Things to do in São Tomé and Príncipe

Hire a car at São Tomé’s capital and drive south down the only road that leads south. At the bottom of the island is a ferry port. Take the ferry over to Rolas Island, a tiny islet. Congratulations: you’ve just arrived at the centre of the world.

Rolas Island is just six degrees of longitude off the Prime Meridian line. In fact, if you started your journey in London (GMT), changed plane in Lisbon (GMT again) and then came here, you’ve travelled a very long distance down zero degrees longitude indeed.
Maybe you want to beach hop, or perhaps you’re tempted by a Jules Verne caper to the centre of the earth.
If this is the centre of the world, it doesn’t feel very pivotal. There are just a couple of hundred thousand people living in São Tomé, and just a few thousand living on Príncipe, its neighbour to the north. São Tomé was discovered by Portuguese mariners in 1470, on the feast day of St Thomas – hence its name. It served as a Portuguese colony for a few hundred years, and slaves were brought in to work on its cocoa plantations. Eventually it waned in economic importance and lapsed into obscurity. Independence came in 1975, but global fame is yet to arrive.

Tourism is in its infancy. The majority head straight to the eco-hotels on Príncipe, which has the better beaches, too. “What people tend to do is miss São Tomé,” says Alistair Walls, Africa expert at our São Tomé specialist Far and Wild. “They go and see the capital and then they run to Príncipe.”
Alistair recommends a couple of days to explore São Tomé first before you take the 150km plane trip north. You could hire a car from the capital and drive around the island: “It’s quite difficult to get lost as there are not many roads, you can have a little adventure.”

Whatever you choose to do, these islands are inherently interesting. Alistair is attracted by their wild rocky forms: “The geology is great. I think because of them not just being coral islands, they have ancient volcanoes, these huge monoliths... There aren’t a lot of people; there’s lots of rainforest.”

Invariably, if you’re discovering São Tomé and Príncipe for the first time, you’ll probably see an image of Pico Cão Grande, the large monolith that rises above Obo Natural Park. This park is made up of a dense primal forest that coats the uninhabited southwest of São Tomé. There are no hotels in this remote corner of the island so the best way to go is through specially-organised excursions. It’s fantastic for birding, but requires a degree of intrepidness.

Like any explorer, you need to come here with a certain degree of flexibility. “The islands are specks in the ocean and the weather changes very fast,” says Alistair. This means that it’s best to arrive with no plan, and make it up as you go.

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Activities in São Tomé and Príncipe

Nature watching

São Tomé and Príncipe’s nature has earned it comparisons with the Galapagos Islands. There are a large number of birds that you won’t see anywhere else in the world. Many beaches are important nesting sites for turtles, and the ocean beyond is on the migratory route for humpback whales. Best of all, the wildlife here is pretty tame around humans, so your chance to spot at least a few of the endemic species is high.

Cultural adventures

São Tomé was settled in the 15th century and the majority of the population are descendents of Portuguese colonists and African slaves. Sãotoméan culture is open and welcoming. “The receptionist at the plantation hotel will tell you that her sister is head teacher at the school and, before you know it, you’ll be in the classroom meeting the kids,” says Alistair. Music and dancing are a big part of island life. Learning to dance to Sãotoméan kizomba – dance music which originated in Angola in the eighties – requires a partner and a good sense of rhythm.

Watersports

There are two dry seasons in São Tomé and Príncipe (one from December to February, one from June to September), but that doesn’t mean that you should stay dry. The beaches on Príncipe are remote and untouched – in São Tomé’s you’re more likely to encounter local life – dozing dogs, splashing kids and returning fishermen. You can beach-hop via boat excursions, or go kayaking, diving and snorkelling.

Plantation visits

Rocas are old plantation buildings. Some have been restored into hotels, others lie in charismatic ruin, and others still produce São Tomé’s once vital export – chocolate. São Tomé chocolatiers like Diogo Vaz can give you a taste of the island’s growing craft chocolate industry, which prizes single-origin beans and practices organic farming. São Tomé still exports a small amount of coffee, making it one of the smallest producers in the world. Visit Monte Café, a rusting 19th-century hilltop plantation, one of the largest and most historic on the island – for a museum tour.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Helena Van Eykeren] [Intro: Far and Wild] [Nature watching: Bernard Spragg. NZ] [Plantation visits: Miss Helena]
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