São Tomé and Príncipe is the last sanctuary for nature in its purest form
It is one of the least-visited paradises in the world, and therefore a secret worth protecting.
Around 30,000 tourists a year (a small but growing number) visit these small islands, former Portuguese colonies isolated in the Atlantic’s equatorial region, in West Africa.
No guide could prepare you for what you will find in the second smallest country in Africa. The only thing we are sure of is the stay at the Pestana hotels, the flight between São Tomé and Príncipe Island, and the mandatory stop-offs and trips to countless beaches, forests and cocoa and coffee plantations.
As soon we step off the plane, at 1am, the hot, humid and stale 30ºC atmosphere greets us…in mid-November. The climate in São Tomé is typically humid and tropical, with high temperatures and humidity all year round. Waiting for us is the transfer from the Pestana Miramar hotel, a four-star conveniently located along Ana Chaves bay, a two-minute walk from the beach.
After a good night’s sleep, we start the day by enjoying the pool at this pleasant hotel. Through the nine days we spent touring the country, it became obvious that the group’s pools are in fact iconic and one of its trademarks. All of them are majestic albeit different. Pestana Miramar’s pool is set in a beautiful lawn, filled with colours and smells courtesy of the leafy plants, and shielded by the giant treetops, while Pestana São Tomé stands out for its incredible sea-view infinity pool. At Pestana Ilhéu das Rolas, near the equatorial line, you will find the second-largest saltwater pool in Africa, with a swim-up bar right in the centre.
During our stay we opted to rent a car and venture out on our own, up and down the country. While we felt safe for most of the time, it is advisable, for security, comfort and efficiency, to hire a guide to drive and take you directly to the best places to visit. The roads are in terrible condition and travelling a few kilometres can take several hours. However, the breathtaking views will make you forget any logistic hiccups.
You will need to make several stops to listen to the nature, take photos and speak to the locals. From massive baobabs and the typical ocás trees, used to make the famous pirogue boats, to the forests, animal life and deserted beaches, these islands are a haven for nature lovers.
One of our first stops was at Micondo beach, halfway along the island, an idyllic spot and the perfect start to our journey through the most beautiful beaches in São Tomé and Príncipe. The nearly deserted, vast shore flanked by thousands of giant palm trees caught our attention from the first moment. The warm, clear water will make you believe heaven is right there.
Heading south, we stop by Ponta da Baleia, where “Mr Rui” is expecting us for the boat crossing to Ilhéu das Rolas. He greets us with the classic friendliness of the São Tomé people.
We took the opportunity to visit the stunning Café and Joana beaches, where we had the chance to see the trail from a turtle that had made her nest a few hours before, as well as the famous Equator landmark, erected in honour of Portuguese geographer, navigator and historian, Gago Coutinho.
Other highlights included the stay at Pestana’s romantic bungalows and, this time, an explanation about the importance of this location for the turtles. São Tomé hosts the west-African coast’s last viable breeding population of the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle (E. Imbricata), locally known as “sada.” Ilhéu das Rolas is also one of the few places in the world with a large number of nests from this species and others. This is why, between November and February, one of the main attractions is the arrival of giant turtles to the beaches’ shores to lay their eggs, as well as the hatching of the baby turtles.
The hotel even employs biologists dedicated to protecting and preserving this species, and who organise nesting observations and the release of babies, secured and monitored in a purpose-built nursery, as well as several awareness campaigns during the year. You can also sponsor a nest or a turtle through the Tatô Programme, an organisation dedicated to the protection of sea turtles.
Back on São Tomé Island, there is still time to visit the São João de Angolares farm, managed by chef João Carlos Silva, known for the popular cooking show Na Roça com os Tachos (At the Farm with Pots). The place is a well-known name in São Tomé artistic and cultural circles, since, in addition to accommodation, it also has a renowned restaurant and art gallery.
Despite the island’s great variety of fish and fruit, outside the hotels there are no restaurants in the European sense, but rather houses where the residents set tables and chairs in their yards and prepare typical, local dishes. Countless fish, such as tuna, grouper, croaker, yellowtail amberjack, sardine, sea snail, swordfish and flying fish, are almost always served with fried plantain.
Over the last few centuries, the sustenance of the people of São Tomé and Príncipe has come from the land and the sea. We set off from São Tomé to finish our visit on Príncipe Island, appointed Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, a natural gem 40 minutes away by plane and with just over 7,500 residents.
Here you will find many deserted, white-sand beaches and tropical forests filled with flamboyant birds. We head up towards the Terreiro Velho plantation, the only one on the island where cocoa is produced by Italian chocolatier Claudio Corallo, who discovered Príncipe in the late 1990’s and never left. His famous chocolates even include salt from ‘our’ Ria Formosa, according to his daughter, Ricciarda Corallo, and they are sold online around the world.
Before our return, we are told that nothing in São Tomé and Príncipe is truly complete. Looking at the services available in the archipelago’s islands, that may be true, but what a feat it is that they remain untouched in the 21st century.
If you are looking for heavenly beaches, completely deserted and still in their wild state, the next stamp on your passport could very well be for São Tomé and Príncipe.