Beyond compare? The delights of São Tomé and Príncipe

From castaway beaches to exquisite chocolate, the remote African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe has attractions to rival the world’s best.

Rainforest cloaks 90 per cent of the island of Príncipe, tumbling down from its volcanic peaks to trespass on the coves that crease
its northern coast. Where forest meets sea, palms protrude at opportunistic angles, as if to announce the empty beaches with an unbridled ‘ta-dah!’.

The needle-shaped volcanic plug of Pico Cão Grande rises from the southern hinterland of São Tomé  © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

Its beaches are as idyllic as the Seychelles'

Príncipe’s many beaches range from the blissfully remote to lively fishing hubs. On Praia de Santa Rita, snorkellers drift over a small reef, seeking out parrotfish, barracuda and golden African snapper. To the west, on Praia de Coco, the prints in the sand left by lone wanderers are likely joined only by those of languid dogs. And aside from a pair of jostling tropic birds, Praia Banana, which once starred in a Bacardi ad, is deserted. Turquoise water laps at basalt boulders and a coconut is tossed about by the waves. It’s all a bit much for one palm, which has crashed out from the sheer bliss of it all.

The sun sets through the palm trees over the beach on Príncipe  © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

Further east, at Praia dos Burros, teenagers play cards on upturned boats while young boys perform back flips into the shallow water, shrieking with laughter and emerging plastered in sand. In front of the ramshackle stilt homes, flying fish are splayed out on rope beds, drying in the sun. ‘Bondja ô!’ calls a fisherman, whose wide smile reveals two premolars at the corners of his mouth. He wanders over to share a few words of the local Forro language. Portuguese is the official language on the islands, but 85 per cent of people speak one of three creoles. ‘Bon-jow-ooh’ he sings, drawing out the vowels of his good morning greeting, and laughs,  proving that a warm Santomean welcome is just as appealing as a day in the sun on the beach.

Its hiking trails as mysterious as Peru's

It’s late afternoon and the saturated hues of Príncipe’s northwest coast are being painted with even more vivid brushstrokes: in this light, the bandy palm trunks appear almost amber and the wavy leaves of tropical almond trees turn an iridescent green.

The slow way to soak up these shifting colours is to pick up one of six new hiking trails on the island. I set off on the two-mile path from Praia Bom Bom to Ribeira Izé and find it bouncy with decaying palm leaves and almond husks. It is littered with fallen breadfruit – soft, fibrous and swarming with ants. The trail finally emerges at a ruined church, the remains of the first settlement built by Portuguese seafarers in 1471.

'Father and son' João Dias Pai and João Dias Filho appear through the mist  © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

Exploring an increasingly mapped ocean, they had stumbled upon the pioneer’s Holy Grail – an uninhabited archipelago. They populated this benign lost world with slaves from Angola, Cabo Verde and Mozambique, planting with cocoa and sugarcane. Five centuries on, the rainforest is slowly metabolising this first human footprint. Three enormous trees twist out of the church’s nave; epiphytes wrap around the branches; white roots splay over the crumbling, coral-coloured walls.

Further along the coast, low clouds shroud the twin peaks of João Dias Pai and João Dias Filho (the ‘father and son’), leaving a sense that something much larger looms behind. Príncipe’s thickly forested interior is skewered with phonolithic rock towers, ranging from phallic pinnacles to flat table-tops. I join Estrela Matilde, project manager for the island’s Unesco Biosphere Reserve, in a hike to the summit of one of the largest – Pico Papagaio (680m).

As the path nears the top after a four-hour scramble, it steepens rapidly; my hands grapple for red ropes knotted between trees and I haul myself up sheer rocks. Finally, we emerge with muddy knees and triumphant smiles. In the time it takes to soak up the surroundings at the summit, views of the ‘father and son’ opposite dissolve into mist. ‘Without upkeep, a trail like this can completely change within weeks,’ Estrela says. As if to demonstrate her point, the heavens open and flood the path with a Biblical downpour.

It champions slow food as well as Italy does

The motto of São Tomé and Príncipe, ‘léve, léve’ (literally, ‘easy, easy’), is revealed in everything Santomeans do – and after a couple of days of disarming conversations and unhurried meals, it’s hard not to follow suit. Then again, in a world of abundance where fish literally leap from the sea and one can almost see the plants grow in the wet, warm climate, why rush?

