The par­adise is­lands that tourism for­got

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

man at Rain­bow Tours. Few oper­a­tors go there, and the coun­try gets only 13,000 tourists a year. “It’s not for­got­ten,” he said. “It’s never been dis­cov­ered.”

It’s easy to see how you might over­look it. When I first spotted it on a re­lief map of the At­lantic, it looked like two nee­dles ris­ing off the ocean floor, each with a tiny is­land perched on top. São Tomé is roughly the size of An­gle­sey, while Príncipe com­pares to the Isle of Wight. Sep­a­rated by 99 miles of ocean, they are, in car­to­log­i­cal terms, a pair of free-float­ing full-stops.

Closer up, they’re harder to ig­nore. From the air, they look im­prob­a­bly dra­matic. Hav­ing risen 3,000m (9,840ft) off the seabed, parts of them carry on ris­ing an­other 2,000m (6,560ft). There’s noth­ing un­du­lat­ing about th­ese moun­tains. They’re like great blue fangs, cov­ered in a rich vel­vet of for­est and cloud. One of th­ese peaks – on Príncipe – is so sheer that, un­til re­cently, it was thought it had only ever been climbed twice in 31 mil­lion years. It’s ridicu­lous to de­scribe any­where as a Lost World now, but this one got se­ri­ously mis­laid.

We be­gan in the cap­i­tal, São Tomé city. There can be few places as charm­ing and de­crepit. This is Africa’s own minia­ture Ha­vana, with its lit­tle pink palaces and colo­nial churches. The foun­tains may be dry but the town re­mains de­fi­antly cheery. Life is lived un­der the al­mond trees, and, in the gen­eral store, time had stopped in about 1952. Mean­while, in the old rail­way sheds (now known as CACAU), we found an un­for­get­table ex­hi­bi­tion. The sculp­tures weren’t of hero sol­diers, but the city’s stray dogs. Ev­ery­where there were traces of the Por­tuguese – in the lan­guage, the colours, and the NGOs. Dur­ing the colo­nial era (1470-1975), São Tomé was first a slav­ing port and then the cen­tre of a choco­late em­pire. Por­tu­gal’s pretty, cream-painted fort, São Se­bastião, is still there. In­side, the coun­try’s en­tire his­tory is told in five small rooms, be­gin­ning with shack­les and Madon­nas, and end­ing with a faith­healer’s cures and his lucky skull.

The San­tomeans we met were un­hur­ried peo­ple, friendly by de­fault. Stu­dents would clus­ter around our ho­tel’s Wi-Fi, and I re­mem­ber a ven­dor with an oil drum on his head, an­other bal­anc­ing a fish. Some­times we ran into the pres­i­dent him­self, who was of­ten weav­ing through the crowd in his cav­al­cade of an­cient Toy­otas. Our driver, Lance, seemed to know ev­ery­one, even the ped­lars with their great yokes of oc­to­pus. Per­haps that’s John Gim­lette trav­elled as a guest of Rain­bow Tours (020 7666 1266; rain­bow, which offers an 11-day tai­lor­made tour to São Tomé and Príncipe from £2,745pp based on two shar­ing. In­cludes flights from Lon­don, four nights’ B&B at Omali Lodge, six nights’ half-board at Bom Bom on Príncipe, trans­fers and do­mes­tic flights. TAP Por­tu­gal (fly­ flies from Lon­don Heathrow, Gatwick and Manch­ester to São Tomé (via Lis­bon) three times a week. From £770 re­turn in­clud­ing all taxes and sur­charges.

Omali Lodge: Offers 30 cheery, mod­ern suites ar­ranged around a pool – and the only ten­nis court in the coun­try. Across the road is a beach (00239 222 2350; oma­; dou­bles from €135).

Pes­tana São Tomé: Stylish five-star ho­tel, aimed at busi­ness trav­ellers. The São Jerón­imo fort, dated 1530, sits in the grounds and there is a su­perb salt­wa­ter pool over­look­ing the bay (00239 224 4500; pes­tana. com; dou­bles from €194).

Pes­tana Equador, Il­héu das Ro­las: Small re­sort with 70 cab­ins, lovely gar­dens and a fine promon­tory set­ting (00239 226 1195; pes­tana. com; dou­bles from €134).

Mu­cum­bli Ecolodge, Neves: Five de­light­ful clifftop chalets, with a beach of black basaltic sand 10 min­utes’ walk away. The food is ex­cel­lent (00239 990 8736; mu­cum­bli. word­; dou­bles from €60).

Bom Bom Is­land Re­sort, Príncipe: With 20 bun­ga­lows, it’s a per­fect bal­ance be­tween sub­tlety and lux­ury. A walk­way links it to a tiny is­land; the res­tau­rant and views are idyl­lic (00239 225 1114/1141; bom bom­principe. com; dou­bles from €330). not sur­pris­ing. At 196,000, the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of the coun­try is slightly smaller than that of York.

From the city, we set off in all di­rec­tions. Al­most im­me­di­ately we’d be en­veloped in for­est. Trees cover al­most 90 per cent of the ar­chi­pel­ago, and of­ten the only way through is the new road pro­vided by Brus­sels. Ev­ery now and then we’d cross a mag­nif­i­cent river. Usu­ally, its black lava banks were laid out with wash­ing, and they looked like long, thin quilts, wrig­gling off into the mist. For most San­tomeans, it’s a sim­ple life. There are no buses, no cin­ema and no daily pa­pers. It’s a good day when there’s pork, and the wash­ing dries.

Around us, a beau­ti­ful world un­folded. We drove to the west coast first. The for­est thinned, and baob­abs ap­peared, like car­toon trees. Near the end of the road, we reached Mu­cum­bli, our tiny eco-lodge, high

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