inflated.

They’ve done it right though, making it easy to explore — the hotels can book your activities and most places will bill your hotel directly, then you only have pay once at the end of your week. At the time I was there, they only recently added ATMs on the island, before you had to bring all your money with you. I still would.  Not that much English is spoken, but the people are super nice and patient.

The coastline is protected, so there aren’t any hotels right on the water, which is what makes the island special and unspoilt. There are only a few licensed tour operators (scuba, boats, etc.) to employ the local people. So the whole island has a calmness and you’re not inundated with people begging you to take a tour.

They have tight regulations on the local population, which hovers around 3,000. If you want to have a baby, you have to travel to the mainland, as there is no maternity hospital on the island. It recently made the news when the first person gave birth there in 12 years… a woman who didn’t even realize she was pregnant.

Five nights is a good amount of time to stay on the island, which still leaves you with more to see upon your return.

The Beaches of Fernando de Noronha

Dois Irmãos

Dois Irmãos during the day
Dois Irmãos is one of the most well-known rock formations. Make sure you go back again and again, the light and water change the looks throughout the day.
Dois Irmãos view coast
Jurassic Park… wait, it’s the island of Fernando de Noronha, Brazil


Praia do Sancho

Praia do Sancho from above
Praia do Sancho is the most famous beach on the island. Ranked as one of the Top 10 Beaches in the World, mostly because of how difficult it is to get to. Either by boat or by the crazy way you’re about to see…

Praia Conceição

This was my favorite beach, with that iconic giant mound of granite Morro do Pico looming over the beach, a great beach bar to grab a bite, body surf and listen to great music.

Other Beaches on Fernando de Noronha

You don’t need many instructions on how to get around the island. There’s only one road, with tentacles that splay off to the island edges to the dozen or more fantastic beaches.  But here’s what they look like so you can anticipate what you’ll see.

Praia do Sueste is right below the Pousada Maravilha, you can walk there.

Praia do Sueste. As a protected marine reserve, there are all sorts of sea turtle hatcheries. Sometimes you can see them hatch and run for the sea. You have to rent an underwater guide to go snorkeling in Praia do Sueste. Only costs a few dollars. Through all the calamity, I tried to do it myself and wasted time…and nearly got washed out to sea. Once I had a guide, they took me to where all the underwater action is.

There’s a cool little chapel at the top of the island, by the area called Air France, where the flying boats used to change crews and would stop to refuel after crossing the Atlantic. I can only imagine how magical this place must have been in full glory.

Where to Stay on Fernando de Noronha

Pousada Maravilha view

I first saw this pool at Pousada Maravilha in Taschen’s The Hotel Book years ago and instantly knew I had to find out where this place was…and then go there. (Their pictures are better than my crummy ones.)  The island is amazing, but this view made it hard to get up and go explore.

Pousada Maravilha hammock
Bungalow >>>>>>> beach The view from your own private bungalow is worth every penny.

Pousada Maravilha has one of the best views of any hotel in the world.

Pousada Maravilha midnight stars
10:46pm A full moon screaming, but not enough to out shout the stars.After seeing jaw-dropping beaches and soaring granite peaks all day, it’s an extra bonus to get a star show at night. Being 220 miles off the mainland, Fernando de Noronha in Brazil is hard to beat for looking up.
Pousada Maravilha bungalow patio
I think of this nearly every single day.

Water Sports on Fernando de Noronha

If you’ve never been to Brazil, here’s the thing to do, all along its bazillion miles of sandy coastline: Each day you find a colorful old wooden schooner and jump on with an always fun group of Brazilians— cute honeymooners, families, grandmothers, kids, etc. — for an afternoon of trolling the inaccessible beaches and rocky coastline, ducking into clear green coves, swimming to the isolated Gilligan’s Island beach bars, snorkeling and all-day bobbing to the ever-present beat of Brazil.

It’s a hoot and never gets old. The schooners are a bargain, come in all shapes and sizes, always crank an awesome soundtrack and serve up cheap beer, caipirinhas and surprisingly good food. And smiles.

And like all of Brazil, everyone welcomes you into the party. The best vibe in the world.

The island has one of the biggest spinner dolphin populations, so you’ll see them all over. And there’s a vast organization focused on raising those huge green sea turtles in protected areas.  So the whole preserve is about turtles and dolphins. Awesome.

You can be snorkeling and look left and realize you’re in a bunch of huge turtles, or sharks, or dolphins. Amazing.

Where to Eat on Fernando de Noronha

The island is small, so there are few fine dining options, mostly based in the few top hotels. The rest if excellent local fare. But here are some of my recommendations.

Mergulhão is perfectly situated right next to the port, so you can go out on a boat and be back to dine and enjoy the perfect sunset.

Other Travel Resources

Finding good information about the island in English is hard to find..maybe purposefully?  So here are a bunch of articles I found:

Travel & Leisure lists it as one of the most Romantic Islands in the world.  Here’s a great overview of the island in another Travel & Leisure article. NYtimes Magazine.

A great article on Culture Trip on what you need to know before traveling to Fernando de Noronha. And this story on The Aquatic Eden of Fernando de Noronha on CNN.

Other articles on these great sites:

Wikipedia.  Conde Nast Traveler. NYTimes. The Guardian.  And another great Conde Nast Traveler article. Hurry, before more show up.

Last visited March 2012

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