You will not get a more accurate description for a country as 'unspoilt' and 'off the beaten track' as you do to describe the small islands of São Tomé and Príncipe which are just off the West African coast of Gabon. As an ex-Portugeuse colony the islands were a major 'holding bay' for African slaves with slave ships arriving daily into the port to pick up its 'cargo' destined for the Caribbean. In the past few years tourism has slowly been introduced with the building of a few international hotels but the majority of visitors are still expats and NGOs from the African mainland. The islands which are on the equator have tropical jungles, exotic birds, trees and flowers, deserted beaches, volcanoes and volcanic plugs and some breathtaking scenery. São Tomé is the oldest of the Gulf of Guinea islands and has the greatest biological diversity with many endemic birds and plants which attract only the most hardy of nature lovers as the jungles can be pretty thick and some of the rarest endemics are hard to spot.
Like Gabon, São Tomé and Príncipe will not be for everyone, unless you want to head straight for the international hotels so please give us a ring for more information.
São Tomé has the international airport and São Tomé town has a look and feel of faded glory. There is a friendly and relaxed 'island' atmosphere and it must have been a beautiful town in its day. It's definitely worth a day wandering around to visit the market with its weird and wonderful fruits and each afternoon the fisherman bring in to the town beach their catches of snapper, wahoo and marlin which are mainly caught on hand lines! Quite a feat!
It's easy to hire a car or take a driver and drive around the single coast road where you can visit the beaches which are either black or golden sand or volcanic rock. You can visit faded and dilapidated plantations which in their heyday provided schools, hospitals and even kindergardens for their workers. Some of the plantations are still running, well below capacity but you can see what they would have been like in the past, growing cocoa, coffee and palm trees for oil.
The interior of the island is pretty thick jungle and walks and overnight camping can be arranged within the Obo National Park which is made up of secondary forest, which has grown over old plantations, but higher up there are pristine, ancient forests. There are crater lakes and waterfalls and you can climb the dormant volcano Pico de São Tomé at 2024m. Walking can be quite tough as the jungle is thick in places, paths slippy in the rains and it is hot and humid all year round.
The Santana is not far from São Tomé town and a good place to stay to explore the north coast for a day or two. There are 25 very comfortable air-conditioned cottages, set in beautiful tropical gardens, on the hill with views over the sea. There is a nice little beach with sun beds and a bar. The restaurant is set on cliff top and has lovely views over the small rocky island of Santana. It has rather an expensive set dinner menu or a local menu (which I would recommend). You can relax here for a day or 2 but I would suggest a bit of exploring as well.
The Roça São João is a plantation house half way down the east coast of Sao Tome and well worth a visit. It is a traditional plantation house owned by a local artist and bizarrely he also hosts a Portuguese cable television cookery programme! He is quite a character and does much for the local community. He also makes the best food we had had in Gabon or São Tomé! Using local seafood and ingredients in a simple but imaginative way and even if you don't want to stay the night you must stop off for lunch. The rooms are simple but comfortable with colonial furniture but there is no aircon and if you don't mind a few bugs and cockroaches then I would highly recommend a night here. The young guys who work there, are lovely and all musicians so we had a rendition of local Saotomian music, lying in a hammock on the terrace lit by palm oil lamps. It couldn't have been more atmospheric.
The Pestana Equador is on Rolas Island to the south of São Tomé, it was an old plantation lodge and the reception, dive centre and staff accommodation is still in the original building.
The hotel is quite large with 70 very nicely decorated, wooden, ensuite rooms and the biggest free form swimming pool I have seen. Meals are on a buffet basis and are good but nothing special though the seafood and salads were good. The main bar and games rooms is rather large but there is a nicer smaller bar in the old plantation lodge where snacks are also served. There is a well organised dive center which organises three dives per day. There are some great dives sites mainly based around volcanic rocks with arches and caves to explore. There are some hard and soft corals and plenty of fish, eels, octopus, turtles and much more to look at. A number of the clients visiting are at the hotel specifically to dive. The lodge also has deep sea fishing boats otherwise activities include walks around the island and lounging by the pool or on the beach.
The island of Rolas is stunning with some lovely beaches and rocky coves (do watch out for the rocks when swimming) and to the south of the island volcanic cliffs with caves and blow holes. There are two hills on the island, one which has the light house which you can climb with permission from the light house keeper. The Equator cuts the island and a short walk from the hotel there is a small monument and tiled world map showing the line of the Equator. From here you get lovely views across to the main island of São Tomé with its volcanic plugs and heavily jungle covered volcanoes. There are also lovely views over the hotel and down to the beaches.