A week on Principe - what to do and where to stay.
The author looks at the best places to stay on Principe and what there is to do
24 Dec 2021
04 May 2022
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And so on to Principe.
In order to get to Principe there is one flight a day 5 out of 7 days, with STP Airways (c1hr duration) done in a turbo prop from the last century. In order to board the flight you need to have an antigen test done in Sao Tome. This is relatively straight forward, just don’t leave it till the last minute. These flights are weather dependent so its worth having an additional day on Sao Tome on your return (also now required for PCR testing).
The flight is, as you would expect for an inter-island hop, mostly over water without much to see, but as you fly in over Principe’s north coast the emerald colour of the lush vegetation and incredible dark blonde beaches leap out against the Atlantic Blue. The excitement builds. On landing at the tiny airport (Sao Tome’s now looks positively enormous) you approach the terminal across the tarmac, remember this is the only flight arriving today. Inside the porta-cabin size terminal waiting for my bags I couldn’t help but notice all the brightly coloured signs advertising against the use of plastics, suggesting using a refillable water bottle instead and so on. When the bags arrive on a trailer, they are pretty unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the room. Welcome to Principe!
Principe is the much smaller and much older half of Sao Tome and Principe. Nearly half of the island is protected Jungle located in the south of the island. Tourists are not allowed into these core areas – only researchers and guides. The biosphere is said to be amazing and new species or sub-species of insects and birds are still being found today, adding to the already extensive list of endemics. The rest of the island is made up of old plantations or Rocas which were abandoned after independence and spent the interim years being recolonised by the jungle or becoming accommodation for the local people.
The population itself is tiny, only about 8000 inhabitants, nearly half of which live in Principe’s only ‘city’, Santo Antonio City. The most known Principe fact is that Bacardi shot an advert on the now famous Banana Beach, and this is partly what people come to Principe for, the flora and fauna but also the beaches.
Whilst Sao Tome is beautiful, it is lived in. It’s much larger population has to exist and this creates by-products, some of which is not dealt with particularly well, never mind recycled. Principe is the perfect older sibling where no litter seems to be tipped, the roads are empty (literally you will be lucky to see another car) and the feeling is of your very own Garden of Eden. In fact, Principe is so perfect that it is probably a step up from that exclusive garden as there is nothing on the island that will harm you – certainly no poisonous snakes and only a docile and no threat-to-life Tarantula spider, which you are unlikely to come across anyway.
Tourism has not got to Principe properly yet, and for that it is blessed. The capacity for overseas visitors is hamstrung by the amount of beds available in the 3 ‘European standard’ hotels, the capacity of one 30 seater plane arriving each day, and the price. Its not a cheap place to stay. Don’t get me wrong, its not OTT like some African safari camps or swanky London city hotels but considering where you are there isn’t really a level down from luxury. This is where the two islands dovetail beautifully. Eco Lodges on Sao Tome like Mucumbli and Praia Inhame offer superb accommodation at a much more affordable rate. You still get amazing beaches, great hikes, nesting turtles and breaching whales – the offerings on both islands are similar, just think of Principe as the upgrade island.
Out of the 3 open hotels on the island, one is owned by Africa’s Eden (a sustainably focussed family group) and the other 2 by HBD (Here Be Dragons), soon to be 3 when Bom Bom Island Resort opens again, and no doubt more after that as there are plans afoot to build down near the northeast beaches as well.
HBD & Bom Bom Island Resort - Due to re-open Oct 22
The original hotel on the island was Bom Bom Island Resort, currently closed for renovation and optimistically due to re-open in October 2022. It was built by the family who currently own Roca Belo Monte and later sold to Mark Shuttleworth’s HBD group. HBD is a project that has been funded by the owner to the tune of about $100 million, they own/lease a large chunk of Principe Island (stories go so far to say that about 25%) and are investing heavily in sustainable projects all across the island from agriculture to hotels and local projects aimed at saving turtles and help the local fishing become sustainable. They are also responsible for the dramatic upgrade in the road network on parts of the island. This is where the scuba diving operation will work from when its open as will the whale watching boats.
