Want to discover a country most people never even heard of? Book one of the few flights to Sao Tomé & Principe. This African island state is a pocket-sized dream destination, and combines pristine beaches with dense jungles and an almost Caribbean vibe. Start packing those bags.
When they asked me if I wanted to make a travel report on Sao Tomé & Principe four years ago, I of course said yes without giving it a second thought, just to Google what and where it actually was a moment later. Being a sophisticated man of the world, it rarely happens I can’t come up with a single thing to say about a certain destination. This time was the exception. Under the assumption that I’m certainly not the only one, I’ll present you with a short introduction to the matter.
“When they asked me if I wanted to make a travel report on Sao Tomé & Principe four years ago, I of course said yes without giving it a second thought, just to Google what and where it actually was a moment later.”
Sao Tomé and Principe are two tiny islands in the Atlantic, about 250km from Gabon on the West-African coast. Together they form the continent’s smallest country after the Seychelles. Sao Tomé is about 850km2 in size and has a population of 200.000. Principe is just 150km2 and barely has 7.000 people living on it. The place was discovered as an uninhabited paradise by the Portuguese about 500 years ago, and after five centuries of “loyal service” as a sugar, coffee and cacao plantation, it became an independent state in 1975. Portuguese is still the official language, and Ronaldo and company seem to be the only Europeans who know where to find it. Only TAP Air Portugal was offering flights four years ago – with a stop in Ghana. This makes for quite a long journey, but if everything was close by every moron with a trailer would be headed there, and no more fun would be had.
Sao Tome & Principe: a tiny African paradise
Two minuscule islands indeed, but they have a lot on offer. A large portion of Sao Tomé is covered in lush rainforest, and its biodiversity is enormous. It has dreamy beaches full of palm trees, colourful birds and fish can be spotted everywhere, and mass tourism simply does not exist here. In 2018 only 30.000 international travellers found their way to the islands. In contrast, the MAS Museum in Antwerp attracts about 650.000 visitors each year and no one even knows what it’s about. Come at the right time and you can spot sea turtles on the beach, watch humpback whales play with their young and get incredibly hammered on a wide array of fruity cocktails (okay, you can do that one all year round). And since up and coming criminals don’t really have anywhere to run on a tiny isolated island, it’s one of Africa’s safest destinations as well. You won’t spot the big five here – unless your mom and your four latest exes book a flight as well – but sometimes you simply can’t have it all. So don’t fret about it and enjoy these five things you shouldn’t miss on Sao Tomé & Principe. Off we go, and don’t forget to pack some sunscreen.
1. Be the centre of the world
Did you always dream of being – even if it was just for a moment – the actual centre of the whole world like me? Ilhéu das Rolas is where you need to go: a pretty little island right under Sao Tomé proper. This is where the equator and the prime meridian meet. Years ago, the Portuguese – on a picturesque hill looking out over a bay – planted a milestone on a mosaic shaped like a world map. Cynical little detail: the Middle-East lies in ruins here as well. It would still be the perfect spot for a selfie though, be it not that the guy doing the measurements got pretty wasted. The actual centre can be found a couple of hundred meters away in the little village down below. Keep it to yourself. Those driving to Porto Alegre from the capital to take a boat there, will pass Pico Cão Grande: a gigantic pillar of hardened lava towering over the jungle. “Pico Cão Grande” stands for “Large Dog Peak” by the way, which is a factual but very polite way of describing which part of a dog it actually looks like.
2. Enjoy the smaller things in life on Principe
If you want to get from Sao Tomé to Principe, there are three options to choose from. 1. Swim. Don’t do it: sharks and far away. 2. Take the daily ferry. Don’t to that either: slow and apparently quite uncomfortable. 3. Spend half an hour in a propeller plane and land in one of the world’s smallest commercial airports. Check! Principe looks absolutely fantastic and is the true paradise of the two. The island is primarily a protected nature reserve and it shows. Life is on a smaller scale here. The capital Santo Antonio is no more than a couple of hundred houses on both sides of a lazy river, and the rest of the locals live in little, often colourful self-made wooden homes in even smaller villages. The island is exceptionally clean as well: even the smallest hovel has a row of well-used garbage bins for sorting and recycling waste. That’s how it’s done. Pro tip: don’t start drinking in you hotel, but have a couple of beers in the (probably only) bar of the nearest village. Much cosier.
3. Treat yourself in Bom Bom Island Resort
In my opinion, Bom Bom Island Resort is the most beautiful place on Principe. I had the incredible luck to be able to spend a couple of nights there without having to pay for it (award-winning travel journalist right here folks). I slept in a luxurious hut just a couple of meters from the surf. The beach is straight from a bounty commercial and the restaurant is located on a smaller island accessible over a long wooden bridge for the waves to break on. When you walk back to your hut after dinner, just look up. You won’t see the five measly stars you can sometimes barely spot in Belgium, but half the Milky Way in all its glory. Go lie on the beach and let the immeasurable vastness of the universe sink in: you won’t get another opportunity like this any time soon. I admit, a stay in Bom Bom Island Resort probably isn’t the cheapest (I was afraid to look up the rates) but sometimes you need to treat yourself to something special. So f*ck it and spend that college money you were saving for your kids: you deserve it!
4. Look for chocolate in the jungle
Sao Tomé & Principe were known as the chocolate islands in the past, and they still produce some good shit today. Want to visit the source of this tastiness? Book a guide to take you through the jungle around Roça Sundy: a boutique hotel in an old colonial building. After an hour of thorough hiking, you’ll get to the cacao and coffee trees, which are sustainably planted in the shade of larger trees without cutting them. The plantation is spread out over a hill from which you can see half the island: an almost unbroken sheet of green, surrounded by the endless blue ocean. On the way there, the guide will show you several local plants: from sweet berries to natural peppers and some ferns you can clean your car with if you so desire. Did you know cacao beans are hidden in a tasty white fruit before they’re roasted by the way? There you go: you’ve improved your factual knowledge yet again. You’re welcome.
5. Have dinner made by the best chef on the island
*I only made one picture of the man. The image on the right is just a random scenic shot of the island.
There are lots of special locations to visit on Sao Tomé as well. Roça São João for example: a romantic old mansion on a hill, serving as an art gallery, an ecolodge and a restaurant led by the best chef for miles and miles around (this is mostly the Atlantic, but you get the point). João Carlos Silva is a kindly older man who became a famous TV-chef in Portugal as well as West-Africa. When you have lunch here, you’ll get a dozen refined, minimalistic courses served by an army of sous-chefs, all made with natural, local ingredients. If you want to go nuts gastronomically, there’s really only one place to go on Sao Tomé. You’ll get the whole island on your plate, and every smile is free of charge.
There is of course way more to discover on Sao Tomé & Principe. The busy little markets in the capital, the wonderful hikes you can try, the spectacular fauna and flora you can spot, the snorkelling and diving you can do: the list is surprisingly long. It’s been four years for me though, so I mainly focused on the things that still stood out to me after all that time. Feel free to add to the list if you make it there yourself one day. In short: if you’re aching for a carefree and exclusive trip to a unique destination none of your Instagram friends ever set foot in: you now know where to go. Have a little patience though, most hotels are still covid-closed.