If you draw a line along the Greenwich meridian to the spot where the line crosses the equator, then close by, at Africa’s westernmost point and 250km off the coast of Gabon, is where you will find the verdant, Atlantic islands of Sao Tome and Principe; two destinations that, once visited, will change your outlook on the world forever.
At just 1001km2 this little-visited archipelago is Africa’s second smallest country. What it lacks in size, these islands, and their satellite isles, make up for with their immense natural, experience-rich and deep-rooted cultural appeal. ‘Packs a punch’ would be one sentiment we would use to describe a holiday to São Tomé and Príncipe; another would be ‘takes your breath away’.
Products of a long-extinct volcano, the landscape of the islands is dramatic, beautiful and unforgiving: black basalt rocks, thundering waterfalls, glorious stretches of golden sand, warm turquoise water, mountain peaks and dense rainforests - packed so thickly that visible pathways are hard to find. From the air they have the distinct look of deserted paradise islands; from the land, you realise this initial impression is not far from the truth.
Birdlife on Sao Tome and Principe is exceptional, boasting the highest density of endemic species in the world - more per km2 than the Galapagos archipelago. Some 25, single-island species can be found here and a further 14 species are endemic to the country. The abundance of forest and lack of development ensure a pristine environment in which these birds can thrive, separate from their human neighbours. With a local guide it is possible to explore the islands’ interior and hear the calls of the prinia, blue waxbills, kingfishers, starlings, Sao Tome green pigeons, Principe drongo and the African grey parrot. Soaring above, the black kite can often be seen.
Off shore, the waters of the archipelago, amidst the Bay of Guinea, are considered a marine hotspot. Three species of sea turtle nest here (green turtle, hawksbill and leatherback) between October and January, with hatching from December to April, and the Loggerhead turtle can be observed in the islands' waters. Humpback whales migrate past the isles in July and August.
One hundred years ago, Sao Tome and Principe, under Portuguese colonisation, were the largest cocoa producers in the world. Former plantations now lie largely abandoned, reclaimed by nature. However, their heritage and products live on (to a lesser extent).
The primary language, Portuguese, can be traced back to this period. Cape Verdean creole, on the other hand, spoken by over 15,000 people, was introduced, and passed on, by plantation contract workers. The majority of Principe’s residents are of Cape Verdean descent, their ancestors left behind at the time of independence.
A visit to a plantation house (Roça) is a must, in our opinion. The crumbling estates will transport you back in time. Close your eyes and it’s not hard to imagine the sounds and smells of these former communities. Slowly but steadily, trees and vegetation are obliterating the legacy of colonisation - enabling excellent photographic opportunities - but, at a few, the plantation manors now house artist workshops and stores selling local products.
These islands are not stuck in the past. Times are changing on Sao Tome and Principe; improvements in infrastructure, communication and education, increased job opportunities and the introduction of new industries - tourism being one - are aiding social mobility. The islands’ capitals, Sao Tome (Sao Tome) and Santo Antonio (Principe), are vibrant communities with a fascinating architectural mix and warmly welcoming to those who visit. Explore the food markets to discover for yourself the vast array of locally colourful herbs, spices and vegetables. Be sure to stop and converse with those you meet; the more you engage the deeper and more enriching the experience (limited English is spoken but hand signals, smiles and basic words can make all of the difference).
With idyllic beach after idyllic beach, fringed by almond, coconut, bamboo and begonia, you could be forgiven for spending your days by the sea. Snorkelling, paddle boarding, kayaking and diving are all popular activities along the coast.
A variety of boat excursions operate, and are highly recommended by the Sunvil team. It is from the water the drama of the landscape unfolds.
With a walking guide it is possible to explore the islands’ natural parks and to discover cocoa trees almost eclipsed by a medley of ferns, banana trees, palms, breadfruit trees and more. At their roots, medicinal and aromatic herbs, including wild coriander, wild ginger and lemongrass can be harvested.
With minimal light pollution, the constellations of the night sky shine brightly. Find your own tranquil spot or book a local guide to understand more.