What to do, what to see and where to stay on Sao Tome
15 Dec 2021
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It felt like the night before a job interview, nervousness, excitement, apprehension; all because I was getting up at the crack of dawn the following day to get on a plane…and I wasn’t even leaving Europe. Granted the following day I would be flying down to the lesser known twin island country of Sao Tome and Principe, situated off the West Coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea. Maybe it was pre-pre-match nerves. Did I have all the right paperwork? Would my PCR results come in time and if they did, would they be negative. Where was my passport? COVID-ly ignored for so long.
The following morning before it was even close to light and on the way, arriving at the airport with more time than was required to fill a cooked breakfast, security and some last minute essential purchases. As we descended, the gaping mouth of the Tagus welcoming us towards Lisbon. Not a city I had been to previously, and this fine December morning in the bright sunshine and balmy 12 degrees C, it looked absolute bliss, not even considering the dark and stormy British Isles I had just left.
I stayed at The Memmo Alfama Hotel – a small boutique establishment in the heart of the old town. The position, twinned with a small but brilliantly positioned roof terrace and infinity pool (not that brave, it was December) meant that I didn’t really need to leave the hotel, but if I did, I was right in the thick of it. Lisbon really impressed – I was blessed with t-shirt weather in December but it was great wandering round the cobbled street and feeling like you were properly away again. Highly recommend it.
Lisbon to Sao Tome
The flight to Sao Tome departs at about 0930 so it was up early again. I know, sacrifices. The flight was pretty non-descript, everyone wearing masks the biggest observation. You do touch down in Accra (Ghana) for about 35 minutes but stay on the plane. On arrival in Sao Tome it was dark (sunset is strictly 06h30 due to proximity to Equator) but even after my decompression stop in Lisbon, the change in temperature and humidity hits you. And strolling across the apron you realize just how small this nation is. The airport is about the same size as Inverness Airport (tiny) and there are no other planes about. Its properly remote and so it should be, it’s a pin-prick of green in massive sea of Atlantic blue.
The 3 PPE and visor-clad Covid gatekeepers made sure that the queue moved slower than the clock in double algebra, however standing in an anaemic white tent in the humid evening air was quite a treat. As I say, it had been a while. It also made me realise just how thorough these countries are, and often not given the credit. Whilst their testing figures are likely to be somewhat suspect, they have only had 50 COVID deaths; granted they have a small population, but their remote position makes them an ideal defender of such a virus. Thank God they are still open to letting us Europeans in, if Boris was in charge no one would be coming in or out. Having made it past the 2 sleepy border control officials and the over-zealous baggage checkers and customs officials, my driver was waiting patiently outside.
The first thing you notice is the darkness – very few street lamps, certainly no neon signs and not many houses for an urban area. It’s a bit like going back in time, the only downside was I wasn’t any younger. The roads seemed to be pretty good and not a traffic light in sight. We could get used to this! I found out later that electricity is often cut at night as they do not generate enough for the whole island.
Sao Tome City
Sao Tome City, a 20 minute drive from the airport, is the Capital’s official name. A city it most definitely is not, certainly in terms of size, but that’s part of the appeal. It nestles in the north east of the island right on the coast, surrounding a wide bay; in the middle of which sit 4 or 5 modern shipwrecks. Visions of the fabled Captain’s Christmas party - they all decided to drive, and none got home! The shore surrounding the bay is peppered with black volcanic rocks of all shapes and sizes and the beach the usual helping of city detritus. Its not a mess but inviting is not the word. However, when you come to a destination such as this you are not expecting the best beach to be a 5 minute drive from the airport.
My Hotel was called The Avenida Hotel and looked onto the back of the Presidential Palace and at a strain had views of The Cathedral of Sao Tome, one of the oldest sub-Saharan buildings apparently, but this is claimed in every sub-Saharan country! The city is a typical colonial African city with downtrodden ruins of the colonialist glory days, various ‘Independence squares’ as well as its clutch of stray dogs, rubbish fly-tipped in many a spot and the essential taxi square which seems to have a beat of its own. In these parts it’s a bright daffodil yellow beat. From the photos I had seen, I expected a bit more if I am being honest. I was hoping for a few bars on the front to sit and watch the world go by whistling along to the tune of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, but it currently is not to be. Could this be because there are not yet enough tourists to fill them? A possible upside. Wandering round the city after dark is quite spooky due to the power blackouts (the hotels have generators). Generally, its safe enough but not a ‘must do’.
The other hotels in the city are the Hotel Praia and Omali Lodge – out towards the airport, The Pestana and The Miramar – both larger hotels that offer a bit of a limp attempt at an upmarket city venue. The Avenida is what I would call a guesthouse, with a casual bar and restaurant and 20 or so rooms. A bit like the bay, this was not going to be my highlight, but I was prepared to wait!
