The paradise islands that tourism forgot
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 tours.co.uk), 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 (flytap.com) 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; omalilodge.com; 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. wordpress.com; 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