The Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha is the only place I know that has a rich Jewish heritage, yet no Jewish culture whatsoever — either contemporary or historical.
That is because the island and its eponymous archipelago remain largely intact from 500 years ago, when Portuguese Sephardic merchant Fernão de Loronha landed here during one of his trans-Atlantic expeditions. The jagged green peaks that ring the island’s northeast Brazilian coastline are visually reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro, yet barely a trace of civilization is evident.
Indeed, there is little human culture of any kind on Fernando de Norohna, a UNESCO World Heritage site largely conserved today as a national marine park. The only schools of note are the schools of spinner dolphins, manta rays, sharks and tropical fish that dart through the shimmering turquoise waters.
As such, Fernando de Noronha is the getaway of choice for wealthy South Americans seeking to escape the cares of the civilized world. There isn’t a high rise in sight, or even a chic little resort town with the boutiques and wine bars you’d expect from a beach destination. Development is strictly limited, so despite its exclusivity, Fernando de Noronha retains a rustic, even ramshackle quality.
The only lodgings are small-scale inns known as pousadas, which are tucked into the lush green vegetation along the roadside, in a visual style reminiscent of the eastern Hamptons or the lower Florida Keys. Those pousadas are also where you will likely eat — at restaurants that feature the region’s spectacular variety of fish, accompanied by tropical fruits and the intensely sweet drinks and desserts that Brazilians love.
Speaking of the Hamptons: Fernando de Noronha is one of Brazil’s pricier vacations, which makes sense when you consider the limited lodgings, daily visitor quota and — yes — a daily impact tax of about $25 for anyone trampling the island’s precious flora. (The rules don’t end there, either: Certain coves even prohibit the wearing of sunscreen, whose residue might damage the marine environment.)
You can, however, arrive on the small airstrip via commercial flights, which connect from Natal, Recife and São Paulo. And once here, you will find a landscape not all that different from the one that greeted Fernão de Loronha, who must have been grateful for the respite after a long Atlantic sail.
Loronha (the spelling was altered over the years) was a prominent merchant from a well-to-do Sephardic Jewish family in Lisbon. By many accounts, Loronha’s family was wealthy and well-connected at a particularly propitious moment — the zenith of both Portuguese economic might and the Inquisition against the Jews. Loronha benefited from the former, and while he bowed to pressure and converted to Catholicism, he enjoyed a level of success and political favor unknown to most Iberian Jews at a time of widespread persecution.
After Loronha’s discovery of his namesake islands, the Portuguese crown essentially gave them to the merchant as a thank-you gift for all the wood he brought back from Brazil. The territory remained in Loronha’s converso family for generations. When, reportedly, no heirs remained, Brazil put the remote, mountainous isles to use as both a prison and a strategic military outpost. Since the 1980s, Fernando de Noronha has been a marine sanctuary; its current population is around 2,700.
Many consider the island’s pristine waters to be the best diving spot in the world, with a warm current that allows divers to go deeper than is possible elsewhere. Snorkelers, too, enjoy a paradise of aquatic fauna unrivaled in the boat-filled shorelines of other resorts. With no condos or tiki bars to disturb them, sea turtles spread out on the wide, sandy beaches to lay their eggs, and leaping dolphins are a frequent sight in the bays.
Dune buggy is the way most people get around Fernando de Noronha, though you can circumnavigate the seven-square-mile island by boat in a matter of hours. Virtually every resident is either a scientist or in the tourism business; with those arrival quotas, it’s not hard to find a boat for hire, a horse to ride or a solitary beach for surfing.
As rustic as it appears, however, Fernando de Noronha boasts some of Brazil’s most upscale lodgings. Tucked into the banyan trees are suites with infinity pools and sea views, while overwater bungalows lie just offshore. With Brazil’s economy in crisis, only the wealthiest vacationers can afford to retreat to these unspoiled shores — continuing a tradition of elite exclusivity that began with Fernão de Loronha himself.