How does it feel? To stand in a forgotten chapel on an unsung Atlantic island and learn, belatedly, that two of the world's greatest navigators, Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus, prayed here before embarking on their voyages into the unknown?
History almost seeps up through the heraldic flagstones of Our Lady of the Rosary Church where da Gama worshipped in 1497 as he sought the first sea route to India. A year later Columbus prayed here on his final voyage to America. Explorers aside, I also had no idea beforehand that this Gothic chapel, built in 1495, is the world's oldest colonial church. Or that its forgotten town, Ribeira Grande de Santiago, established in 1462, was the first permanent European settlement anywhere in the tropics.
So where is this extraordinary place? Ribeira Grande, much diminished these days to a village and known as Cidade Velha ("Old Town"), sits on remote Santiago Island in the Cape Verde Islands, 500 kilometres off the west coast of Africa.
Five parts Portugal, 10 parts Africa, plus a dash of Brazil, this tiny, 10-island archipelago is officially known as the Republic of Cabo Verde; in colloquial English, it is simply Cape Verde. Music and exile, whaling and slavery are etched deep in its insular bones. Caboverdeans, as its people are known, carry a handsome blend of Iberian and African genes and speak Portuguese-based creole. Just two of their islands, Sal and Boa Vista, have major tourist resorts. The others – the ones I'm sailing amid – are untrammelled territory that attracts walkers, divers, fishermen and plain curious travellers.
The ocean blazes cobalt blue and the vast white sails hum against the wind as we head out from Santiago Island and the Cape Verde capital, Praia. Our vessel, the 88-metre, three-masted yacht, MY Le Ponant, has 47 passengers aboard, 33 crew and buckets of French champagne. Ahead of us is a week of island-hopping, volcanoes, market towns and creole culture.
We're not wealthy, but we are rich in people.Florentino
"Ribeira Brava, Ribeira Grande – the trouble is all our 'wild' and 'grand' rivers are waterless," laughs Jorge, our guide to Fogo (Fire) Island, as we roll through the desert landscape surrounding its Pico do Fogo volcano. The Fuji-like cone, which last erupted in 1995, tapers 2829 metres into a sapphire sky. The only slash of colour is the carmine flare of Christmas rose bushes that bloom amid the black lava. We hike for several hours across the crater's lunar flank and when our chattering stops the only sound is the crunch of black lava diamonds beneath the soles of our shoes.
Fogo's seafront capital, Sao Filipe, has cobblestone streets, an ancient fort and its own claim to a place in history. Established in 1543, this was the first European city (as opposed to the earlier settlement on Santiago) founded outside Europe. I meet few inhabitants on its winding streets, possibly because many of them are in America, Africa or Europe. Far more Caboverdeans live abroad than the half million who dwell on these beautiful, arid islands.
After fishing and marginal agriculture, emigration seems to be the main industry. During the 18th and 19th centuries many Cape Verdean men signed on to Nantucket whalers, thus establishing a link with the seaports of New England that endures today. Brava Island, for instance, has 7000 citizens at home, but 21,000 living in Massachusetts.
"I liked it over there," Carlos, a returned Brava man tells me, "But not half as much as I like it here." After 25 years in Boston he has come home to his island, the smallest (at 64 square kilometres) in the archipelago. "Brava is very peaceful. And I like the real low crime rate," he adds, tellingly.
We drive inland to Brava's "capital", Nova Sintra where the town museum celebrates the island's favourite son, the poet and composer Eugenio Tavares (1867-1930), one of the fathers of morna, Cape Verde's national music form. At the museum a local man strums his guitar and sings morna for us – bittersweet poems of love and departure that tell the fate of generations of Caboverdeans.
Each day we cross to a new island, head out on excursions and return by late afternoon to Le Ponant. Either moored in a bay or beside a town wharf, it is an elegant white wonder, towering over the skiffs and trawlers. The French-registered vessel with a six-nation crew is a class act where nothing seems a fuss. Minimal announcements, no kitsch chandeliers or tour-touting directors in naff white shoes. My cabin is a tasteful, shipshape affair with en suite, good double bed and an espresso machine. The dining on board is, of course, impeccably good.
My fellow passengers are mostly French and reveal in their own good time much greater competence in English than is at first apparent. There is no fixed seating on either the sunny aft deck or in Le Ponant's fine dining restaurant. By luck, I fall in with a polyglot gang: two Spanish-German sisters, a Flemish couple, an IT guy from Hamburg and an exuberant pair of women from Milan. Between eruptions of laughter, they slip casually back and forth across half a dozen language barriers. Fortunately, for monolingual me, their default tongue is English.
"We're not wealthy, but we are rich in people," says a local man, Florentino on Sao Vicente Island. It's easy to see what he means. There is an absence of Porsches and bling, but also of grinding poverty. The Caboverdeans appear robust and healthy – and are among the healthiest in Africa, enjoying the continent's longest life expectancy (71 years for men and 79 years for women).
