The EA guide to São Tomé and Príncipe holidays
These stunning islands were uninhabited until Portuguese explorers discovered them in the 15th century and established them as a colonial outpost. Later, they farmed cacao, coffee and sugar on plantations here. Most of today’s inhabitants are descendants of the enslaved Africans brought to work on these plantations. São Tomé and Príncipe gained independence from Portugal in 1975 and is today one of the most peaceful countries in all of Africa.
While you can visit the islands at any time of the year, the best time to visit São Tomé and Príncipe is during one of two ‘dry’ seasons, which are also the coolest months of the year, with temperatures hovering around 28C. The first dry season runs from June to September. The second is known locally as ‘Pequenha Gravana’ and spans from the end of December to early February. The rainy season, which runs between October and May, is best for orchid spotting, while January, February and March are the hottest months of the year.
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Obô Natural Park
The spectacular Obô Natural Park covers an area of around 200 square kilometres on the island of São Tomé. There’s great hiking in the park’s dense rainforests where you can see waterfalls, monkeys, rare birds and more than 700 species of native plants (including 100 types of orchids). The park is also home to Lagoa Azul (Portuguese for “blue lagoon”), a small bay whose turquoise waters and marine life make it a popular spot for diving. Probably the island’s most well-known sight is also found in Obô Natural Park: the mighty Pico Cão Grande, or “Great Dog Peak”. Once a volcano, its outer parts have eroded away, leaving behind a spire of primordial rock that’s shaped like a needle and points 663 metres into the sky.
Bay of Spires (Baía das Agulhas)
More towering volcanic features can be seen on the island of Príncipe. The stunning Bay of Spires (Baía das Agulhas) presents a rugged and beautiful skyline that’s a photographer’s dream. A highlight of any trip to São Tomé & Príncipe is to see this bay – the best views by far are from the water. Some people find a fisherman to take them out on their boat for a small fee, but most opt for organised trip in a tourist boat.
Take to the water
While the dive scene is still small in São Tomé and Príncipe, snorkelling and diving off these islands is highly recommended. The waters of the Gulf of Guinea teem with marine life such as barracuda, triggerfish, nurse sharks, as well as brightly coloured corals, plus there’s loads of underwater exploring to be done thanks to dramatic volcanic rock formations. This also a great place to go big-game fishing for blue marlin, with some weighing 900kg. Other common catches include sailfish, wahoo, barracuda and Atlantic bluefin tuna. Humpback whales also visit the oceans in this area from about July until October, while dolphins can be seen throughout the year.
Feast on top-quality chocolate
São Tomé and Príncipe produces some of the best and most exclusive chocolate in the world. Thanks to the islands’ fertile volcanic soil the growing conditions are just right, and cocoa has been grown here since the Portuguese planted scores of plantations back in the 15th century. This tiny nation was actually the world’s largest cocoa producer in 1913, but many plantations were abandoned after the country gained independence in 1975. Happily, in recent years some have reopened and with people like renowned chocolatier Claudio Corallo at the helm, the country is definitely getting its chocolate mojo back. You can visit Corallo’s factory in São Tomé to learn about the art of chocolate making, taste the sweet treats and, of course, stock up on delicious choccie goodies to take home.
Bom Bom Island (Ilhéu Bom Bom)
The gorgeous Bom Bom Island (officially called Ilhéu Bom Bom) is the northernmost point of all of São Tomé and Príncipe, located just north of Príncipe island. This tiny islet has a population of fewer than 20 people, is almost entirely forested and is surrounded by beautiful coastline. A favourite pastime for tourists is taking a privately chartered boat to catch barracuda, dorado, wahoo and cubera snappper from the islands waters, which are renowned for their fishing opportunities. You might also see dolphins playing or view majestic humpback whales. There’s a resort here – Bom Bom Island Resort – but it’s actually located at the edge of Príncipe. Its restaurant, bar and marina are located on Bom Bom Island itself, which you access via a 230-metre wooden walkway.
See turtles hatching
Between November and March, green hawksbill and leatherback turtles come in their hundreds to lay their eggs on some of São Tomé and Príncipe’s beaches. If you’re visiting Príncipe, book a guided trip to Praia Grande to the south of the island where, if you’re lucky, you can take a torch-lit beach walk to see female turtles laying eggs or baby turtles hatching. If you’re visiting São Tomé, head to Jale Beach on the south edge of the island. You can even spend the night on the beach here, staying in a rustic beach hut right at the water’s edge. You’ll have no electricity or mod-cons, but you will wake up with the chance to see giant sea turtles laying their eggs in the sand.
The only real city on these islands is its capital, São Tomé which is located, unsurprisingly, on the island of São Tomé, along the shore of Ana Chaves Bay. Charming but shabby, it’s filled with quaint, ornate colonial buildings, terracotta-tiled townhouses and loads of public art, as well as the Presidential Palace and a 15th-century cathedral. Roam the colourful main marketplace, and check out the crumbling 16th-century Fort São Sebastião, which sits right on the edge of São Tomé in Ana Chaves Bay. Built in 1575, it was refurbished in 2006 and now houses the National Museum. It’s absolutely beautiful at night.