Set sail with the Saharan trade winds and rock and roll across stormy Atlantic seas for days. Then, just before you're halfway to Brazil, an island rises into view. You have reached Cape Verde, an arrow-shaped archipelago that is the region's most Westernised country, where the people are richer and better educated than almost anywhere on the continent. Though it may appear as a set of flyspecks poking out of the eastern Atlantic, this 10-island archipelago packs a punch. On Santo Antao, craggy peaks hide piercing green valleys of flowers and sugarcane, ideal for epic hikes. Sao Vicente is home to the cultural capital of the islands, Mindelo, which throbs with bars and music clubs. On Boa Vista, Sal and Maio, wispy white dunes merge with indigo-blue seas on unspoiled beaches of soft sand. Throw in the constant beat of music that Cape Verde is famed for and the renowned morabeza (Creole for hospitality) of its people and you'll see why many have come - and never left.
Cape Verde's capital and largest city, Praia, has the sprawling suburbs of any developing city. In the centre, standing on a large fortresslike plateau (hence the name Plato) and overlooking the ocean, is an attractive old quarter with enough to keep you happily occupied for a day.
The good news is the beach. A sublime strip of gentle sand and ever-so-blue waters with world-class windsurfing and lots of fun-in-the-sun activities. But avert your eyes from this view and you're in for a shock. Santa Maria, the king of Cape Verdean resorts, is a grim, wind-battered building site that in places resembles a war zone more than an international holiday resort. There are several banks with ATMs (although they tend to run out of cash on weekends) and numerous internet cafes.
Set around a moon-shaped port and ringed by barren mountains, Mindelo is Cape Verde's answer to the Riviera, complete with cobblestone streets, candy-coloured colonial buildings and yachts bobbing in a peaceful harbour. Around a bend is the country's deepest industrial port, which in the late 19th century was a key coaling station for British ships and remains the source of the city's relative prosperity. Mindelo has long been the country's cultural centre, producing more than its share of poets and musicians, including the late Cesaria Evora, and it's still a fine place to hear morna while downing some grogue. Savvy locals, plus a steady flow of travellers, support a number of cool bistros and bars.
Santiago, the largest member of the archipelago and the first to be settled, has a little bit of all the other islands. It has the sandy beaches, the desert plains, the verdant valleys and the mountainous interior as well as the capital, Praia. All this makes it a worthy stop on your Cape Verdean rambles.
Small, stark and undulating, Sao Vicente on its own would be fairly forgettable were it not for the beautiful Mediterranean town of Mindelo. Cape Verde's prettiest city and home to one of Africa's most raucous festivals. If you do need a break from the city, Mt Verde (750m), the island's highest peak and only touch of green, is an easy day's hike. There are also some windy but fine beaches at Baia das Gatas, Calhau and Salamansa.
Though flat, desolate and overdeveloped, Sal boasts more tourists than any other island. They fall into three categories: the package-holiday crowd, hardcore windsurfers and those in transit to more interesting islands. Our advice: Skip Sal if you can. The largest town is Espargos, right next to the international airport, but most people stay near the fine beach in Santa Maria, 18km to the south.
For many people the main reason for visiting Cape Verde is for spectacular Santo Antao, and it really is a good reason. This dizzyingly vertical isle, ruptured with canyons, gorges and valleys, offers some of the most amazing hiking in West Africa. The second-largest island in the archipelago, it is the only one that puts the verde in Cape Verde. As you approach it from São Vicente by ferry, you wouldn't guess how green it is, as the south side looks quite barren and harsh. But the northeast of the island, which is the most populated corner and the most popular with hikers, receives enough regular moisture for forests of pine trees to dominate the hilltops and tropical plants to flourish in the steamy valleys. To really get the most out of this island, set aside several days, prepare for some blisters and set out along the valleys and up the mountains on foot. See the northeast first but then get off the beaten trails and head to the untrammelled western reaches of Santo Antao, with its mighty mountains and tourism that's only nascent but worth supporting. During the high season, from early November through February, it's wise to book accommodation ahead.
Arriving by ferry, the grubby port town of Porto Novo will be your first impression of Santo Antao. Don't worry; things rapidly improve! If you do get stuck in Porto Novo (although that's quite unlikely), you'll find a few places to stay, including the basic but decent Residencial Antilhas, where you should request an upstairs room with a balcony offering views of the harbour. The upscale Santantao Art Resort to the south of town has balconied rooms, a range of facilities and a small tropical garden.
With its feathery lines of peachy dunes, stark plains and scanty oases, Boa Vista looks as if a chunk of the Sahara somehow broke off the side of Africa and floated out to the middle of the Atlantic. Though the island offers some fantastic if wind-blown beaches, incredible windsurfing, the pretty little town of Sal Rei, and an ever-increasing number of resorts and hotels, it's this desert interior that is the best reason for venturing out here. Be ready for some rough off-roading, as most of Boa Vista's roads are treacherous.
Glittering like a white crystal in a sea of turquoise, Maio is a place of squeaky-clean beaches and days that drift slowly by in a haze of sunshine and long conversations. Aside from the pretty if slightly overdeveloped main town of Vila do Maio (also known as Porto Ingles), the sleepy fishing village of Calheta 11km to the north and the many beaches, the only other 'attraction' is the scrubby acacia-dotted interior with its string of 13 villages. But for the discerning traveller after something a little different, Maio is begging you to leave your footprints on its gorgeous beaches.
Whether you're being tossed and turned in the heavy seas during the boat ride from Praia or thrown about by unpredictable winds and turbulence in the small prop plane, the drama of Fogo begins long before you even set foot on its volcanic soils. The island of Fire (Fogo translates as fire) consists of a single, giant black volcano (which burst back to life with a large eruption in late 2014) that dominates every view and every waking moment. Life here isn't just about macho tectonic movements, though: Sao Filipe is easily one of the most attractive towns in the archipelago and can be used as a base for great hikes and pretty drives around the island's eastern side to the small town of Mosteiros, past terraced hillsides yielding mild Arabica coffee.
Ponta do Sol feels like the end of the world, which in many ways it is: it sits where the road ends, literally. The sense of raw power here, with monstrous Atlantic waves and sheer cliffs reaching for the clouds leaves you feeling in awe of nature. For quite some time it was the only place in the area with decent tourist facilities, but that has changed in the last few years, with the opening of a clutch of lovely inns in nearby Paul. Although now overdeveloped, the town is still a good base for a night or two, with its pretty cobbled centre and a handful of decent hotels and restaurants.