Travel Guide: São Tomé and Príncipe
Uncovering the bittersweet island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe
When I first started researching the tiny and remote islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, I couldn’t understand why every itinerary I came across sent people straight to the smaller of the two islands and, bar an extreme hike or old landmark, São Tomé was hardly celebrated at all.
I convinced myself that it must be because everyone who goes there to document the place is either sent by a media house or travel agency and doesn’t have the time or inclination to go beneath the surface. How could such a beautiful place (or at least as beautiful as I could make it out to be by way of Instagram and some of the past travellers who had documented it online) not be mind-blowingly beautiful, perfectly undiscovered and full of gems? It turns out I was right but also very wrong.
I suppose it's naive to think we can still discover new lands in this day and age.
In case you’ve never heard of the place, like so many who admitted to turning to Google when they found out where I was going, or looking up my location tags while I was en route, São Tomé and Príncipe is an African island nation off the West Coast of Central Africa, lying just above the Equator. The islands form part of a volcanic chain that is spread out over a section of warm ocean, just a few degrees off the very centre of the world map.
A biodiverse tropical jungle covers much of both islands, which opens in parts to reveal striking rock formations and magnificent, untouched beaches. On paper, it's the most beautiful place on earth but in reality, travelling through comes with challenges they don't really tell you about in the few articles and guides that do exist.
Now, if you’d like to “choose your own adventure” and get to the calmer, cleaner and easier part of this post, scroll down to when we arrived in Príncipe, otherwise enjoy some travel stories from the forgotten island of São Tomé.
In the middle of the city centre in São Tomé.
My partner and I decided it would be a good idea to spend two weeks on the island of São Tomé and then fly over to Príncipe for a third week. That way we could not only take our time exploring and really getting into island life but we could also experience all of it, getting to know both islands intimately. In hindsight, it's far too long but you don't know, until you know. Now you know. We left on the 21st of December 2018.
I also vowed to write the best travel guide known to mankind. I planned to out-research and out-write all who visited the islands before me, from Lonely Planet to Travelstart and everyone in between. Easier said than done but this is still going to be the kind of mini-guide I wish I had read before I went. For example, no one told us that good meals are few and far between (the internet lied) so pack plenty of nuts and biltong in your backpack, like a packet of each per person, per day.
TAAG Airlines (Angola) now flies from Cape Town or Johannesburg to São Tomé, via Luanda. It’s a relatively easy journey, which is also relatively affordable (except for the brief stop at Luanda International Airport where a coffee and a bag of crisps will cost you R300). For those traveling from the rest of the world, TAP Air Portugal flies directly to São Tomé and multiple flights can get you to Luanda for the first stretch. Flying from South Africa costs anywhere from R7500 up, per person. But getting to the island of Príncipe requires another flight. We initially booked one through an airline that was suspended a week before we left Cape Town (you can’t make this stuff up!) but luckily we managed to book another one on TAP for R3500 each.
Getting a visa ended up being annoying because there was a fair amount of conflicting information online, which is to be expected when so few South Africans have visited the place. I actually don’t know any, bar the team at Classic Portfolio (which is how I first came across São Tomé and Príncipe). What I now know is that you can simply apply for a visa online here and then pay €20 on arrival at the airport but there are no ATM’s anywhere, whatsoever, so have your cash in hand.
In São Tomé and Príncipe, the currency is the Dobra. But you can’t get any there without first having Euros so you need to get cash before you go and a lot of it. As for credit card usage, only very established hotels accept Visa or Mastercard. Everyone else deals strictly in cash. The exchange is set at €1 = 24.5 or 24 500.
Where To Stay
Waves Ocean Apartment in Santana was where we spent our first week in São Tomé. It is a somewhat “rustic beach shack” but very spacious, has uninterrupted ocean views over one of the only surf spots on the island and is a short (but steep) walk away from a beautiful and wild, private beach. We were both blown away when we woke up on our first morning and thought we’d hit the jackpot. Waves is run by Andreia and Yves, who have 14 listings in the area. Because there aren’t many restaurant option nearby, all meals can be made to order at Waves but they are criminally overpriced for what you get so we tried one breakfast and stopped there. Once we’d figured out where the decent grocery shops were, we made our own meals, using the basic kitchen facilities they have. You could also visit the Club Santana hotel for meals, it's a couple of km's down the road. But food inconveniences, the overly inflated cost of Waves (what you pay versus what you get), and some deteriorating amenities aside, we both enjoyed staying there and having a spacious and private base from which to start our exploration of the island. Waves is also close to the São Tomé Surf Club if you're looking for surf.
