When I told people I was going to São Tomé and Príncipe, they looked at me blankly. No one knew where or what it was. Some thought it was a palm-fringed corner of Brazil. One friend wondered if it was a peninsula in Antarctica. Another was convinced it was a colonial principality in the Indonesian archipelago ruled by a widow who had disposed of several husbands. For everyone, the islands were a Lost World.
Which was how Príncipe looked, seen from the heights overlooking the Bay of Agulhas – a lost kingdom, a Tolkien-esque Middle-earth, a few kilometres from the intersection of zero degrees longitude and latitude. It was sunset, and white tropical birds with tails the length of Isadora Duncan’s scarf were banking majestically over a pink Atlantic. Beyond the bay, clouds swirled and parted to reveal spectacular volcanic towers, phonolite outcrops piercing the jungle canopy and rising 100m above the treetops. Away to the right, sheer-sided Table Mountain was remote, cloud-strewn and fantastical.
“I feel I have dropped off the map,” I said to the guide. For some reason we seemed to be whispering, as if we had stumbled into a sacred site. She nodded, spellbound by the view and the theatrical light and the green parrots now streaming out of the jungle behind us. “Me too. I feel lost and happy.” She had just returned from the real world – a two-week break in Lisbon. She exhaled, as if she had been holding her breath too long. “It is impossible not to be happy here,” she said.
One of the world’s smallest countries, São Tomé and Príncipe consists of two green equatorial islands, some 150km apart and 250km off the west coast of Africa. Marooned in the Atlantic, with a tiny population and a trickle of tourists, they are remote, seductive and staggeringly beautiful. I was here to see their first five‑star resort, the much-anticipated Sundy Praia, central to the island’s embryonic tourist industry.
As with all the best places, getting to these islands is not entirely straightforward. Flights from Portugal, the former colonial power, via Accra, take about seven hours to reach São Tomé, the capital and the larger of the two islands. I emerged from the tiny terminal to air heavy with the aroma of mangoes and sea. A ramshackle golf cart took me into town, a drive of five minutes. Palm trees and sand lined the shore.
I had a sudden sense of déjà vu. I felt I had seen this place before. In my dreams. For this, I decided within minutes of arriving, was that tropical island retreat, the idyllic hideaway that I imagine when I fantasise about a simple barefoot life. São Tomé feels like a delightful cross between some sleepy corner of the Caribbean and a remote Brazilian fishing village, with a sexy dash of Cuba thrown in for good measure.
There is a town – the nation’s capital – of crumbling colonial houses, a morning market of goats and chickens and unidentifiable fruit, and seaside avenues wet with ocean spray. Beyond, the island eases into overgrown plantations and thick forest draped with endemic orchids. Pink and blue and yellow houses, framed by porcelain roses, perch on stilts among banana groves. There are pristine beaches where you can buy fish straight from a fisherman’s pirogue, and jungle-framed rivers that serve as jolly outdoor laundries, their banks a colourful patchwork of drying clothes. The phrase you hear again and again is leve-leve, not just an instruction to take things easy but a description of a whole way of life: relaxed, calm, unrushed.
On the first morning, I headed south on the coast road to visit the island’s only celebrity citizen. Between swathes of sun and the splayed shadows of palms, most of the traffic was pedestrian. Then the road curved suddenly and we plunged from bright sea light into green aqueous gloom as the equatorial forests closed and the car sailed beneath arching trees.
For 31 million years, since they erupted from the Atlantic, history passed these islands by; they were uninhabited, an Edenic wilderness. Then the Portuguese turned up, late in the 15th century, on their way round Africa, looking for a profitable sea route to the east. In the startling fertility of São Tomé and Príncipe they planted sugar cane, coffee and cocoa, importing first slaves and later bonded labourers from the mainland and Cape Verde islands. Set round grand mansions, the plantations or roça were like sprawling villages of workers’ quarters, storerooms, drying sheds, even hospitals and schools for the few children the planters risked educating, all set amid the green sea of crops and forests.
Then suddenly, in 1974, the Portuguese left. The government in Lisbon had fallen, and a new generation of politicians decreed that the Portuguese-African empire was at an end. The workers lingered in their old quarters, but their lives now revolved around fishing and subsistence agriculture, while the planters’ mansions fell into picturesque ruin.
But down in Angolares, on the east coast, the irrepressible João Carlos Silva has brought one back to life. Born on a plantation not far away, Silva left the islands as a young man to travel through Africa and Europe, eventually becoming famous for a popular cooking programme on Portuguese television. Returning home, he restored the lovely Roça São João, where his father once worked as plantation manager, creating a small country hotel, a fabulous restaurant – the tasting menu is an explosion of novel tropical tastes – and a cooking school, where he is training local youngsters.