HBD have the only (if not one of the very few) ‘working’ Cacao plantation on the island at their hotel Roca Sundy and their small Willy Wonka factory enables them to grow and harvest the beans as well as actually manufacture the end product. It’s a cottage industry but demonstrates well what this island was originally famed for. More recently Principe has started to become a Vanilla producer as its climate is ideal, do we need to watch this space for some HBD Vanilla coming along too?
Roca Belo Monte
My first stop was Roca Belo Monte, which is a stunningly refurbished Plantation House that has been turned lovingly into a hotel by the owners. The owners are a Dutch family who have been invested in sustainable projects for years in West Africa, first in Loango National Park in Gabon and now on Principe. They were the builders of Bom Bom until they were approached by Mr Shuttleworth’s HBD group and traded in a beach front property to transform a plantation house in the hills overlooking said Bom Bom Resort as well as The Bacardi-famous Banana Beach.
This is probably the lesser-known property out of the three as it does limited marketing. It was a lovely surprise. The place has been marvellously and meticulously refurbished creating a beautifully peaceful setting with rooms in the main building as well as set around a large tranquil central garden, stunning sunset views from the bar /main balcony and a shaded leafy pool area hidden out the back. Rooms are decorated in old Portuguese style with enormous comfy beds and huge bathrooms, most have great views. The one thing I wasn’t expecting to find, more because it’s not their style to shout about it, is all the work done with and supporting conservation. Designated private space reserved for ecologists, students, and such like as well a superbly arranged and detailed museum of Principe and the work done supporting conservation projects.
Whilst Roca Belo Monte is not ‘on’ the beach, it is surrounded by some of the most beautiful. The well-known Banana Beach is part of their property and is a 15-minute walk down to a well organised bar area with several shaded comfy lounging areas. Guests can eat down here, and they often do special evenings such as New Year’s eve parties. The best bit is you don’t have to walk as there is transport readily available in the form of a 4x4 only a call away. The other beaches Praia Makako (Monkey Beach) has some unfinished hotel works (HBD I think) but next door is the completely deserted Praia Boi (Bullock Beach – roughly translated) and then Praia Grande (Big Beach). All are wild turtle beaches and can be accessed by a rough road either on foot (40-minute walk) or by 4x4, so you can take your pick and head off to your own (often) exclusive beach for however long you fancy. The hotel will happily supply you with provisions and transport in or out or both. A huge appeal as in my humble opinion these are the better beaches on the island.
Praia Grande is the best beach for turtle nesting on the island and guests from HBD come down here during turtle season, so at Belo Monte its pretty much on your doorstep. There is a small and slightly run-down turtle museum which is quite interesting to breeze through. I was there during nesting season and as with most places, turtles come ashore at night dig their nest, lay their eggs and then bury them before disappearing, all before dawn. I headed down with a guide and a couple of others from the hotel armed with red filtered head torches. Benfica were playing in European competition that night and they were really excited about it, so looking for turtles was probably not top of their wish list, but they were very friendly and made sure that all rules were followed and explained as well as laying turtles found.
In fact, we found about ½ a dozen in various different stages of their own annual pilgrimage and we didn’t even walk the length of the beach. The highlight was the ‘laying’ and about 100 eggs were dropped gently into their safe sandy cocoon. We also saw turtles digging as well as covering over, a laborious process using their fins as spades which also ensures their watching public get an eyeful of sand every so often. I couldn’t help but think it was small ‘up-yours’ to their public.
Another highlight is the land crabs. There are literally thousands of them ranging in size from the baby matchbox sized to the monster ones. They weren’t that big but wearing flipflops I felt quite exposed, so you may opt for closed shoes. There were so many of them sometimes we had to walk round the flock as they headed into the under growth, never have I seen so many crabs! This entire activity was probably the highlight of my time on Principe. Turtle nesting season runs from November to March and hatching happens a few weeks later.
Another dilapidated plantation which has been brought back to its original glories by large private investment. This time by the deep pockets of the HBD group. Sundy is a working cocoa plantation and I think I am right in saying one of the only ones on the island. Again, the property is set around a central garden with rooms in the main house and in the Cacao House along from the main house.