Next we moved on to Monte Cafe in the centre of the island. It is located on what was once a major coffee plantation but now operates on a much smaller scale. São Tomé and Príncipe were once a thriving coffee and cocoa nation but ever since they gained independence from the Portuguese in 1975, most of the industry has fallen apart. However, a few entrepreneurs are working hard to keep it alive and you can learn about their efforts while there but getting areallygood cup of coffee is not an option in São Tomé. The irony. If you’d like to stay in a local village, tour an old coffee museum and don't mind spending some time without WiFi, Monte Cafe is for you. We were here for New Year’s Eve, which ended up involving us watching Netflix on an iPhone before turning in, before midnight, with earplugs.
These kinds of events always make for good, unforgettable travel stories. At the time you question your sanity but in hindsight, it was an experience. São Tomé is not short on natural beauty and this part of the island is no exception, plus it’s fascinating (and eye-opening) to immerse yourself in a local community. On pricing, a room at Monte Cafe is dirt cheap and breakfast is included. According to online reviews, it also has one of the best restaurants on the island but if I am completely honest, we were very underwhelmed and returned to our desperate supermarket foraging for the remainder of our stay.
Tip: Nestle’s Nestum baby cereal is bloody delicious when you're starving. It came to that.
On that WiFi note, there is ZERO cell reception for South Africans, anywhere on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe. Many AirBnB’s and all hotels do offer some WiFi with varying strengths so that helps but we decided to get a local sim card and it turned out to be useful because you will need Google Maps to get around. Still no communicating with the outside world though, except via WhatsApp or Social Media.
Our last stop on the island of São Tomé was a little suite in a private home just above the beautiful and untouched Praia Micondo. Praia is the Portuguese word for beach. The place is run by two women who decided to break away from their lives back in Portugal and retreat to the island for a change of pace. Their wooden house on stilts is cosy and comfortable and the view from the wrap-around verandah is all tropical and absolutely sublime. It was here we had our best breakfasts in São Tomé: Fresh fruit (tropical island bananas are the best), great coffee, grilled toast with proper butter (luxury!) and coconut water. You’d be amazed at how you stop taking the simple things for granted when you have limited access to them.
This is a really great base from which to explore the Southern parts of the island. The roads are also better maintained (up to a point) and the tropical rainforest scenery is really breathtaking. It’s also a stone’s throw from Roça São João dos Angolares, the best restaurant on the island.
There are also these accommodation options on the island, which looked rather decent up close or were well located according to our research:
Omali Lodge is owned by the same group that is responsible for the three hotels we stayed at on the island of Principe. More on that to come but we did a half day transit here on our way home, at the end of the trip. It’s located close to the airport so convenient for short stays between arriving and departing or just spending a couple of nights on São Tomé (for the sole purpose of covering a quick island tour). And they have really good pizza. We also took advantage of their pool. All nice and neat and comfortable but more resort-like and less culturally immersive than staying in an AirBnB.
N`Guembú Nature Resort is down South, remotely positioned on a hill above one of the most beautiful beaches on the island and close to Porto Alegre, the port of departure for getting across to Ilhéu das Rolas, or the Equator Island. It has quaint little blue and white cabins, a restaurant (which has decent coffee and somewhat-toasted sandwiches) and access to some magnificent beaches, but that’s pretty much it.
Roça São João dos Angolares: First the best restaurant on the island, second an interesting art gallery, third a guest house. It’s an institution.
Jalé Eco Lodge is located on a wild and remote beach down South. If I had to go back, I'd definitely spend two nights there. Again, food options are astonishingly scarce but if you're prepared, the scenery should make up for it.
How To Get Around São Tomé
Renting a car is the only way to get around São Tomé independently. We rented an old but cute little Suzuki Vitara from São Férias, a local tour operator, which we picked up from the airport when we landed. I struggled a bit with it at times (especially the 4WD, we even thought I’d broken the car at one stage and stranded ourselves) but I got more and more confident on the crazy, animal/human/every-kind-of-obstruction roads of São Tomé as the days went by. Adi would disagree and now thinks I'm the worst driver on the planet but hey, you can't win 'em all.
WARNING: The roads are very rundown, especially around the main city. As Lonely Planet so aptly put it: "STP's long economic decline has devastated its infrastructure. The historic architecture is decaying on every street, the roads are choked with potholes, and the central market is filthy." I'm afraid so.
Roads are very quiet and more freshly tarred in other parts of the island but as soon as you get near people, villages and anything even remotely inhabited, things can get pretty crazy. If you don’t mind the company, tour guides are optional, and they'll drive, but that way of travelling wasn't for us.
Many locals ride motorcycles, even in pouring rain, but you honestly couldn’t pay me to hire one. That whole island motorcycle fantasy thing would be a little too hair-raising in São Tomé.