Silva sees tourism on the islands, still in its infancy, as a tool for development, a way to preserve their unique environment while offering education and employment. It is a commitment he shares with another entrepreneur active here, not a local but a man who has dropped in from the outer hemisphere – Mark Shuttleworth, tech millionaire, environmentalist and space tourist.
Space travel tends to change one’s perspective. Having viewed the Earth, in 2002, from the International Space Station, Shuttleworth turned his commitment to the environment into a passion. A quest for somewhere to make a difference led him to Príncipe, the smaller of these two idyllic islands. He could see the incredible potential for tourism and was determined to use this as a strategy for conservation and development. He started by buying and transforming an existing resort, the only one at the time, the delightful Bom Bom.
I took the 35-minute flight from São Tomé, and suddenly my own perspective shifted dramatically. I realised I had been wrong about São Tomé. Here, on Príncipe, was my real island retreat. Just over twice the size of Manhattan, Príncipe, a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, has a population of fewer than 7,000 people. From its empty beaches and jungle paths, from its sleepy fishing villages and toytown capital, laid-back São Tomé suddenly looked like Hong Kong.
Only five years ago, Príncipe had almost no paved roads, internet or mobile-phone signal and only patchy electricity. Its beaches are havens for hundreds of nesting turtles, its forests contain a plethora of endemic birds, and on a stroll through the town square of an early evening you are quite likely to meet many of the leading citizens, including the island president, gossiping on the benches outside the church. On Príncipe people talk of móli-móli, to describe a way of life that is several dozen degrees slower and more delightful than São Tomé’s leve-leve. During a week on the island, I would hardly see more than 20 other tourists.
The Shuttleworth enterprise – known as HBD, short for Here Be Dragons – has three properties on Príncipe; after the local government, it is the largest employer on the island, and one of the chief opportunities for locals to reach beyond a life of subsistence agriculture and fishing. I met dozens of Príncipeans whose lives had been transformed by tourism: João the driver, Miguel the maître d’, Alexander the eager barman, Luis the boatman. All reminded me that HBD’s wider purpose was something more important than my own comforts.
The original property, Bom Bom, lounges on a peninsula between two stunning beaches, its villas strung out along the sands. Its four-star rating seems silly and irrelevant; the resort is a delight. A long boardwalk leads past dark egrets and scurrying kingfishers to the restaurant and bar on an offshore island. The friendly staff, the old-fashioned charm and the spectacular setting, with the whole place enveloped by the sound of surf, have adoring guests returning to Bom Bom again and again.
Opened last summer, Roça Sundy, the second of HBD’s properties on the island, is a splendid former planter’s house, brought lovingly back to life. It is all colonial elegance: high ceilings, slow-turning fans, tall double doors, four-poster beds, deep balconies overlooking the gardens, an entrance hall the size of a tennis court, a pleasant air of tropical languor. In its wood‑lined bar you half expect to find bumbling chaps in linen suits and mysterious widows. Instead there was the cheery barman Alexander, who whipped up a wonderful cocktail, named the Jaja, that involved jackfruit, lemon and whisky. Later, dinner was served on a candlelit terrace overlooking the gardens, where a local dance troupe was gliding between the palms to rhythms brought from mainland Africa five centuries ago.
But the newest property, Sundy Praia, is Príncipe’s star turn. Opened at the end of December, the creation of French architect Didier Lefort consists of 15 tented villas, though you would be forgiven for not noticing the tented part. These are serious luxury suites: spacious, beautifully designed and elegantly appointed. A vast stone bath stands in its own windowed alcove. Four-poster beds offer views of the sea and the beach through floor-to-ceiling windows. The wide wooden decks of some feature private pools. Soaps, creams, spa oils – even snacks in the minibar – have all been carefully developed in HBD’s organic lab to incorporate the local forest ingredients and keep imports to a minimum.
The whole resort has been carefully cocooned by South African landscape designer Greg Straw with native plants, tying the grounds neatly into the surrounding forests. A path through dense foliage leads to a bridge over a jungle-framed stream and beyond to the restaurant, the resort’s moment of architectural theatre. Soaring bamboo ribs that echo the massive trees support a space of cathedral proportions. In the mornings there is nothing here but the sound of surf and birdsong.
Which is pretty much what I was looking for, on my dream island. On my last day I set off with the guide by boat for Praia Banana, so named for its curving form. When the engines cut out, waves pushed us ashore with a picnic hamper and snorkelling gear. Salads of local ingredients and organic vegetables from the resort gardens were laid out, while coconuts were split open. We dined, we swam, we listened to the thrumming of the Príncipe sunbird, darting on the forest edge.
Praia Banana is absurdly beautiful, the most perfect beach I’ve ever seen. We were completely alone, our footprints the only ones in the sand. That is luxury.