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Fernando de Noronha: islands of serene beauty, year-round tropical weather

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A UNISCO World Heritage site, the islands are roughly 335 miles off the coast of Brazil.

Fernando de Noronha is a group of magnificent islands that appears to be in the middle of nowhere. Its natural geography, mountainous terrain, volcanic sky scraper rock formations, scenic and serene beaches with warm tortoise water, and year-round tropical weather attracts many tourists to these islands.

There are 21 islands in total. The largest and main one is about 10 miles in area, 6 miles long and the widest area has a width of less than 2 miles. The rest of the islands are mostly volcanic rock formations.

These islands are located thirty degrees west and five degrees south of the equator. Its population is around 2,000, and most of the islanders are engaged in tourism-related services.

A UNISCO World Heritage site, Fernando de Noronha is protected from man-made ecological changes. Tourists are allowed only in the main island where the airport and all hotels are located.

This heritage site is situated on the Atlantic Ocean, about 335 miles to the northeast of Recife, a Brazilian mainland costal city. The flight time from Recife to Fernando de Noronha is about one hour.  There are several daily flights from Recife to Fernando de Noronha. The city of Recife is about a 2-hour flight north from Rio de Janeiro, the second-most populous city in Brazil.

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I first heard about Fernando de Noronha when I visited Rio de Janeiro during the 2016 Olympics. After doing enough research about these islands, I finally decided to make a trip to Brazil again in February 2017.

Brazil is among those countries that require US citizens to get a visa in advance. During my visit to the South American nation last year, there was an Olympics-related visa waiver program for Americans. This time, I had to apply for an advance travel visa for Brazil.

However, one advantage of living in the Washington, DC, area is the proximity to embassies and consulates. One can apply for a visa in person and obtain it without any hassle. The fee for a 10-year, multiple-entry Brazilian visa is $160.

There are many convenient flights to Rio de Janeiro from the United States. From there, Fernando de Noronha can be reached via Recife. On this occasion, I chose to fly Avienca from Washington Dulles, via Bogota, to Rio de Janeiro, which is about 12 hours of flight time.

I stayed in Rio for a few days before embarking the trip to Fernando de Noronha. Brazilians in general are easy-going, party-loving and beach-loving people. Rio is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, among metropolises of its size. While in the city, there are a number of attractions that are worth visiting.

With wooded hills and valleys and beaches carved in between, the sprawling city is an amazing experience. The Copacabana and Ipanema beaches are famous for their shallow and crystal clear water, serene environment and sugary sand. One must also visit Sugar Loaf Mountain, travel via rope way and take the exhilarating  train ride to the mountain top statue of Christ the Redeemer, both within the city limit.

The GOAIR is a rapidly growing airline with convenient flight schedules from Rio to many Brazilian cities, including flights to Recife, from where one can fly to Fernando de Noronha. All visitors to the island have to undergo a kind of immigration process and pay $100 island entry fee in Brazilian real.

The airport authorities accept credit cards. In case you want to withdraw cash in local currency from ATMs, the fee in Brazil is high — about $8 to $10 for every transaction. However, it is important to carry enough local currency as taxi drivers and other small shop owners accept only Brazilian real.

In addition to the island fee, for visiting the parks and beaches on the island, one must buy another ticket from the State Park Authority, which costs about $35 per person for three days. Advance hotel reservation is a must for hotel accommodation in Fernando de Noronha. Most of the hotels have free pickup facility from the airport. Regular taxi cars are also available and they cost about 24 to 30 reals for a trip to any hotel from the airport.

The island is safe to travel for tourists, as entry and exit are tightly controlled. There are no wild animals to fear while walking in the forest.

In spite of being a travel hot-spot, there are no star-rated hotels or high rise buildings on the island. Most hotels are called pausadas which means hostels in Portuguese. Hotels are very expensive. The hotel rooms are very small but functional, with attached bath and serve free morning breakfast.

An average room rate is over $200 per night, including breakfast. There are a few exclusive properties, where rates range from $300 to $900 per night. There are also many backpackers-affordable Pausadas on the island.

However, everything, I mean everything, on the island is expensive, as they are all imported from the main land. Normal complimentary bottle of water is not provided in hotels. There are many convenient stores in walking distance from the hotels. Sea food is the specialty here and a few nice restaurants are there for lunch and dinner. There are pub-like places that appear to be reasonably priced. In general, overall costs are almost double that of the mainland.

Farming and cultivation are prohibited on the island, in order to preserve the habitat in its natural state.

A five-day tour is ideal to leisurely visit the island and spend time at the beaches. Three days are bare minimum to get a feel of this great place.

Beach entry is allowed only with the entry passes bought earlier.  Beach gears are available to rent for swimming and scuba diving. Tour operators provide group tours daily to main beach locations. Tickets can be bought at the hotel as well. It costs about $90 per person.

Optionally, individuals can rent self-driving and manual-shift all-terrine four-wheel, four-, or two-seater buggies to travel around the island for about $80 per day. Tours normally start at 8.30 am and end at 5.30 pm. They pick you up from the hotel and drop you back by the end of the day.

At least one such tour is necessary to get familiarize with the island’s important tourist locations. The island has only one main road, which is about two miles long. There is a regular public bus service. The buses do not pass through any of the beach locations, as beaches are tugged between mountains.  One has to go through rugged, unpaved lanes to reach the beaches.

In my tour group there were about 15 people, mostly from Brazil. Hardly anybody spoke English including the tour guide.  Cruise ship options are also available to visit Fernando de Noronha.

Trekking is allowed in certain areas and walking trails are there in central areas. Cycling on mountain bike is another option for local site seeing. However, a large part of the wooded areas are prohibited for tourists.

The writer taking a boat ride.

There is a 16th century fort at the top of a mountain overlooking the vast sea. There are also various kinds of boat rides for the tourist to enjoy the beauty of the island from the sea. They cost from $60 to $100, depending on a half-day, or a full-day tour.

There is also a facility for swimming in the sea and for scuba diving from the boat. On my boat trip, I was able to see a few shark fish and many other fishes that follow the boat in search of food. A large number of dolphins can be seen in these waters, I am told.

I also saw a large whale that was making horrendous sound for a long time near a rock formation situated in a bay-like area. There are many ideal locations for photo shoot on the island.

One of the interesting events I witnessed on the island was a fly-by-marriage at a tiny, little chapel on a hill at one end of the island. The marriage venue was arranged by the priest in front of the chapel in a very few minutes. The bride and bridegroom arrived with one or two friends is a car. A CD player played the music, a photographer took the pictures and the marriage ceremony was conducted with minimal extravaganza.

(R.K. Pillai, who is based in northern Virginia, has been in the forefront of information technology and business management for over 30 years both in India and United States.)