Slow-food chef João Carlos Silva at his restaurant Roça São João © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

Chef João Carlos Silva believes that this culture of slow, simple pleasures filters into the nation’s cuisine. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, local food is characterised by time-consuming specialities. The national dish, calulu – dried smoked fish cooked in a soup with breadfruit, palm oil, mosquito herb and okra – takes six hours to cook. ‘On São Tomé, happiness transforms everything we do, even the flavour of our food,’ he says, taking inordinate care in preparing banana recheada – fruit stuffed with bacon and knotted in a neat lemongrass parcel. ‘You know how in Bhutan they measure Gross National Happiness? The same is true here. Happiness is our richest income.’

It’s lunchtime at his restaurant, Roça São João, on the east coast of São Tomé, and the lure of João Carlos’s tasting menu has filled every seat. As the chink of cutlery echoes around the vast balcony overlooking Santa Cruz bay, a dozen cooks tend to wood-fired ovens and slice tiny local limes to make red grouper ceviche. At the far end of the balcony, sated guests indulge in a spot of ‘leve, leve’, reclining in hammocks and idling thumbing through a volume from one of the many bookcases.

Its old capital is as charasmatic as Cuba's

It’s Sunday morning in Príncipe’s main town, Santo António, and time has slowed almost to a halt. If ‘léve, léve’ is easygoing, the Príncipian equivalent, ‘móli-móli’, is virtually dormant. A boy rolls a tyre beside the dawdling Papagaio River. Stray dogs pant in the shade and passers-by greet one another with disarming smiles. Placid babies are slung low on backs in colourful wraps. For a while, the only sound is a tinny medley of Angolan kizomba music from battery-powered speakers, before a tractor rolls by carrying a troupe of trumpet players.

Portuguese architecture along the streets of Santo Antonio, Príncipe  © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

This triangle of unpaved, potholed streets is tiny – but what it lacks in scale, Santo António makes up for in pocket-sized grandeur. Dilapidated buildings, put up when the city was both islands’ capital, line the bay in elegant pastels: a powder-blue school, pink government house and yellow post office. Neat Portuguese tiles surround a central square of weathered murals and empty benches. A traveller’s palm, its paddle-shaped leaves spanning four metres, dwarfs the government’s assembly.

On the fringes of the town, mirrors hang above doorways of colourful stilt homes. They’re placed there to reflect bad energy – a sign of a Santomean culture that blends Christianity with a rich seam of local ritual and superstition; where carved votives and herbal concoctions are embraced alongside gospel choirs and beach baptisms.

Its fruits are as exotic as any in the Caribbean

Matabala, jaca, cajá-manga, sape-sape, izaquente, fruta-pão, maquêqueê, micócó: Santomean fruit bears little resemblance to anything you might purchase in the exotic fruit section of your local supermarket. Breakfast buffets require an ID guide. Jaca is actually jackfruit, a bulging, dimpled fruit with deliciously sticky flesh. Sape-sape, with its prickly case and white pulpy insides, is elsewhere called soursop or mullatha, literally ‘thorny custard apple’.

The spiky green fruit of the sape-sape tree © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

On the outskirts of São Tomé, women tend to roadside stalls, teasing out the fleshy innards of jackfruit and wrapping wild raspberries in porcelain-rose leaf cones. More familiar fruits pile up beside the exotic: papaya, pineapple, mango and seven varieties of banana, which local restaurants prepare in seemingly endless ways – ripe, raw, fried, boiled, dried and roasted.

The history of the ‘cocoa islands’ is written in these quick-growing plants. They were first imported to provide sustenance for slaves, brought in the 16th century to tend to sugarcane, then cash crops of cocoa and coffee. None was more important than spongy fruta-pão, or breadfruit. It originated in the South Pacific and can be fried, boiled, roasted or milled into flour. It’s high in carbs, protein and vitamins, and one ball has enough nutrients to feed a family of five for a day. Today, this sweet or savoury staple is fried as fritters, used to mop up fish sauces and transformed into sticky puddings.

It produces chocolate as fine as Switzerland's

In 1908, São Tomé was the largest producer of cocoa in the world, with 800 plantations. But when the Portuguese left in 1975, the estates fell into decay. Today the remaining 150 ‘roças’ are shadows of their former selves. Some have been reclaimed by the rainforest. Others have been taken over as homes, where children slide down Escherlike bannisters with unruly glee, bats roost above doorways, moss stains the walls and tiny goats frisk on crumbling steps.

Cocoa beans in hessian sacks ready for export © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

Claudio Corallo’s immaculate laboratory, on the edge of the capital, is poles apart. Neat rows of cardboard-packaged bars line the shelves, alongside metal scales and jars of candied ginger, orange peel and boozesoaked raisins. Beneath a glass dome, a vat of bubbling chocolate emits a faint fizzing sound. Claudio meticulously weighs out slabs of 75% cocoa, then stirs them into steaming water, pouring out a cup that’s rich and fragrant without a hint of bitterness.