The rooms in Sundy are a tad smaller and darker than I would like, but I was spoilt in one of the suites in the main house, which I couldn’t fault. Beautiful high ceilings, original tiled flooring, large bathrooms – you get the picture. This project is not as far as advanced as Belo Monte and on the other side of the garden opposite the main house there is a thriving local community still in existence. I thought that it added a great atmosphere and a nice local feel – whilst there was a bit of a feeling of ‘us and them’ it was nice to watch daily life going on. This is however temporary, and the community is being relocated to good housing just down the road, all overseen by the UN. As with all relocations there is some mixed feeling but overall, it seems to be a positive thing. The area they currently occupy is to be turned into a market where locals can trade with one another as well as selling to tourists.
A pool and exterior bar area is planned, and construction will start in the not too distant future. It is required, as the current space is limited, the bar area tiny and although some seating outside, could be improved. Guests are free to walk down to Sundy Praia for some beach chilling and can use the facilities as well as charge food and drinks to their rooms. The system works fine for now.
Sundy Praia is presently the premium offering on the island and comes with a price tag to match. Set just into the jungle, the rooms are a concoction of standard suites, double Suites and beachfront Treble suites with their own pool. All are in the same tented style and are beautiful, hard to fault in any way. Interiors were a decked with teak wood, large oval baths and huge outdoor terrace and space not an issue in any room. The design concept surrounding the bed creates a black-out bubble and the beds are enormous and uber comfy. A good night’s sleep guaranteed.
The double suites have a master room and a separate secondary one, which still offers everything the larger one does but on a smaller scale. The treble suites have an additional smaller room and their own pools as well as a priority position right on the beach.
The restaurant is a structure of beauty and makes the dining experience exceptional when paired with the outstanding food and supported by the all-round excellent service. The obligatory infinity pool has great views out over the beach and the pool bar has a cool vibe serving great Negronis and bulbous gin & tonics amongst other favourites. The beach is nice but, in my opinion, not quite as good as some of the beaches on the island. It also tends to get less sun in the afternoons when people tend to be in situ as activities normally take place in the mornings.
The guides service both properties, and if you stay at both properties you will be, more often than not, guided by the same individual to guarantee continuation of the experience. The format tends to be: active in the morning and relax in the afternoon. There are plenty of activities on offer year round and my suggestion would be get out on a boat – they do 2 trips, one to the Bay of Needles and one to the north-east beaches. Make sure you do the first, regardless and if you get a clear day you will get some incredible snaps of the islands fascinating ‘Jurassic Park’ topography. If you have stayed at Belo Monte the second trip is less important but fun nonetheless. There is snorkelling on both as well as a lite snack to kill the hunger before you head back.
The Cacao experience is normally done from Roca Sundy as its on site but can also be done from Praia. It’s a fairly short ‘experience’ but an interesting one that teaches you about the process and culminates with some interesting tastings. It’s an activity that’s encouraged so you can understand the history of the island, although it’s my view that it needs to be extended to warrant being one of the official activities.
O Que Pipi Waterfall
This is a lovely hike into the national park for about 35 – 40 minutes which culminates at a 50 metre waterfall and large natural swimming pool. The walk is not difficult although you are walking up a gradient to get to the waterfall. The paths are marked but as everywhere in STP, not superbly maintained. The water in the pool is cool and refreshing as any wild swim is. After heading down we stopped in a local restaurant in Santo Antonio for lunch of grilled fish and rice, a really nice way to round off a really pleasant activity.
Pico du Papagayo
If you are feeling energetic then the Pico du Papagayo trek will quench that. Its not an included activity but I took it on to understand why it wasn’t. Its nearly 700 metres in height and the going is fairly tough from the get-go as its steep. This gets worse as you get closer to the top where there are some fixed ropes (more for safety than necessary) and it then becomes a bit of a scramble. There are some decent viewpoints along the way (time to get your breath back) and when you get to the top you look out over the ‘metropolis’ that is Santo Antonio City.
Your guide will offer you some water and a bite to eat before you head back down. Its about 2 ½ hours up and 1 ½ hours down and you work up quite a sweat. Its not for the non-sure-footed amongst us but it’s a good day out and a sure fire way to get rid of some of the excesses of staying at these culinary magnificent spots.
Principe is a great destination and I would spend at least 5 nights here. Its a year round destination weather-wise, mainly due to the unpredictable nature. Don't be put off by travelling when turtles or whales are not in season as there is plenty to keep you occupied without them.