Taxis? There are plenty but if you don’t speak Portuguese, I’m not sure how easy (or cost effective) they would be to use. No, you will not find any Ubers.
Filling up? Adi managed to use hand gestures, and the confidence of someone who has travelled far more than I have, to keep the car running. Petrol stations are dotted around the island but once again, cash only.
Where To Eat
Roça Sao Joao de Angolores is by far the most established, considered and delicious dining experience on the entire island of São Tomé. More than ten courses are served for lunch (or dinner), for a very reasonable €25 per person. A real highlight.
SuperCKDo and Intermar offer the best grocery shopping experiences you’ll find in São Tomé. You could always try local markets for fish and other fresh produce but to be honest, they all terrified the hell out of me. Interesting to explore and photograph (if you don't mind being shouted at in Portuguese by locals) but I wouldn’t know were to begin with bartering. Intermar is located in the centre of town and the better of the two SuperCKDo’s is at the end of the main promenade, on the way to the airport. If you happen to stumble across the one in town by the taxi rank first, like we did, have faith, there is a better one out there.
Our go-to for toasted cheese sandwiches and occasionally pizza (the kind you buy in the freezer section of a supermarket) was Jasmin Cafe. Quality varied from day to day but when it’s hot, you’re starving, and you know what you’re in for, it offers a decent meal.
Club Santana has really good pizza and you can pay with a credit card.
Diogo Vaz serves up the most refined of local chocolate treats and decent coffee, in a modern and (air-conditioned) space. It feels more European than local but I liked it as a relief from the humidity. Also, chocolate. We stopped by 5 or 6 times. I also recommend a chocolate tasting at Claudio Corallo’s chocolate laboratory, which is just down the road.
Petisqueira Leo comes highly recommended by locals. If you want to try something unique, authentic and delicious, visit this little spot in São Tomé town. It looks onto a parking lot but it offers the kind of fish you’d want to find yourself eating while on a tropical island adventure.
More Things To See and Do
Stroll along the decaying promenade and see Capela de São Pedro, a little abandoned church that makes for a great photo. If you manage to walk all the way to the end, visit the old Forte De Sao Sebastiao for a history lesson.
Hunt for Água Izé and its abandoned hospital. You will be harassed by local kids but the old architecture is hauntingly beautiful and worth exploring.
Drive down the west coast of the island through Neves and Santa Catarina. If you don’t mind the pot holes, you will be rewarded with some of the most incredible natural beauty on the island.
Hunt for Pico Cão Grande, the island’s most unusual needle-shaped volcanic peak. The drive down South to Parque Natural Obô de São Tomé is magnificent until you get to eerie palm oil plantations, but you just have to do it. The roads are also nightmarish and make you feel like your car may fall apart but it’s part of the adventure.
Take a day trip to Ilhéu das Rolas so you can stand on the equator line, which has been demarcated with a monument up on the hill above the local village. I can’t recommend the buffet lunch at the island's only hotel, Pestana Equador, so take a snack or if you’re feeling adventurous, hook something up with a local. We didn’t use the hotel’s ferry for this trip (which is the most popular option for visitors to the island), instead we were given the details of a local from Porto Alegre and sent over in his friend’s precarious little blue boat.
Find Tamarindos Beach, it’s all white sand, turquoise water and very little else, not even people. Two of my favourite memories from our trip were made at this beach. As I’ve mentioned, finding good food in São Tomé is really difficult, most restaurants are rather sh*t. But we did have Intermar, where we bought imported salami, mini travel packs of butter and a tube of Pringles, before going to the better of the two SuperCKDo Chinese supermarket warehouses on the island, to buy fresh Portuguese rolls and highly processed cheese slices. Mmm mmm! We then headed to Tamarindos for a picnic and a swim. It was an incredible meal in the face of great hunger. On another occasion, Adi bought super-ripe mangoes from some local kids and we ate them on the beach. Hunger can certainly reshape one’s experience of simpler food.
Tamarindos is also close to Lagoa Azul, a popular diving spot on the island.
At this point, I should probably mention the weather. If the weather is not great (overcast and muggy), São Tomé and Príncipe can feel quite depressing, but then again most island destinations can. On most days, everything was quite gloomy and grey but when the sun shines and beautiful light is cast across remote beaches and through forested canopies, it can be exceptionally ethereal. According to a measure of available sunshine hours per day, the best time to visit would be in June or July when you can get up to 5,5.
After an ofttimes hair-raising but mostly eye-opening and wildly adventurous experience of São Tomé, it was time to head over to the smaller, and even more tropical island of Príncipe for some rest and relaxation. By this time, Adi and I were quite exhausted so it was a welcome respite. We got on a plane and about half an hour later, we were collected on the other side by the team from Bom Bom.