An avuncular Italian, who was clearly born with a moustache, he has a warmhearted laugh and sprightly inventor’s eyes. He has been called the best chocolate-maker on the planet – and yet he doesn’t actually like chocolate. ‘I’m a farmer, not a chocolatier,’ he says. ‘My work is in plantations, not in kitchens.’ A reluctant celebrity, he is now the nation’s only grower, maker and exporter of fine chocolate, sending his prized bars to high-end department stores and discerning chefs across the world. He likens it to the work of a carpenter. ‘The secret isn’t in the type of wood or the tools. It is in the work, experience and attention of the carpenter.’

Its wildlife is as unique as the Galápagos'

After a few days, island wildlife encounters become casual, almost nonchalant. African grey parrots squabble in tree tops, snakes curl from branches, fruit bats fly overhead, languidly returning to roost, weaver birds knit their nests beside the road and tiny kingfishers with improbably long beaks teeter on roots.

The archipelago was never attached to mainland Africa, so it’s no wonder it has more than its fair share of endemic species – given its size, it’s comparable with the Galápagos and Hawaii. Some are an enduring mystery – science has no idea how the eight species of frog, with their intolerance of seawater and fast metabolisms, came to be here. The Gulf of Guinea, in which the islands sit, also has a rich marine biodiversity. Humpback whales cavort off the coast and flying fish skim the waves. The deep waters harbour giants: blue marlin, weighing in at over 750kg, and 3m metallic blue Atlantic sailfish, with magnificent navy ‘sails’ running
down their spines. Four species of marine turtle nest on the islands – leatherback, green, hawksbill and olive ridley. Loggerheads have been seen hanging around, but are yet to come in to land.

Known locally as ‘cobra jita’, this forest-dwelling snake is a subspecies of house snake found only on São Tomé © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

It’s nesting season on São Tomé and I take a night-time walk along Praia Grande to get closer. It proves to be an astounding yet nightmarish experience. Thousands of land crabs scuttle in and out of the red light of head torches. Some, the size of frisbees, lean back and brandish their enormous right-claws on our approach. At the end of a tractor-tread-like trail, a green turtle lies exhausted. In the past hour, she has hauled herself to the high tide line, dug a scrape and laid 120 eggs. ‘They start hard like ping pong balls, then become soft,’ conservationist Vanessa Schmett whispers, measuring the turtle’s shell, then attaching a tag below her flipper. The turtle ignores her, exhales deeply, and begins to fling sand on her clutch. ‘They have a hard start to life, but the hatchlings are resilient,’ she says, leaning in to disentangle a flipper caught up in a palm leaf. Eventually, the turtle heaves herself back into the sea, quite oblivious to the smudgy line of the Milky Way emerging above.

It has a skyscraper as bold as Dubai's

Driving down São Tomé’s remote east coast leads you past a string of fishing villages and black sand beaches. Women spread sheets out to dry on sun-bleached driftwood. Teenagers show off their surfing skills on battered foam boards, while school kids wave and shout ‘ola!’ and ‘amiga’ at passing pick-ups. Two young women walk down the centre of the road, carrying machetes and balancing cloth bags of fruit on their heads; one grins and asks in English: ‘You are appreciating the nature of São Tomé? Welcome.’

With such warm greetings and easy conversations, it’s impossible not to stop along the way, but light is fading and the goal is in sight – I’m keen to get a little closer to the volcanic skyscraper that towers over the island. It is almost always shrouded in mist. Pico Cão Grande (Portuguese for ‘great dog peak’) is a 668m phonolithic rock tower, pushing rudely out of the rainforest in São Tomé’s southern hinterland.This is the island’s ultimate high-rise: the most splendid of the many volcanic plugs that skewer the archipelago, formed when magma solidified inside the vent of a volcano. It appears unexpectedly from many points of Sao Tome: rising monumentally at the end of a straight road, framed within the verdant monotony of a palm oil plantation, or emerging from the dense canopy like something out of Middle Earth.

When I reach the perfect vantage point on a steep corner of the road, the haze unexpectedly clears and a golden light drenches the Pico, turning the surrounding sea of foliage a dazzling green. A hush descends; other than the odd chirrup of a weaver bird, the only sound is the soft tread of flip-flops, as a man ambles home along the road. ‘Tudo bem?’ he asks – am I well? ‘Léve, léve,’ I reply and he grins.

This article appeared in Lonely Planet Traveller Magazine. Jo Tinsley travelled to São Tomé and Príncipe with support from Rainbow Tours. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.