And so to Principe. The island is linked to São Tomé by a short 30-minute flight operated by STP Airways, which flies low over the sea and offers the chance to spot whales down below. Check-in is very relaxed with no 100ml liquid rules or searches, and the flight is relaxing enough for the co-pilot to be able to file his nails en-route. Landing on Príncipe, the feeling is that the airport has been opened especially for the daily arrival, which indeed it has as it closes again after the flight's return to São Tomé.
Bom Bom Island Resort lies on the northernmost tip of the island and as the tar road turns into a rich red earth track the scenery becomes very Jurassic Park - thick rainforest, jungle vines, huge banana leaves, palms - until Bom Bom appears at the end of the track. Two beaches join at a point and a long wooden walkway leads to a small island, which houses the resort's bar and restaurant. The 19 rooms, more wooden cabins than standard hotel rooms, are strung beautifully along the beaches, up onto the hill and alongside the small swimming pool. Rooms are no-frills but each has a verandah, and really the focus here is on the great outdoors anyway rather than the great indoors.
Declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the driving force behind the greening of Principe Island is HBD, a company founded by the South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth with a 30-year plan for the protection and development of the island. Employing 400 staff on an island of just 6,000, future tourism plans include the upgrading of the airport, a new luxury tented beach lodge, and the restoration of a former plantation manor house and creation of a gastronomy tour, but for now, the focus is on Bom Bom. Loungers dot the beach and pool area but to come this far and do nothing but sunbathe and swim would be criminal. A very wide range of activities and excursions seems at odds with the island's small size, but trips can be taken to visit plantations slowly being rehabilitated by HBD to produce cocoa, coffee, pepper and vanilla, to long-abandoned manor houses where picnic lunches are served amongst the atmospheric ruins, and to deserted beaches, which have been used in rum and chocolate TV adverts, and where postcards would not do them justice.
Using the resort's jeeps and boats, the island's volcanic peaks can be climbed and otherwise inaccessible arches of golden sand visited. The fishing is excellent - marlin, sailfish and yellowfin tuna are all commonly caught, and the diving good, but for many, including Africa Travel's Chris Wain, the highlights are the whales and turtles. The turtles come ashore to lay their eggs from September to March, and a midnight walk with torches along the beach resulted in the discovery of fresh tracks and a nest of newly-laid eggs. However, THE highlight was an afternoon snorkelling trip to a deserted beach where, on the way back, whales were spotted and an incredible hour was spent following three of these mighty mammals as they graciously cut through the waves. Other areas may boast bigger numbers of these creatures, (Hermanus in South Africa is arguably the best, but also busiest whale-watching spot on earth), but the massive difference at Bom Bom is that nobody, except the fortunate 8 people on board, are there to witness this spectacle - we had them all to ourselves. Safari lodge bars are often full of tall tales and safari-bores trying to outdo each other, but G&Ts in the sweet little yellow bar at Bom Bom was enjoyed without such machismo, the guests just delighted to have been able to see such a sight.
Away from the marine life, every visitor should also take the time to visit the island's capital, and only real settlement, Santo Antonio. Boasting a cathedral, it must surely be the world's smallest city. The President's house sits alongside a little park, with the Post Office, bank, petrol station, fish market and a couple of small shops completing the downtown area. Although the food is enjoyable and fairly remarkable given Bom Bom's location, an unexpected delight was an evening spent in one of the very few eateries which operate in the capital. With reservations essential, (they might not open otherwise or have enough food), and seating for less than 15 people, the traditional fish and chicken dishes were supplemented by the local no-label beer, fire water spirit, (flavoured with ginger) and a 3-piece Principe/Portuguese band who serenaded a small, but full house. All this overseen by Mama Rosalita, a Principe lady with a fierce grin and a way of preparing chicken giblets which actually makes them taste delicious.
Four nights flew by at Bom Bom before it was time to return to the airport, to return to São Tomé and the Omali Lodge, and to return a step nearer the modern world. Chris is lucky to have travelled to over half of the countries in Africa but he feels without a shadow of a doubt that São Tomé and Príncipe are something quite special. A touch of Africa combines with a bit of the Caribbean and perhaps a slice of Latin America to offer a destination unlike anywhere.
Googling 'holidays to São Tomé and Príncipe' will never generate the information and advice that can come from speaking to somebody who has been to and experienced them first-hand, so if Bom Bom and Omali Lodge appeal to your adventurous side, give Chris a call or drop him an email and he will be happy to share his views and thoughts and help you send you on your way to this forgotten and very much overlooked corner of Africa. These specks in the Atlantic Ocean will not remain hidden for much longer, so go now to see them at their best.
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