And this is where I found my favourite swimming beach, out of all of the beaches on all three islands we had visited.
Príncipe is only 20km long and 12km wide. It’s likened to something out of Jurassic Park in many of the write-ups I had read and the comparison fits. It’s hardly inhabited, is far calmer than São Tomé, sees even fewer tourists, and each of the luxury hotels that have been taken over or developed by HBD Hotels (an operation inspired by South African tech billionaire Mark Shuttleworth) are off any main stretch so each feels like a unique lost world in itself. Because each property is very different to the next, if you’re heading over, you might as well experience all three or commute between them on day trips.
Bom Bom is more rustic and worn in than its sister hotel and lodge but the beaches surrounding it are extraordinary. One morning I went for a swim and I had what felt like the entire ocean to myself. I lay on my back and watched different kinds of exotic birds moving in and out of the wall of forest that lined the beach. The water is clear and the temperature is perfect. Weather is temperamental in this part of the world but we did get a fair amount of sunshine and plenty of heat during our stay.
Activities on Príncipe are for the wealthier adventurer and include 4x4ing, hiking, boat trips and diving. There are no tourist shops or other such traps and instead visitors are presented with a unique view into quaint island life. You can lie on the beach all day or have spa treatments if you so wish, but I think it’s more rewarding to explore. There is a complimentary shuttle service that runs between properties and to the main town of Santo António. You can also arrange guided excursions or even rent your own car, which in hindsight I wish we had done.
From Bom Bom we moved to an old cocoa plantation house, Roça Sundy, lying further inland on Príncipe. We stayed in the beautifully restored Colonial House, which is Roca Sundy’s main, original building, and also where the hotel services, restaurant and bar are to be found. A highlight for me was the breakfast spread but all the food was made with love. Meals got better and better as we made our way across Príncipe and we no longer needed to forage like we had in São Tomé.
Our last stop, and my favourite of all the HBD lodges on Príncipe, was Sundy Praia. It was back to the coast and into a luxurious tented suite for our last two nights. Sundy Praia is the crème de la crème as far as location, lodge design and luxury hospitality goes. It is set in a tropical forest, and features a beautiful Balinese-designed restaurant, run by executive chef Angelo Rosso, a spa and a cool little bar above the lodge's rim-flow pool, which looks onto the beach.
So what about HBD Hotel’s impact on the natural world? Because there is no denying the stark contrast between the luxury traveller's experience and sure signs of extreme poverty on the islands.
Well, “...if change is coming, better that someone sensitive handles it. You can’t will people [to stay in] poverty: that is a dangerous thing westerners try to do,” Shuttleworth says. “You have to try and figure out a way to improve people’s quality of life and their ability to participate in the world, while still protecting what they may not realise is very special about their environment.” HBD has been instrumental in uplifting local communities and giving back to the land, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
"The biosphere reserve is home to great biodiversity in terrestrial as well as in marine ecosystems, with high rates of endemism in many groups of organisms, especially vascular plants, molluscs, insects, birds, reptiles and bats. It is part of the biodiversity hotspot of tropical forests of West Africa, containing a wide range of plant communities and habitats of high international importance such as primary tropical forests, forest shade, palm trees and lowland riparian habitats. Considering the importance that this area has for the reproduction of sea turtles, seabirds and cetaceans, as well as coral reefs, on the international scene, it’s an area of great interest for the conservation of global biological diversity." - UNESCO
If you’re interested in visiting the island of Príncipe and have a healthy budget to spend, explore all the links above and then get in touch with the team at Classic Portfolio, who can put together a proper itinerary for you and manage all the tricky stuff that often comes with African travel.
All in all, it was quite the "holiday" and one of many contrasts. I do now understand why most itineraries send guests straight to Príncipe and HBD’s three lodges for all the beauty and comfort they offer, because São Tomé certainly isn’t easy and if you want more bang for buck, there are many other places to visit first like Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. But if you are well travelled and like to visit destinations very few do, both islands are extraordinarily beautiful and quite unique, especially with all the decaying ruins of the old Portuguese rule. One of the best things about the experience is that the islands aren't swarming with tourists, like you see in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.
São Tomé and Príncipe is very much for the curious and adventurous traveller. While São Tomé desperately needs a boom, like Tourism, they don't have the infrastructure to support it, yet. There are many opportunities in Príncipe to go on wild 4x4 and diving adventures, or sit back and relax while drinking cocktails and eating delicious food (if you have the budget for it), otherwise you need to be clever about how you plan your trip, knowing exactly what you're in for before you go. So, if the islands have piqued your interest, I hope I have helped you in that regard. As I said, I wish I had been a little more prepared but I don’t believe any of it was wasted.
Everything is an adventure.
This article was initially published here.