Fernando de Noronha may be the desert island upon which people dream of being marooned. On Noronha, verdant mountains descend to sheer cliffs, which in turn fall onto wide, sandy beaches that have known neither condo nor cabana. Beneath the waves live corals and colorful fish, manta rays, and lemon sharks. Sea turtles lay eggs by the thousands on the beaches facing the Atlantic. And then there are the spinner dolphins. Early in the morning, in a bay named, appropriately, BaĆ­a dos Golfinhos (Bay of Dolphins), spinner dolphins gather in pods of more than 1,000 to frolic and spin in the morning sunshine. Come afternoon, they set off on a daily circuit around the main island. It's an island ecosystem in all its tropical glory.

Noronha was Brazil's first national marine park. All of the water and 70% of the land on and around Ilha de Fernando de Noronha is national park, administered by the Brazilian environment agency IBAMA. Development is strictly controlled, and visitors must pay a daily tax that supports environmental preservation.

Even with the rules, there is plenty to do on Noronha. The archipelago is the best dive spot in Brazil, and one of the better ones in the world. It's also known as a surfing hot spot. Visitors can rent dune buggies and explore the island's pristine beaches.

For most of its history, of course, people have tried to escape from Noronha. From the 17th until the 20th century, Fernando de Noronha served as an inescapable political prison. This 21-island archipelago sits way out in the Atlantic, 360km (223 miles) from Natal, 545km (337 miles) from Recife, and 2,600km (1,612 miles) from the African coast. From the 1940s to the 1980s the island was under the direct rule of Brazil's armed forces, which used it as both a base and prison. (For a time in the 1960s the island also served as a satellite tracking station for the U.S. armed forces.) Not until 1988, when much of the island was incorporated in the new marine park, did Fernando de Noronha meet its destiny as a sought-after tropical paradise.

Unfortunately, now that everyone wants to get to Noronha -- particularly after Brazil's movie-star glitterati discovered the island -- prices for accommodations on the island have zoomed to ridiculous heights. Modest little pousadas offering little more than a room in the family home now charge upwards of R$250 a night -- as much as some luxury hotels in other parts of Brazil. Prices for meals and tours haven't yet followed suit, though it may be just a matter of time. The islands do remain a special, even magical place. If you can accept being gouged with equanimity, by all means come and experience the magic. If coughing up such large amounts seems likely to stick in your craw, it may be best to plan your escape to somewhere else.