ADMIR, our tour guide promises, “You’ll look 10 years younger,” as I let volcanic clay seep into my skin and float effortlessly in the saline water of Pedra Lume, a flooded caldera in the north-east of Cape Verdean island Sal.
Locals say the mineral-rich clay found at the water’s edge has age-reversing properties, and it’s far cheaper (€5/£4.50 entry) than any fancy spa treatment.
The lake in the extinct volcano holds 26 times more salt than the ocean and it’s naturally heated. Lying back in the hot December sun, I’m beginning to understand why the local motto is “no stress”.
Coming from the depths of British winter, I knew sunshine was almost guaranteed on Sal (Portuguese for salt), but softer skin and crater lake swimming were completely unexpected.
It’s clear that holidaymakers are here for three things – winter sun, sandy beaches and crystal-clear sea.
The coastline’s perfect kite surfing conditions also attract a trendy crowd. But I discover there’s a lot more to the African archipelago in the Atlantic, 310 miles off the coast of Senegal.
Sal, the most touristy of the country’s 10 islands, is also the driest. Last year the desert sands only saw two days of rain.
Year-round temperatures range from 24-30C, but very little grows here. The exception is wild asparagus, which Sal’s capital city, Espargos, is named after.
The latest in a string of hotels that line the south side of the island is the new five-star Hilton Cabo Verde. It’s a 15-minute stroll from Santa Maria, a pretty tourist town with a lively restaurant and bar scene, and a fishing pier worth visiting for the catch around 10 or 11am.
The beachfront, palm-tree lined property surrounds a huge pool and has a boardwalk leading to a beach bar.
And the generously-proportioned rooms in fresh neutral tones all come with balconies or garden terraces.
The Magellan restaurant offers good quality buffet food, with a different cuisine – Cape Verdean, Portuguese or Indian – every night.
For something a bit more special, the Bounty restaurant on the beach is a quiet spot for seafood or sinking into one of the lounge chairs with a drink, overlooking the sea at night.
Tuna is abundant in Cape Verde, while the octopus salad goes very well with a glass of the local white wine from the nearby (much greener) island of Fogo.
For active travellers, high winds create the perfect conditions for water sports. It’s also ideal for sailing, so we hop on a half-day, all-drinks-included jaunt on a yacht with Always Sailing (€49/£43) from the sleepy fishing village of Palmeira.
The Hilton also offers kayaking, paddle boarding and scuba diving, and the island’s yoga studio, Yoga Cabo Verde, is down the road in Santa Maria (€10/£9 per class).
It would be easy to spend days lazing on the three kilometres of beach outside the Hilton but with a bit of exploration, it’s easy to escape the holiday crowds.
After just a 20-minute cycle along a cobbled road, my travel partner and I stumble across a small, unspoilt bay. We skip with glee into the calm, clear water of Ponta Preta and stay for the day.
Quad bikes are a popular mode of transport for travellers eager to explore the uninterrupted desert which covers most of the island, but we choose to hop on horseback for a trot along Kite Beach in the south-east.
Many of the horses at Santa Marilha Horse Excursions (€50/£45 for 90 mins) are rescued race horses. Cantering in the surf, with dozens of colourful kites emblazoned across the sky, a volcano in the distance and waves lapping alongside, is a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Wildlife lovers will like Sal, too. I can now boast I have swam with sharks. Well, paddled with very gentle metre-long lemon sharks, but their fins look just as menacing.
It’s clear that Sal’s tourism industry is growing. English is widely spoken, there’s only a one hour time difference and being just a two hour extra flight time from the Canary Islands – it’s shaping up to be an appealing winter sun alternative.
It won’t be long before Sal’s coastline is lined with hotels and its beaches feel noticeably less empty – so now is really the time to go.
Cape Verde Experience offer a range of holidays and flights to seven of the 10 islands. Call 01489 866 969 or visit capeverde.co.uk
Seven-night packages at the Hilton Cabo Verde Resort start from £979pp, including flights from Glasgow and London Gatwick, transfers and visas.