São Tomé & Principe - An Introduction

The Portuguese have been keeping a secret and it's an island nation called São Tomé  and Principe. They know all about the stunning natural beauty, the fabulous hotels and the friendly people - but they've been keeping it all to themselves. Countless articles in Portuguese language publications tout this ecological paradise, the organic single origin chocolate and  the famous chef producing  multi course lunches, but there's barely a whisper in English. Honestly I'm ambivalent about  adding my voice to the hushed tones because it's  such a special place.
I first  read about these islands off the west coast of Africa in a tiny blurb about the luxurious  new Sundy Praia resort in Lonely Planet Magazine. Then I began to see São Tomé  pop up on the instagram pages of some very well travelled people. The type of travelers  who have been everywhere but Central African Republic and the Yemen. When I saw it come it at number 9 on Lonely Planet's 2019 Best in Travel List  I was relieved we'd already made our reservations. 

The Lonely Planet blurb sounded like it had come directly from Tourist Board hyperbole!
"Surreal landscapes climb dramatically to the heavens, tropical waters kiss its empty beaches and jungles consume everything from colonial sugar, cocoa, and coffee plantations to sobering relics of the island’s past role in the slave trade. And whether trekking through the forests, climbing the mountains or snorkelling in the waters offshore, you’ll discover many untold treasures here."
But as you can see from this view of the Pico Sao Grande and the UNESCO biosphere from the water on Principe, these were not idle exaggerations. These forest landscapes are among the most important dense virgin rainforests in the African region.
The thing is it's hard to talk about these islands without resorting to superlatives. They really are unlike anywhere else I've been, yes, there's a cultural syncretism reminiscent of  Bahia in Brazil combined with the physical beauty of an remote Tahitian island. But there are  fewer residents or tourists  than you'd find in either.  Both islands are more dramatic (and in the case of Principe more pristine) landscapes than I've seen anywhere. My major worry in writing about them is that my blog post will collapse under the weight of a string of adjectives; stunning, gorgeous, untouched, delightful, natural, surprising, delicious. Natural wonders abound and beaches that would inspire their own twitter handles and crowds elsewhere are empty. 
But São Tomé  isn't just about the natural beauty of the island its also a fascinating cultural destination particularly for anyone interested in the history of the slave trade, sugar and chocolate as the islands have played and important role in each of these. Those looking to learn about these painful histories before coming to São Tomé  should pick up Chocolate Islands;  Slavery, Cocoa and Colonial Africa by Catherine Higgs. The history of  plantation agriculture and slavery is still evident in the decaying haciendas that litter the landscape. The precarious economic situation owes much to colonization and the reckless manner in which the Portuguese withdrew  from their overseas colonies in 1975. But that's a discussion for multiple doctorates I'm not going to be writing!
One should be careful not to conflate  the islands of Principe and São Tomé  as they're very different places. Most visitors make it as far as the larger island of São Tomé  and stop  as it's more expensive to stay and to travel to Principe. 
If you have the means I highly recommend seeing both islands. The capital of São Tomé  is very interesting with an active market and waterfront,  there are dilapidated tiled colonial building and churches that remind one of Havana,  as well as more  modern public buildings from the socialist period following independence when the country was allied with Cuba and East Germany. 
Here you can also visit the chocolate tasting workshop of master chocolatiers Claudio Corallo and Diego Vaz.

We added São Tomé  and Principe onto a longer journey through Algeria, Tunisia, Benin, Togo and Ghana and opted for an easy package from the HBD group which runs four hotels  on the islands. We planned two nights at Omali  their city property in São Tomé,  and five on Principe; three nights at Sundy Plantation and two nights at  the beach resort of Bom Bom.  The package made things very easy as all the major decisions were made and the flights were included. By the time I'd managed the logistics of the rest of this epic 50th birthday trip I was happy to hand over this section to someone else - even though this isn't generally how we do things.

The walk way at Bom Bom Principe, surely one of the most beautifully situated resorts in the world .
Overall I thought it was  a very good decision to spend more time on Principe though I would have enjoyed a few extra days on both islands. The dining room a Sundy Praia on Principe below.
An extra day in São Tomé, would have given us a chance to see the northern part of the island, but the flights from Portugal are only twice a week so  you don't have the opportunity to add a single night to a one week stay, it's either three, four, seven or ten nights to coordinate with the TAP flights. There were some issues during our stay and we ended up with two nights at Omali, two at Roca Sundy Plantation, two at Bom Bom and one at the luxurious Sundy Praia. Sundy Praia is a stunning new eco lodge and frankly it's in its own category. It can hold its own with some of the very best places we've stayed.  Below is one of their magnificent tented rooms with a private pool. 
I'll be blogging about each of these properties separately as they  have their own charms, its hard to choose between a historic hacienda, beach resort and luxury retreat. We didn't stay at the magnificent estate at Roca Belo Monte but we visited for lunch and we were impressed. It's a property on Principe that you should also consider. 
Its worth noting that HBD which runs Omali, Sundy Plantation and Bom Bom and Sundy Praia  has a deep pocketed owner and strong commitment to sustainability. They were involved in the foundation of the Principe Trust and are said to be generous benefactors locally. 
Two young women we gave a lift to on Principe because the school bus hadn't arrived.
However, there's no getting the way around the fact that these luxury developments are situated on islands where development is relatively weak and poverty is deeply rooted.  The World Bank notes that "poverty incidence has not changed significantly between the last two household surveys (2000 and 2010)".  Meaning there has been little improvement in conditions during this period. They describes the economy as fragile and  their estimates "show that about one-third of the population lives on less than $1.9 per day, and more than two-thirds of the population is poor, using a poverty line of $3.2 per day." 
An old colonial area plantation hospital on São Tomé which has been converted into modest homes.
Each of the properties we stayed in  have committed to hiring and training staff locally and it's clear that employment in the tourist sector is highly prized. The model being followed on Principe looks like a high value, low impact tourism which means expensive resorts with not too many tourists bringing as much money as possible. A similar approach has been successful in both Botswana and Bhutan. 
The restored house at Sundy Plantation on Principe.
I'm looking forward to showing you much more of these islands and hopefully keeping my adjectives in check! I must have loved the place, I can't believe I'm posting a bikini shot!
Note: As always we paid for everything; tours, transfers, meals, rooms etc. However,  I  did received a modest industry discount on the package. It wasn't large but transparency  matters.

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