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São Vicente Island Guide

São Vicente Island Guide
Undoubtedly São Vicente’s greatest selling point is the city of Mindelo, which is also the cultural capital of the Cape Verde islands. The attractive town has grown around the deep sea harbour which was formed centuries ago from a volcanic crater. It’s a wonderful place to wander, meandering through its charming streets lined with colonial British and Portuguese houses and grandiose gardens. At night, the city comes alive with music and dancing, its countless bars and restaurants packed with crowds who come to listen to the live bands that play into the early hours of the morning.

The island, which lies between Santo Antão and São Nicolau in the north of the archipelago, measures 24 kilometres from east to west and only 16 kilometres from north to south. But for a small island it has much to offer. It is home to some of Cape Verde’s greatest musicians and writers including Cesaria Evora, a world famous singer who has recorded 11 albums.

São Vicente is also responsible for bringing sport to Cape Verde. When the British settled on the island in the 19th century they introduced cricket and golf to the islanders, which have both remained popular to this day.

A very British history

São Vicente was discovered in 1462 on Saint Vincent’s Day, the 22nd January, which is how it got its name. However, due to the lack of a natural water source, the barren island was initially only used as grazing land for cattle by farmers from neighbouring Santo Antão.

In the 19th century all this changed when a coal deposit was established at the port in Mindelo, which was at that time called Porto Grande. The coal deposits were started in 1838 by the British to supply ships on Atlantic routes. As more ships called in to fuel at the island, the population grew.

The British colony that settled on São Vicente brought a great deal to the tiny island: stunning colonial architecture in the main town of Mindelo; a love of cricket and golf; and many English-based words in the local Criolo language.

In its heyday, Mindelo supplied thousands of ships with coal every year. São Vicente was also the location of a switching station for the first transatlantic telegraph cable as well as boasting in its prime a Royal Mail station. The British influence was significant, so much so that the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica claimed that 90% of the population understood English.

The island suffered a huge depression when steam-powered ships were no longer used, and the subsequent need for coal ended. The British coaling station closed down, and ships stopped calling into Mindelo. The decline in coal deposits coupled with drought and famine had a disastrous effect on São Vicente and between 1947 and 1948, more than 20,000 people died.

Now the only ships that the harbour welcomes are the occasional cruise liner and passing yachts which come to Mindelo to restock on provisions. It is also a leg in the OnDeck Sailing Race of Farr 65s from Lisbon to Barbados every November.

The Cape Verde government is making huge efforts to develop the country, and São Vicente is clearly in its sights as a centre for tourism. The island’s airport at San Pedro Airport was initially domestic only, but last year started to receive international flights. The harbour has also been redeveloped, and several major hotels have been opened on the island.

A cultural and sporting beacon São Vincente is the undisputed cultural centre of Cape Verde, and as a result has an altogether different feel to it from that of Sal or Boa Vista. Rather than being known for its golden beaches – of which there are many – its festivals and love of partying have put this island on the map. The Baia de Gatas musical festival held each August is the largest event on the island followed closely behind by the Mindelo Carnival every February.

São Vicente Island Guide
The island has a population of around 70,000, most of whom live in the cosmopolitan capital of Mindelo. Apart from two extinct volcanoes, Monte Verde which is 774 metres high, and Topona at 660 metres high, São Vicente is a flat plain. Amongst the highlights are:

Mindelo - a thriving city with many good bars, restaurants and nightclubs to ensure a night to remember.

Baia das Gatas - a lagoon in the northeast of the island, about 30 minutes from Mindelo. Here you can find the safest swimming in a lagoon which forms a natural swimming pool. There are a couple of traditional Portuguese-style restaurants, near the beach. In August it hosts the famous festival of tropical music from all over the world. This began in 1984 with a few musicians getting together to play on the beach. It is now visited by music lovers from all over the world.

Laginha - a white sandy beach near Mindelo on which there is a local restaurant called Chez Loutcha, which does great beach barbecues on Sundays.

San Pedro - a small fishing village 10 km from Mindelo. Here you will find the international airport beside which is a beach famous for windsurfing.

São Vicente Island Guide
Monte Verde - the highest point of São Vicente and enjoys stunning views of São Nicolau and the bird island of Santa Luzia.

Calhau - a small fishing village on the east coast of the island, reached by a winding road which passes between the peaks of the volcanoes. Here you can eat fresh fish and visit the Caves of Topim. The beach here is an excellent spot for windsurfing and in 1997 it was included in the European professional circuit.

Salamansa - a quiet fishing village set some distance from the sea off the road to Baia das Gatas. It has a pretty church and two bars.

Development and the future

The international airport at San Pedro is doing a great job at bringing more tourists to the island, and plans such as the new golf course designed by Ernie Els will further enhance its appeal. There is also a plan to build a cruise liner terminal on the island, at a cost of €19 million.

The Cape Verde government has big plans for São Vicente. It hopes that by this year more than 230,000 visitors will holiday on the island, with this figure almost doubling to 535,000 by 2020.

Activities on São Vicente

São Vicente may be the third smallest of the Cape Verde islands but it offers a host of activities more akin to a much larger destination.

Windsurfing, Kitesurfing and Surfing

Like the neighbouring islands of Boa Vista and Sal, São Vicente is getting a name for its self as a windsurfers’ paradise. San Pedro beach and the beach at Baia das Gatas lagoon are considered some of the best beaches in the Cape Verde Islands, with the former having a worldwide reputation for speed windsurfing. Kitesurfing is also very popular.


Sailing is a great way to see the island, and to travel to the neighbouring isles of Santo Antão and São Nicolau. There are dinghies and catamarans for hire in the port of Mindelo, as well as larger sailing boats for bareboat charter or with a skipper.

Sailing enthusiasts can also watch yachts competing in the OnDeck Sailing Race of Farr 65s from Lisbon to Barbados which come into Mindelo every November.


There is a dive centre on San Pedro beach near the airport which hires modern equipment and where PADI courses can be completed. There is also diving from a large catamaran with eight cabins which can be hired on a weekly basis.


The waters surrounding São Vicente boast some of the best game fishing in the world. There is a rich variety of species including blue and white marlin, albacore, dorado, shark, wahoo, and bonito fish. The channel between São Vicente and Santo Antao is one of the best spots for catching blue marlin, using trolled lures or live bait. The presence of certain species is seasonal, but there are fish to catch all year round.

There are a number of companies in and around Mindelo that offer fishing trips for all abilities.

Cape Verde’s first ever golf course was founded in 1893 by British merchants just outside Mindelo. It was also the first sporting club of any kind in Cape Verde. The 18-hole club, which held an international golf championship in 1906, is still in operation although there are some discrepancies over how green the green actually is.

There are currently plans to build several new courses on São Vicente, one of which is being designed at Baia Das Gatas by South African golfer Ernie Els at a reputed cost of £2.4m per hole.


The island offers plenty of picturesque hiking trails, particularly going up to the peak of Monte Verde.

São Vicente Island Guide
Enjoy some of the best music in the world in unbeatable locations on São Vicente at the Baia Das Gatas festival every August, and at the Mindelo Carnival every February.

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