Thanks to its literary and musical heritage, our next island, Sao Nicolau is known as the Intellectual Island, although I spot no obvious boffins who might elaborate on, for instance, the late Cesaria Evora, Cape Verde's "Barefoot Diva" and "Queen of Morna" who brought their music to an international audience. We press on to the market town of Ribeira Brava whose eponymous "wild river" is, as Jorge predicted, bone dry. No matter. Pastel-coloured villages give way to an interior plateau of drystone walls and cassava plantations. Here, we pile out of our minibus to examine the ancient, multi-limbed Dragon Tree (Dracaena draco) that survives on these islands and few other places on earth.
At the mountain village of Quemadas a dozen teenagers in costume await us beside a church. They pair off, start a music track, and then swirl and neatly step their way through the island's signature dance, the mazurka. We are told, proudly, that it originated here on Sao Nicolau before spreading to Europe and the world. To mention that the Encyclopedia Britannica describes the mazurka as a Polish folk dance traditionally performed to bagpipes would seem churlish. Sao Nicolau's mazurka, as danced by the kids of Quemadas in bare feet on cobbles, is energetic and graceful; and, I suspect, is all the more lovely for lacking the surreal accompaniment of Polish bagpipes.
Our excursions inevitably lead by lunchtime to a good village restaurant where the local red wine is heavy, the beer better and the island-brewed cane liquor, called grogue, is like a good kick in the slats. The fresh seafood, especially my favourite, swordfish carpaccio with olive oil and salt, is unfailingly succulent.
We sail between sainted isles dedicated by their Portuguese Catholic discoverers to the likes of James, Anthony, Nicholas, Luiza and Vincent – who might have withdrawn their naming rights or handed back their halos at seeing what followed discovery and settlement: slavery on a grand scale. Ribeira Grande on Santiago, the largest island, was once a hub of the West African slave trade to the plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean; it grew to be for a time the second richest city in the Portuguese empire. The trade was abolished in 1876 but nevertheless these islands remained prosperous during the days of sail, thanks to being astride Europe's shipping lanes to the Americas, India and Australia. With the collapse of Portugal's empire in 1975, Cape Verde gained its independence.
Handmade roads of a million cobbles. Town squares paved in black and white wave patterns. Seaside towns decked in a full paintbox palette. Always a scattering of permanently unfinished buildings (once the structure is complete the owners must start paying taxes) and churches that were centuries old before Captain Cook ever saw the sea. Cliff-hanging roads vertiginously high above the ocean. We bounce through these landscapes, seeing them change dramatically not only from island to island but from leeward coast to windward coast.
The rain-shadow side of a Cape Verde island might resemble a Saharan shore – endless sands and sky, perfect mainly for eagles and windsurfers – and yet, just across its central range on the windward side we see valley oases dense with sugarcane and banana plantations, hemmed by lush volcanic hills.
Towards the end of our cruise, we moor in a sheltered bay. The tide is low so the captain anchors stern-to in deeper water 50 metres from the dock. Stevedores secure our mooring lines to the wharf bollards and we shuttle ashore in Zodiacs. After our day-long excursion around the island we reboard at dusk, expecting as usual to soon get under way. Night falls. But Le Ponant fails to sail.
The local wharfies have clocked off and gone home, leaving us still hitched to the dock. An order comes from the bridge. A French sailor promptly strips to his Speedos, dives in and swims ashore. Climbing the wharf, he casts off our stern lines and, to applause, swims back to the ship. Le Ponant may now sail on.
GETTING THERE Fly with Emirates or other carriers to Lisbon, from where it is a four-hour flight with TAP Portugal south to the Cape Verde capital, Praia. See flytap.com
This is a year-round destination with skies clearest between February and June. Rainy season, if it happens, is between August and October.
STAYING THERE In Praia, Santiago Island, Hotel Pestana Tropico see pestana.com/en/pestana-tropico. On Fogo Island, BB Colonial lodge see zebratravel.net
SAILING THERE Le Ponant's next seven-night Cape Verde cruise, ex-Praia, departs November 21. Priced from $5470 pp twin share. Details see en.ponant.com; or phone 1300 737 178.
FIVE THINGS TO DO
See the World Heritage site, Fort Real de Sao Filipe (1590), the historic church and ruins at Cidade Velha, just west of the capital, Praia on Santiago Island.
Hike to the crater of Pico do Fogo volcano on Fogo Island, or to the terraced village of Fontainhas on Santo Antao.
Catch a performance of morna music, made famous by the Cesaria Evora (1941-2011), the "Barefoot Diva".
Go surfing or windsurfing on Sal, Santiago or Vicente islands.
Carnival in February, Cape Verde's big annual fiesta, features elaborate, Rio-style samba school competitions; notably on Santiago, Vicente and Nicolau islands.
The writer was a guest of Compagnie du Ponant.