I love it when I hear of a place that has never crossed my mind before: São Tomé and Príncipe, off the coast of West Africa. Have you been? It is a country made of two small islands, at the same latitude as Gabon. They are an independent nation previously colonised by the Portuguese, safe and stable politically, seldom visited and classified as a Unesco biosphere. I hear you, saying Stop it Vanessa! It’s too stretched for a family trip. But keep on reading and you might change your mind. I bet the children would love it 1000 times more than watching a reality show set on a remote island.
São Tomé and Príncipe are often referred as the Galapagos of Africa but at a fraction of the price and there more endemic species per square mile than anywhere else in the world. The two volcanic islands were never inhabited until the Portuguese arrived around 1470. They are still sparsely populated, with only 5,000 people living on Principe, the smallest of the two islands. That compares with only 13,000 tourists visiting the entire country every year. Its fame came from being the largest cacao producer at some point in history but since the Portuguese left, the plantations have gone quite deserted. I imagine them having the charm of colonial architecture in Cuba or in Bahia. Today, the country mostly lives off agriculture.
South-African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth is putting these two gems on the independent traveller’s map. You might not have heard of him but he was the first African man to go to the moon. That doesn’t sound too bad on a resume, does it?! And he is one of the first to see the potential in Príncipe as an eco-conscious destination, investing millions into creating welcoming and stylish accommodations on the island, creating much-needed jobs and low-impact infrastructure by the same token. He has restored and / or launched three properties on Príncipe over the last few years. I would most certainly see BozAround hopping from one to the other soon(er) or later.
Bom Bom is possibly my favorite for a stay with children: twenty bungalows right on the beach, surrounded by tropical rainforest. “Be prepared to wake up early because life will be calling you” is the tag line. I can hear the noise of the waves crashing, the birds chirping and the trails calling…
Sundy Praia is a luxury and more pricey option that consists of a tented hotel in the wild northwest of the island. It has several large two and three bedrooms, and also offers lots of activities from turtle or whale watching to exploring the many trails in the biosphere.
Roça Sundy is a pretty mansion in a cocoa plantation that has been lovingly restored. More than 90% of the hotel team are local – which I imagine is the same in all the properties – and have received a year-long training from the Azores School of Tourism, a testimony to Mark Shuttleworth commitment to sustainability and responsible tourism on the island.
Good to know:
You must present a valid “International Vaccination Certificate” for Yellow Fever on arrival in the country if (and only if) you have visited another African country in the 3 months prior. Otherwise, no particular vaccines seem to be needed other than the usual ones (malaria pills are recommended). In any case, always check with your local travel doctor or the Institut Pasteur, a leading institution in tropical diseases.
The rainy season is Oct-Nov and April-May. The temperatures seem to average 27 degrees. Yeah.
The easiest way to reach is to connect via Lisbon, where there are several direct flights to Sao Tome weekly. Spend a night or two at Omali Lodge before hopping to Príncipe with a daily scheduled flight.
This is the article that first got me curious about the whole story.
Ideal for those pre-teens and teenagers in need of connecting with their wilder selves…
Photo credits: all photos are from the websites of the hotels mentioned above. The beautiful landscape photographs are by Scott Ramsey. You can see more of his work on Love Wild Africa.