When its not covered in cloud (and in my case raining heavily) the interior Obo Nature Reserve offers a look into the flora and fauna on the island. Our first stop was the Botanical Gardens, run by Francesco, a very cheerful chap who has been there since 1993 and was patient enough to speak very slowly in Portuguese so that I could take my first nature lesson in the language – not something I expected to do. The highlight was when he was trying to describe the effects of an aphrodisiac and had to revert to international code of raising his forearm whilst balling a fist, and then laughing hilariously for the next few minutes. This happened at least 3 times. A great first Portuguese biology lesson all round!
From the botanical gardens there are various paths into Obo with the highlight being Obo National Park, home to the small part of primary rainforest left on the island. The paths are marked but not particularly kept and pretty dicey when wet, which is often. Twichers will get good opportunities, particularly the chance to see some of the endemic species, but the offerings are in less abundance than on a typical African birding walk. I guess this is quality rather than quantity. There are various waterfalls of different sizes, and a good lunch stop at one of the old plantations. The nice thing is that currently, its all yours. There is not group after group, making the serenity really quite special and very real. However, be prepared to get wet!
Porto Allegre is the very south of the island and is about a 2 hour drive. The road winds up, down and round the steep contours and past various beaches (Praia Sete Ondas and Praia de Micondo) through the lush greenery and various towns until the ‘good’ road suddenly stops and you are in 4 x 4 country only. The ½ an hour to Porto Allegre is pretty rough, again part of the charm and a reminder that this country still delivers on adventure albeit in a well-equipped Landrover. On the drive you get good views of Pico Tao Grande, the iconic needle of rock that reaches 300 metres into the sky and everyone wrongly assumes is Pico de Sao Tome. Just before Porto Allegre you can take a mangrove cruise (c 2-3 hours) and about 20 minutes after it you take a left turn into Praia Inhame.
Praia Inhame Eco Lodge
This is a stunning family run Eco Lodge on a great (turtle nesting) beach. They have about 20 or so stilted en-suite rooms (and some family ones) beautifully, but simply, crafted out of local hard woods with views of the sea and the greenery. The restaurant is beach front, and the offerings are well worth their while. The passion fruit dessert was outstanding. You can easily spend 4 nights here: relaxing on an amazing and near deserted beach; taking in the snorkelling round the rocks; following one of the local walks to different beaches, Praia Piscina; or indeed get the boat across to Ilheu das Rolas 20 minutes away, slap bang on the Equator. Praia Piscina is definitely worth a visit but unless you have young kids the beach along from the pool is better. If you are after some turtle action then have a look at Praia Jale where from the number of bamboo poles in the sand indicating turtle nests aligned with the gouged beach would suggest turtle nesting season is nothing but in full flow.
Ilheu das Rolas
This is small island off the south coast of Sao Tome which lies on the Equator. There used to be a Pestana Hotel here but it closed down just before the pandemic and never re-opened. There is no longer any tourist accommodation on the island but it’s a good day out. To get across for the day we took a small boat from Praia Inhame which took about 20 minutes and the crossing was smooth. On arrival we made our way up to the view point which is also the point where the Equator runs through the island. It’s a short but hot hike. We then headed through the plantation to find a turtle beach (again lots of nests) and then onto the blowhole. There is a small botanical garden which is well kept too. The Praia Café (Coffee Beach) is great for a local lunch and the beach is great for swimming with plenty of shade.
We headed back round to the north-west in the afternoon. About a 3 hour drive to Mucumbli Eco Lodge, just past the town of Neves. A hotel with magnificent views and incredible sunsets. It is possible to get a boat from Rolas all the way to Mucumbli which takes about the same time as the drive. Mucumbli is set up to offer walks and is a good place to base yourself to explore the northern part of the island and its interior. The beach is not much to write home about – shingle/stone not sand. There are various Rocas to visit here as well as Lagoa Azul which is a lovely shallow bay and good for snorkelling but the main attraction here is trekking as it tends to be dryer. Many people start the climb of The Pico de Sao Tome from here. There is a good turtle project and various turtle beaches.
Personally, I preferred the south of the island.
Sao Tome is a very friendly place where you can quite happily go about your business without any hassle or threat. The weather is a factor and don’t expect cloudless blue skies the entire time you are here but there is so much to do that the destination suits inquisitive people who want to integrate with locals, taste their food and experience life on a tiny island most people have never heard about, let alone can place. Get here before it changes, as undoubtedly it will do.
My suggestion for a trip to Sao Tome (combined with Principe) would be to spend your first 2 nights at Hotel Avenida – explore Sao Tome City as well as hiking up to Lago Amelia. Then transfer down to the beaches in the south and head across tom Ilheu das Rolas to stand on the Equator. Spend your final night in Omali Lodge which is close to the airport. Flights to Principe go 5 days a week and depart at about 09h00. You can do Sao Tome without going to Principe but it is the jewel in the crown and you have come all this way! See my next blog for tips on Principe.