A couple of days ago on my flight in from Recife, as the Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha came into view, the Brazilian passengers let out a collective gasp of joy. Ask a Brazilian about Fernando de Noronha, and you're bound to hear how Guia Quatro Rodas, the Brazilian equivalent of a Michelin Guide, determined that the three best beaches in the whole beach-loving nation are located here ; how the small Atlantic island is home to the largest viewable concentration of spinner dolphins in the world ; how there is no better place in Brazil for snorkeling, scuba diving or surfing; and how the island is perfectly safe for visitors -- it doesn't even have snakes.
Brazilians seem to imagine Fernando de Noronha as more Eden than Eden -- all splendor and no serpents -- complete with dive shops and surf rentals to enable the experience. Unfortunately, islands like this are never truly Edenic because humans have long-since arrived. People have done to Fernando de Noronha things that must have made sense at the time: The Portuguese turned it into a penal colony in the 18th century , for example. Later, to stem prisoner raft building, the wardens cut down the virgin forests. And in the 20th century, the tegu lizard was brought in as part of a dubious rodent-control scheme.
Still, the fact that a beach-obsessed country would rate this island's beaches the best in the nation is enough to make me think there might be something to the Edenic reputation. So, hoping to learn what Brazilians know about the place and to discover how much of their awe an outsider can access, I've been approaching Fernando de Noronha as the Brazilians do. I meander down to the shore each morning, smear on sunscreen, swim in the surf, kick a soccer ball along the sand and gaze happily at well-formed women wearing tiny bikinis. Conceição Beach is a splendid place for all such activities. It's within walking distance of the populated northeast end of the island -- yet it's quiet enough to feel isolated and idyllic. Fringed with jungle and home to lively surf, Conceição curves out from the shadow of the iconic Morro do Pico , a volcanic black monolith that soars 1,000 feet over the island's northern shore.
"The sea to make much strong this day!" I announce to random Brazilians lolling on the sands of Conceição. My Brazilian language skills aren't so great, so I've been getting by with "Tarzan Portuguese" -- 80 percent bad Spanish, 5 percent rudimentary Portuguese (pronounced with a bad Spanish accent) and 15 percent passable English -- all delivered with chirpy, Mr. Rogers-style optimism. "I much like to do bath as fish in water of here!" Presumably impressed with my efforts, a few Noronhense locals mention that I should come to the luau at Conceição later tonight, when the moon is full. At least that's what I think they say.
So that evening I walk the 20 minutes inland to my pousada (inn) to don my luau finery (a clean shirt and my best flip-flops). On the way back to the beach, however, I am distracted by a Christians-versus- lions level of spectator excitement emanating from a small concrete grandstand in Vila dos Remédios, the island's biggest settlement. At a glance, this village looks like an old Truman-era military base that has been repainted, outfitted with a few new houses and restaurants, and passed off as a town -- and that's pretty much what it is (though some of the more traditional-looking buildings were built in the 18th century using prison labor). A pair of World War II-era cannons sit rusting in front of the local administration building, their barrels aimed at a dive shop. The air here smells like flowers.
The crowd noise, I soon discover, is the collective frenzy of 200 Noronhense fans who have gathered to watch a local soccer match. Though the game consists of area husbands and fathers and boy- friends split into two four-man teams on a small concrete court, the energy level rivals anything one might see at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. In the sold-out grandstand, drummers pound out samba rhythms on tambores; chubby little girls dance in their seats and wave green-and-yellow pompoms; a shirtless, gray-bearded man sells cold cans of Skol beer and guaraná soda from a styrofoam cooler; and pre- teen boys in yellow scrimmage vests chase after balls that fly over the fence and roll downhill toward the sea. By the end of the game I'm screaming "porra!" along with the crowd when- ever anything exciting happens. (The word, I later learn, means "sperm," though at an applied level it's an all-purpose expletive that can be used when-ever anything bad, good or neutral happens on, off or near the field.)
