Bom Bom? São Tomé? Príncipe?
Never heard of them? You're not alone. The two-island volcanic nation of São Tomé and Príncipe lies in the Gulf of Guinea off the West African coast and has well and truly been off the tourist radar until now. The recent revamping and re-emergence of the Bom Bom Island Resort, located on the minuscule island of Príncipe, has catapulted this part of Africa back into the consciousness, and Chris Wain, one of the directors of Africa Travel, is one of the lucky ones to get to experience this extraordinary property, and project, in its early days.
The journey begins with Portugal's national airline TAP and flights from London via Lisbon to the small airport on São Tomé Island, the larger of the 2 islands. Home to 160,000 (by comparison Prinicipe is very much the junior partner in the relationship with only 6,000 inhabitants), the capital has the feeling of being a little like Noddy's Toy Town - the central square and market are flanked by the main cathedral and the Presidential Residence, where apparently the locals are more than welcome to pop in and say hello to their leader.
The best property on the island is the Omali Lodge, a sweet little boutique hotel with 30 rooms, a swimming pool, tennis court, the finest restaurant in town and a terrifically relaxed atmosphere. Nowhere is far from the Omali - the town centre is 5 mins, the airport is 2 mins, but to just sit and relax in the gardens would be a waste when the island has so much to offer.
Small villages, ingenious 2-storey wooden houses, (upstairs for humans, downstairs for the chickens and pigs), crumbling colonial villas, roadside stalls selling the local palm wine, winding coastal roads which hug the rugged and dramatic beaches, and the feeling of being miles and miles from civilisation.
A stop is made to see the harvesting of the cacao bean, São Tomé renowned as it is throughout the world for the quality of its chocolate. An almost abandoned but desperately atmospheric warehouse with long since grassed-over railway tracks is home to a series of rudimentary trays and storage areas where the beans are dried, sorted and bagged for export to the finest chocolatiers overseas. Breaking open a bean, having a sniff, and nibbling on the dark chocolate inside is highly addictive.
The journey continues south towards the Equator, which crosses the very bottom of the island, for lunch at somewhere very unexpected but very extraordinary - Roca De São Joao De Angolares. Located in an old coffee plantation manor house, the host is a former chef to one of the country's former Presidents who is also a local TV personality and who does wonders with the local produce. A 13-course tasting menu, which incorporates local fish, fruit, spices, meats and vegetables, is a superb way to while away a couple of hours, and all for less than EUR25. The house also has 6 charming rooms, pared-down but ensuite and very comfortable, and lovely views of the coastline and sea below.
Back in the 'city' life continues at a relaxed pace, 'leve leve' as the locals say, which translates as easy easy. The streets are amongst the safest Chris has ever experienced in Africa, with the biggest worry to tourists being how to remember to say 'how are you?' in Portuguese to the many locals who enthusiastically engage in conversation. Much of the island is forested with hiking trails, walks and bird watching in the National Park popular outings but for those with a little less energy, head for one of the little bars or cafés to enjoy a local coffee, (the islands produce great Arabica beans which are exported), and a Portuguese pastry, a legacy from their former rulers. Incidentally, since the Portuguese left in 1975 little building work has been done, ensuring the town has the feel of a mixture of Havana and Zanzibar's Stone Town about it.
A traditional dinner with dancing at the Omali was a lot better than you would think it might be, with the dancing a little like a courting ritual mixed with a bit of twerking.
This being Africa, flight connections are not always what the first-world tourist would expect, and a minimum of at least one night on São Tomé is required before the short flight is taken across to Principe and the Bom Bom resort. But with such a range of things to see, do, smell and eat on São Tomé, this is hardly a hardship. A couple of nights enjoying the 'big island' is the perfect introduction to this corner of Africa, before the 'little island' and Bom Bom beckons...
If you are interested in visiting São Tomé and Príncipe for your next holiday then call one of our travel experts on 020 7843 3500 for more information.
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