By Lauren Taylor, Press Association

As the five-star Hilton Cabo Verde opens on the island of Sal, Lauren Taylor explores the African archipelago where the sun always shines.

"You'll look ten years younger," our guide Admir promises 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 (a E5/£4.50 entry fee) than any fancy spa treatment. The lake in the extinct volcano naturally 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 - which the island has in abundance), but softer skin and crater lake swimming were completely unexpected. Cape Verde is full of surprises though.

It's clear that holidaymakers - largely couples and young families - are here for three things; winter sun, long stretches of sandy beaches and crystal-clear sea. The coastline's perfect kitesurfing conditions also attract a small, trendy crowd. But I discover there's a lot more to the African archipelago, 310 miles off the coast of Senegal in the Atlantic.

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 - evident in the strange moon-like quality of the landscape, which features steep peaks reaching up to the sky.

Year-round temperatures range from 24 to 30 degrees Celsius, but very little grows here. The exception is wild asparagus, which Sal's capital city - Espargos - is named after. Incidentally, place names and the creole language are some of the few vestiges of Portuguese colonial rule, which ended in 1975.

Now it's hotels that line the south side of the island and the latest in the developing coastline is the new five-star Hilton Cabo Verde. It's a 15-minute stroll from Santa Maria, a pretty town almost exclusively made for tourists with a lively restaurant and bar scene, and a fishing pier worth visiting for the catch around 10 or 11am. (Fish like grouper, dorado and wahoo are sold on the pier throughout the morning.)

The beachfront, palm-tree lined property surrounds a huge pool and has a boardwalk leading to a beach bar. "We wanted to have lots of greenery, because Sal isn't green," the hotel's office manager Alfonso tells me. "And plenty of open spaces to remind you you're on holiday."

The generously-proportioned rooms in fresh neutral tones all come with balconies (the majority with a view of the almost-empty Santa Maria beach) or garden terraces looking out onto palm trees.

The main Magellan restaurant offers good quality buffet food (particularly at breakfast), with a different cuisine theme - Cape Verdean, Portuguese or Indian - every night of the week for dinner.

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 and this is a good place to try it, while the octopus salad goes very well with a glass of the local white wine from the nearby (much greener) island of Fogo.

Sal relies heavily on produce from the archipelago's nine other islands, most of which have startlingly different landscapes and more rain, but a less-developed tourist scene.

For active travellers, Sal is perfect though; high winds create the right conditions for water sports, and the kitesurfing and windsurfing world championships have both been held here.

It's also ideal for sailing, so we hop on a half day, all-drinks included jaunt on a yacht with Always Sailing (E49/£43) from the sleepy fishing village of Palmeira.

The Hilton also offers kayaking, paddle boarding and scuba diving at an extra cost, and the island's only yoga studio - the excellent Yoga Cabo Verde - is down the road in Santa Maria (E10/£9 per group class). No excuses just to sunbathe then...

It would be easy to spend days lazing on the three kilometres of beach right outside the Hilton (which is public, though you wouldn't know it), but with a bit of exploration, it's easy to escape the package-holiday crowd entirely.

After just a 20-minute cycle along a cobbled road, my travel partner and I stumble across a small, empty and unspoilt bay. In a re-enactment of Leonardo DiCaprio discovering paradise in Danny Boyle's film The Beach, we skip with glee into the calm, clear water of Ponta Preta and stay for the entire day. Only a handful of people arrive while we're there.

At 216 square kilometres, Sal is small enough to tick off all the to-do tourist activities, while still spending most of your holiday horizontal on a sunlounger. 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 of Sal.

Many of the horses at Santa Marilha Horse Excursions (E50/£45 for 1.5 hours) 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 one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments you won't find in every package-holiday destination.

Wildlife lovers may find more than they imagined in Sal too. I can now boast that I've swam with sharks... well, paddled with very gentle metre-long 'lemon' sharks, but their fins look just as menacing. A single euro will rent you a pair of rubber shoes (from the only shack in sight) to wade into the shallow waters of 'Shark Bay' on the east side of the island, to watch their sleek lemon-brown and grey bodies weaving around our legs.

Later, we head to the island's famous turtle sanctuary; a local NGO, Project Biodiversity has been on a mission to save Sal's loggerhead turtles from extinction for the last three years.

During nesting season, night patrol groups stop poachers (who hunt the turtles for meat) and the project moves and protects the nests for hatching season, from June to early December. Last year, more than 70,000 tiny turtles were released here - although only 70 are predicted to make it back to Sal in 20 to 25 years' time to nest, due to pollution and poaching.

Travellers can gather to watch them hatch and scurry into the ocean as the sun goes down, and, unless you're unlucky enough just to miss the end of the season like us, I'm told it's a pretty magical sight.

It's clear 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.

How to book

Cape Verde Experience (01489 866 969; offers a wide range of holidays and flights to seven of the 10 islands of Cape Verde, with seven-night packages at the Hilton Cabo Verde Resort from £979pp, including flights, UK airport lounge, private transfers and visas. Fly from Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Glasgow.