My journey to the full-moon luau resumes when the soccer game ends, but I'm quickly sidetracked by the accordion-and-triangle sound of forro music reverberating up from the Bar do Cachorro at the sea- side edge of the Remédios cobblestones. I had learned the basic forro dance steps just a week ago in Rio, where northeastern country music has caught on among young hipsters, so I stride into the bar's open courtyard and take the prettiest girl I see out onto the dance floor. Simpler than samba, forro was developed when U.S. soldiers stationed on the Brazilian mainland threw dance parties "for all" during World War II. On the floor, seasoned dance moves resemble a sensual swing step mixed with salsa (though, admittedly, my neophyte rendering makes it look like a two-step barn dance with a few big-band-era spins thrown in for good measure).
For better or worse, Marianna -- the beer-commercial-gorgeous woman I'm forro-ing with -- is married to a beer- commercial-handsome civil engineer named Mauricio, who lives with her in São Paulo and speaks great English (but doesn't like to dance). Between sets, Mauricio and I discuss whether or not the prisoners who once lived here might have found any pleasure amid such a splendid setting.
"Probably not," Mauricio says. "Two hundred years ago this wasn't paradise; it was considered wilderness."
"So when did being stuck on an exotic island stop being a punishment and start being a fantasy?" I ask.
Mauricio shoots me a wry grin. "Probably around the time the bikini was invented."
When the forro band packs up, my new friends are too sleepy to hike out to the luau, so I trudge to Conceição Beach by myself. When I arrive, the moonlight has rendered the coastline in subtle shades of silver and gray -- dark rocks and darker shadows, tall clouds and shimmering waves. I hike the entire strip of beach but find nothing resembling a luau. Undaunted, I stretch out in the sand and listen to the pulsing roar of waves, breathing in the salty-fresh scent of sea spray as I watch the beacon atop Morro do Pico send its spooky beam out into the half-lit night. Luau or no, I have stumbled into a charmed moment. I feel lucky to be here.
Of all the quirks I've noticed about life on fernando de noronha, by far the most perplexing is this: Almost all the people on the island drive noisy little fat-tire dune buggies. Locals drive them and tourists drive them. Government officials drive them and so do the research scientists. Standing alongside the paved motorway that spans the island's 4-mile length, watching the ongoing stream of odd little vehicles, I feel like I've been beamed into an episode of The Flintstones.
I rent my own dune buggy after three days on the island because I want to understand this ridiculous automotive spectacle and because -- let's face it -- walking all day in the equatorial heat can be tiring. My true commitment to this machine comes not when I sign the rental papers but 15 minutes later at the island's only gas station, when an inspired bit of Tarzan phraseology convinces the station attendant that I want $30 worth of petrol. Thus burdened with a full tank of gas on an island with four miles of paved road , I elect to visit all the beaches on the island. Along the way, I pick up every hitchhiker I find, which proves to be a great way to meet local teenagers and entertain them with scintillating quasi- Portuguese small talk: "Where you to go?" "I of the United States!" "You dog have much cute!" "What are it name?"
Despite occasional environmental disruptions (including the felling of the forest cover) during the island's 200-plus years as a Portuguese and Brazilian penal colony, the island's functional isolation kept it undeveloped and relatively pristine. Outmaneuvering casino developers, Brazil's conservationists persuaded the government to declare 70 percent of the island a National Marine Park in 1988. Strict environmental laws now limit the number of tourists who can visit the island at one time, and all visitors are required to pay a conservation tax that increases over time. Visitors and locals alike are forbidden to build campfi res, feed the wildlife or remove plants and animals (including seashells). Swimming and surfing are allowed only at designated beaches. Thanks to these restrictions -- as well as the island's geographic location along warm African currents -- wildlife now thrives on Fernando de Noronha.
As I take my Barney Rubble tour of the island, bumping the dune buggy down rugged dirt roads that branch off from the main highway, I find that the finest beaches here are invariably the least accessible. My favorite proves to be Praia do Sancho (Sancho Beach) on the cliff-fringed northwest shore of the island. The beach can only be reached by climbing down a series of iron ladders. There are no beer vendors or toilet facilities here, just turquoise surf swirling across tan sand under the largest bird-breeding colonies in the South Atlantic.
In the trees that line the cliff, I spot white-crowned black noddies building nests with bits of seaweed. Over the water, frigate birds and brown boobies swoop and bicker over fish. At the edge of the surf, a three-foot tegu lizard wearily drags its tail through the sand as if walking off a hangover. Noronha skinks mate on the volcanic rocks of the shore, pulsing like jugulars on the sand-flecked boulders.
