São Tomé and Príncipe is a nation off the coast of Gabon in Southwest Africa. A unique and unusual destination, this island-nation is Africa’s second smallest nation and is a place that most have never even heard of. Aside from the Portuguese, who colonized the islands and ruled until the 1970s, there really aren’t that many other tourists who venture here. But, what a tragic mistake that is.
São Tomé is the capital and largest island. Here you will find a colonial Portuguese city, or town, with crumbling buildings, cafes, restaurants, museums and bustling markets. The people who populate the island are descendants of slaves brought here from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are also mixed race people who come from both African and Portuguese descent. The island is beautiful and has a small airport served mostly by small African carriers and one large Portuguese international carrier, TAP Portugal.
What impressed me first about the island was the gorgeous scenery and nature coming-in from the airport. Not only is the island lush and green, but showcases some of the most unique flower and plant species – even some that cannot be found anywhere else on the mainland continent of Africa. Obo National Park – which is protected and features a dramatic mountain called Pico Câo Grande.
On my first day on the island, I hiked in the morning through the wooded jungle with a guide into Obo. The hike was foggy, green and eerie – but stunningly beautiful. Each leaf and tree was covered in sparkling dew drops, birds sang in the distance and the thick smell of vegetal green permeated the air. I came to Obo through my hotel, the luxurious Omali Lodge.
Omali is a boutique property located just off the water’s shore on the island of São Tomé. It features bungalow-style rooms that face gardens and the pool at the center of the property – fruit trees dot the grass and palm trees sway in the distance. Here, you can leave your comfortable mini-suite and have dinner outdoors – dining on local seafood, fried bananas and rice. Overhead, at sunset, you might see a large bat or two fly by, a regular occurrence on the island.
Omali utilizes local seafood, fruit and coffee for all their meals. At breakfast, you might find that your coffee comes from the nearby Monte Cafe plantation and your fruit might be picked from the hotel’s property itself. Attentive staff will bring you eggs and pancakes, and suggest activities to fill your day.
On my second day, the hotel organized a tour of Monte Cafe – a coffee plantation that used to be worked by slaves on the island. São Tomé was an important stop in bringing slaves from West Africa to South America – and the history and people of the island reflect that.
I stopped by Monte Cafe, after driving through little villages and town with friendly locals looking curiously into my vehicle. The people here are friendly, kind and genuinely interested in showing you their island.
I came across two young boys selling local raspberries roadside. They had the berries wrapped carefully in banana leaves and were eager to offer them to me to try.
I’ve never seen raspberries this red in my life.
Or more beautiful…
On my way to the coffee plantation, I traveled through downtown São Tomé to see the president’s palace. Since the Portuguese left in 1975, the nation has been one of the most peaceful and democratic in Africa.
My time at the plantation was filled with coffee – and I witnessed the picking and roasting of the beans before trying the finished product.
After traveling back into town, I stopped by the incredible Galeria de Arte and Museum, which housed fantastic workes of art created by locals.
The museum featured everything from paintings to sculptures.
While I was only on the island of Sāo Tome for two days before leaving for the small island of Príncipe, I enjoyed every minute. The nature, the people, the slow pace of life – it was all magical. There isn’t another destination in Africa like it and it’s one of my favorite places to recommend now. If you decide to visit, choose the Omali Lodge. Travel to the island on TAP Portugal from the United States, and be sure to see Obo National Park. There are no automatic banks here, so it is best to purchase local currency before arriving.
I promise you won’t regret your visit here.