How São Tomé and Príncipe is an eco-paradise of strange fruits, rare birdlife

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“African massage” joked my guide, Spencer, as we lurched along an unpaved track, throwing up clouds of red dust behind our Land Cruiser. We were on our way into Príncipe’s National Park and the hidden cascades of O Quê Pipi.

Later, as we walked through the jungle, Spencer, a Santoméan, gave me an impromptu botany lesson, pointing out banana, casamanga and pepper trees. He gave me a taste of a pointed, scarlet red fruit called mangongo with an intense, sugary aftertaste unlike anything I’d tasted before.

When we reached O Quê Pipi, I took a refreshing plunge into a cool pool, Spencer explaining that the waterfall’s name roughly translates as “Vagina Falls”, as it was where women used to come to cool off after work in the plantations. It felt far off the beaten track – and it was.

The dual island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe is remote – an archipelago of 30 million-year-old volcanic islands flung out in the Gulf of Guinea, 250km off Africa’s Equatorial West coast.

This is Africa’s second-smallest nation after the Seychelles, and even before Covid, it was one of the world’s least-visited countries. Yet, in the decade before the pandemic, tourism arrivals had been increasing and the tourist board will be hoping to kick-start that trend again now that global travel restrictions are easing.

São Tomé and Príncipe was uninhabited until 1470, when Portuguese explorers arrived on Príncipe. The islands’ fertile, volcanic soil was soon cultivated for cash crops and slaves were brought to work on them from the African continent.

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Former banana, cocoa, coffee and sugarcane plantations or “roças” still dot the landscape. Independence from Portugal arrived in 1975. Today, both islands are blanketed in dense, emerald jungle, fringed by stunning beaches and tucked-away golden coves; the high number of endemic plants and bird species have lent it the moniker of the Galapagos of Africa.

A two-hour journey along a serpentine road down the São Tomé coast afforded glimpses of tantalising beaches and jolts of sapphire sea. As we passed Ôbo National Park, the otherworldly Cão Grande, the island’s most striking peak, came into view. The 663m granite tower rises high above a luxuriant carpet of oil palms like something from the Lost World.

My destination was Ilhéu das Rolas, a tiny islet off the southern tip of São Tomé, and a geographic oddity – it straddles two hemispheres. I walked 20 minutes uphill from the beach resort of Pestana Equador, a former plantation with a clutch of simple bungalows scattered around a coconut palm grove, to the island’s equator monument, an elaborate pillar on a mosaic map of the world, and stood with one foot in the northern and the other in the southern hemisphere.

Sustainable development

About 140km by air from São Tomé, the whole of neighbouring Príncipe is a Unesco Biosphere Reserve where numerous endemic plants and birds found nowhere else on Earth flourish. Tourism is still very much in its infancy here. Many of those who do come stay at a trio of hotels operated by HBD (Here Be Dragons).

The man behind it is Mark Shuttleworth, a South African tech billionaire and environmentalist. Working in partnership with Príncipe’s government and NGOs, HBD has been at the vanguard of a large-scale sustainable tourism project.

Shuttleworth is said to have poured almost €100m into the endeavour and HBD has built schools and houses and also trains and employs around 400 local residents, including guide Spencer, to work at its hotels on Príncipe and Omali Lodge on São Tomé.

Colonial buildings along in São Tomé (Photo: Supplied)

One of his properties, Bom Bom, means “good good” and it was hard to disagree. Its huts are dotted among the forest, overlooking two spectacular beaches on a secluded peninsula, where it was easy to slip into the Santoméan mantra of “léve, léve” (easy easy). Bom Bom is due to emerge from renovations early next year that will elevate its appeal further.

With hikes, boat trips, diving and nature walks, it is also easy to immerse yourself in Príncipe’s singular nature. One afternoon I set off in the company of marine biologist Zuga to Praia Grande Turtle Sanctuary. The beach is one of the island’s main nesting sites, with five species visiting São Tomé’s shores from September to April.

As hermit crabs scuttled for cover, she pointed out marks resembling giant tyre imprints left by the turtles in the sand. Another afternoon, I joined a boat trip along the coast visiting some of Príncipe’s secluded beaches – Santa Rita, Macaco, Boi – each more inviting than the last, and finally Banana Beach, which featured in a Bacardi ad.

Chocolate islands

In the early 20th century São Tomé and Príncipe was the world’s biggest cacao producer, giving it the nickname of the “Chocolate Islands”. Just prior to the pandemic, a small chocolate factory opened at Roça Sundy, a former plantation on the north-east of the island acquired by HBD in 2008. Sundy resident-turned-chocolate factory worker Jeremias delivered an impromptu lesson in the basics of cocoa harvesting and chocolate-making.

The plantation house opened to guests four years ago and has 15 elegant bedrooms and a restaurant where you can dine on the veranda under whirring ceiling fans. It was here that the theory of general relativity was proved by an expedition led by Sir Arthur Eddington during the total solar eclipse of 29 May 1919.

Cão Grande is the island’s most striking peak

Príncipe’s Santo Antonio, the smallest capital in the world, has a languorous air, echoed by the lazy flow of the Papagaio River. I wandered its small grid of streets past colonial-era houses in faded sherbet hues and passed stone warehouses once filled with the plantations’ produce.

I spent my final days at Sundy Praia Lodge, the most luxurious of HBD’s properties on Príncipe. Buried in a tangle of cocoa plants, elephant’s ears and banana trees are 15 luxurious tents and a striking, cathedral-like dining room constructed entirely from bamboo.

In the company of Sundy Praia’s manager, Manuel, I walked around HBD’s agricultural plantation, Roça Paciência, where fruit, herbs and vegetables are grown for use at the hotels and to make jams, soaps, muesli, teas and body oils. We stopped at Roça Belo Monte, a hotel and museum that details São Tomé and Príncipe’s place in the world.

On my last night at Sundy Praia, I dined under a full moon, during an unusual, penumbral lunar eclipse. The Moon shone luminously above like a rare and precious pearl – a bit like Príncipe itself.

São Tomé: How to get there

Tap Air Portugal flies to São Tomé and Príncipe from Lisbon via Accra, with connections available from the UK. Ten nights at HBD hotels in São Tomé and Principe from £2,950pp, including flights, rainbowtours.co.uk.

Where to stay

Roça Belo Monte, Príncipe, has doubles from €336 (£283) B&B, belomontehotel.com Rates at Roça Sundy, Príncipe, start at €210pp (£177) full board with activities and transfers. Rates at Sundy Praia from €575pp (£484) and children from €160 (£142) on the same basis, under-fives free, hbdprincipe.com.

More information

Arrivals must present a negative PCR test result taken no more than 72 hours prior to travel. visitsaotomeprincipe.st/en

source : inews

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