Though Sancho Beach was rated the finest in the country by Guia Quatro Rodas (just ahead of adjacent Porcos Beach, and Leao Beach to the southwest), I am alone here for nearly an hour before a middle-aged couple clambers down the ladders and greets me with a friendly barrage of unintelligible Portuguese.
"The dragons of here is much cute and funny!" I reply. "As to walk after drink many beers!" Perhaps unsure what to make of all this, the couple backs away slowly, and I soon have the beach to myself again.
Over the course of an afternoon, in fact, I discover that few Brazilians linger here very long. Despite its guidebook reputation, Sancho's difficult access and wilderness setting don't lend them- selves to Brazilian obsessions like sun-bathing, picnicking and sand sports. I hadn't imagined I'd have such a storied beach to myself, but I manage to spend most of the afternoon here in very happy solitude.
While the drier reaches of Fernando de Noronha host diverse and abundant wildlife, the island's marquee creatures swim in its warm, clear seas, which can provide visibility up to 150 feet. In addition to spinner dolphins (which, by law, you cannot approach in the water, though you can let them approach you), local reefs and shipwrecks are rich with stingrays, eels, squirrelfish, surgeonfish, parrotfish and puffer fish. Unique to the area are the yellow-and-blue donzelas-de- Rocas (territorial herbivores that tend their eggs like chickens). Black-and-turquoise triggerfish also thrive in Noronhense waters, perhaps because they have such a keen taste for dolphin poop.
I rent a full kit of snorkeling gear and plunge into the waters of Baía do Sueste (in keeping with the island's no- nonsense nomenclature, the bay is located along the southeast coast). Here I spy queen angelfish, yellow goatfish and small lemon sharks, but sea turtles are the biggest draw. They nest on the island's beaches and can grow to the size of a kitchen table. Scientist-supervised turtle hatchings attract crowds of cheering tourists on Fernando de Noronha's beaches, and finding the creatures in a place like Baía do Sueste is generally no problem. Starstruck snorkelers follow them around the bay like photographers at a movie opening. Joining the snorkel paparazzi, I fin my way along the shoreline as the turtles tilt and glide beneath me. I stop counting the creatures after 30 and concentrate instead on imitating their graceful underwater maneuvers. When daylight begins to fade, I wade ashore tired and happy.
A couple of days later, on my last full morning on the island, I awaken before dawn and drive my dune buggy out to the trailhead near Baía dos Golfinhos -- Dolphin Bay. I hike through the darkness until I reach the edge of the coastal cliff, where I join three sleepy biologists scanning the waters for signs of activity.
This ritual is a time-honored activity for visitors to Fernando de Noronha because Dolphin Bay is one of just two places in the world where spinner dolphins live year-round (the other is Hawaii's Kealakekua Bay).
On a good morning, over a thousand dolphins play, mate and rest in the waters. Since animal lovers proved unwavering in their compulsion to leap into the water and swim after the dolphins, tour boats were banned from the bay in 1986. Now this cliff top is really as close as you can get to it all.
As dawn breaks on the island, a busload of 20 or so São Paulo teenagers traipse in and join me on the overlook. Prepared for the morning interlopers, the biologists hand out binoculars and quietly explain the dolphin habitat to the teens, who ask questions and snap a few pictures. I consider asking some questions of my own -- "What dolphins here to eat?" "Where dolphins make funny during not here?" -- but ultimately decide against it.
At 6:41 a.m., a biologist spots a daisy chain of dorsal fins arcing along the near shore. The São Paulo teens shriek with excitement, brandishing their binoculars and cameras, but the dolphins quickly disappear beneath the water.
One hour passes, and the teens get restless and wander back to their bus. The day grows warmer and brighter. Another hour passes. Two Italian hikers arrive and glance at their watches. But I've been on Fernando de Noronha long enough to know that if you cultivate the right blend of patience and openness, the island will present itself to you on its own terms. So I continue to wait ... and wait.
Finally, at mid-morning, the dorsal daisy chain reappears along the near shore, followed by another, larger pod of spinner dolphins. Then another. And another. Within minutes there are so many dolphins leaping and cavorting in the bay that I hardly know where to focus my attention. It's a spectacle so intricate and majestic and weirdly nonchalant that I just stand there, enraptured, and watch until it ends.