Portugal’s hidden paradise

news: Portugal’s hidden paradise

PORTUGAL HAS many famous former colonies that make great holiday destinations – Brazil, Goa and Cape Verde, to name just a few. But have you discovered São Tomé and Príncipe yet? Located approximately 200 kilometres off the west coast of Gabon, in the Gulf of Guinea, this tropical archipelago was discovered by the Portuguese navigators while they were searching for a route to India in the early 1470s.

Although originally uninhabited, the Portuguese shipped convicts and Jews to the islands and imported African slaves to work the fields there. In time, Tomé and Príncipe went on to become leading world producers of cocoa and the islands only gained independence in 1975, after the so called ‘Carnation Revolution’ in Portugal caused many plantation owners to flee home. The official language of São Tomé is still Portuguese, although 90 per cent of the population speaks Fang, a Bantu language.

The archipelago consists of two main islands, São Tomé and Príncipe, and the islets Cabras, Gago Coutinho, Pedras Tinhosas and Rolas, which lie on an alignment of slumbering volcanoes. The islands are a dramatic mix of rugged rocky landscapes, lush plantations, dense rainforests and palm fringed sandy beaches. But the best feature of all is that São Tomé and Príncipe only opened up to tourists in 1987 and many of the islands are still almost totally undiscovered by the tourist trade, providing an isolation from the world that is rarely found these days. There are only around 10 hotels in the country plus a chain of comfortable state run inns.

Stunning São Tomé

The island of São Tomé, with its capital of the same name, represents around 90 per cent of the total surface area of the country and is a natural base for many visitors. It is a picturesque town, packed with colonial Portuguese architecture and attractive green spaces. The slave trade and slave-worked plantations, known as roças, dominate the history of the islands. These plantations, now mostly nationalised, still remain a major feature of the landscape and are well worth visiting. Highlights include Agostinho Neto, the largest plantation in the country, Agua Izé, where visitors can tour the plantation by train, Monté Café and Ribeira Peixe.

The stunning scenery provides most of the entertainment on the island – hiking through rainforest, fascinating and varied birdwatching, stunning beach walks and visiting natural attractions, such as the Boca de Inferno (Hell’s Mouth), seawater fountain. Other must sees include the Ilhéu das Rolas (Turtledove Island), a small island which is crossed by the equator; the Pico de São Tomé, the highest mountain in the archipelago at 2,024 metres. The Porto Alegre, on the southern tip of the island, the ancient fishing town of São João dos Angolares, and the fortress of São Sebastião, are also well worth visiting.

The São Tomé and Príncipe Islands also enjoy some of the clearest waters off the western coast of Africa and are ideal for swimming, snorkelling and diving.

Unusually, the islands’ beaches have both white and black sand. The rocky beach at Lagoa Azul (Blue Lagoon) on São Tomé is especially good for snorkelling and the island’s hotels can arrange diving and deep-sea fishing trips, notably on Bom Bom Island, off Príncipe’s northern coast.

Picturesque Príncipe

The small island of Príncipe is located around 94 miles from São Tomé and its main town is Santo António, which, like São Tomé, has retained its distinctive colonial architecture and atmosphere. Two huge cocoa plantations and the Pico de Príncipe, the island’s rocky summit, dominate the island.

Climate

São Tomé and Príncipe has an equatorial climate with heavy rainfall, high temperatures and humidity. The mountainous south of the main island is wetter than the north. The main dry season is from early June to late September, but here is another dry season, the Pequenha Gravana, from the end of December to the start of February.

PDM verdict

Practically undiscovered, this tropical paradise is one of the last remaining great value destinations, where you really can get away from it all. Air Luxor and TAP both offer direct flights from Lisbon to São Tomé and PDM has a range of accommodation to suit your budget.