I entered 2019 with a vow to myself, I would explore and travel to more countries. And during the first month, I was able to do my first out of the country trip for the year. And guess where I went? Well, the place is considered as one of the world’s hidden paradise.
Not lost, because it had always been there.
Hidden, yes, because it hasn’t never been discovered yet by a lot of travel enthusiast.
Which served a good advantage for me, because I was one of those few who was able to set an eye on this hidden gem.
São Tomé e Principe is Africa’s second-smallest two-island nation, and São Tomé city is the capital. This place will welcome you with tropical natural parks, which I know eco-tourists would surely desire to explore. And beaches are extremely calm! But there’s also one thing that I got the chance to do and I’ll tell you later!
Tap Air Portugal is one of the only airlines currently flying to São Tomé. Three days a week – Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. (If you keep checking Google Flights, Skyscanner, and other search engines to book way in advance, you’ll end up with good rates.)
It’s an eight-hour flight from Lisbon which isn’t that bad. I watched some movies but you can also either read a book or catch up on some sleep) and before I know it, I was already in paradise.
The airport is super small and I was hit by the tropical temperatures as soon as I disembark. But I took it all in my stride. As the African flow engulfed me, everything slowed down, including airport formalities. (Here’s a tip of advice: be patient and try to enjoy the mellowness that can only be found away from crazy Western cities!)
The drive from the airport to the city is just five to ten minutes long. As of now, São Tomé just has around 29,000 tourists a year, and that’s how I ended up exploring a non-touristy haven unlike any other! And then I realized that it was the pristineness and authenticity I rally for constantly!
Excellent places to stay at São Tomé
As any season travelers will tell you, lodgings make a big difference. It’s not about luxury or comfort. It’s about finding a place that gives you a sense of belonging. And São Tomé, being a pristine paradise where you can breathe, relax and rest, has it all. Here’s the list of hotels and lodgings where I stayed at.
Omali Lodge is a magical place. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that I immediately felt at home. I was welcomed with a detox juice which was badly needed after such a long journey. With just 30 rooms available, this elegant boutique hotel is not only stunning but also eco-conscious. The perfect combination of all those sustainable travel enthusiasts!
According to their philosophy, their team works hard to adhere to the values of ‘responsible tourism’ and reduce their carbon footprint. They aim to have a positive and sustainable impact on the island of São Tomé by promoting good environmental practices. And I can attest to this – all these efforts are so organic and integrated that it’s a pleasure being amidst it all. They actively try to put forth energy efficient practices and mesh the experience of guests with the social and cultural fabric of the local community. It’s the little stuff like that that made my stay at Omali Lodge unforgettable.
I normally don’t support international hotel groups and prefer to stay in locally-owned hotels. However, one of the highlights of my São Tomé trip is to enjoy the Ilheu das Rolas (a small island on the equator), and yes, I would definitely recommend spending a night in Pestana Equador. There, I did get all the relaxation I need, along with every opportunity to fully enjoy the tiny island.
And, here’s one more reason why staying at Pestana Equador is all worth it. Do note that the Pestana Group is actively involved in a myriad of sustainability efforts. It prides itself as an organization of people who deeply respect the environment, the locals, and corporate ethics. The group regularly spearheads educational initiatives and campaigns in various locations that help local communities grow. There are also initiatives to reduce the use of non-renewable resources, biodiversity preservation efforts, and programmes for social inclusion of minority groups in various societies. And oh, eight Pestana hotels have been awarded the prestigious Green Key, a certification that distinguishes hotels that promote sustainable tourism. Awesome right? Totally! My love for sustainability had never been left on the background.
At Mucumbli, in Pont Figo (north of the island), you can either rent a bungalow (for around EUR 80), rent a tent (for EUR 20), or set up your own tent.
Mucumbli is the perfect spot in the north to start your 1-4 days hike, go mountain biking, enjoy a day at the black beach, or simply to take a boat to the south. The restaurant here offers wonderful food and even more incredible views of the lush green landscape. If real tranquility is what you seek, this is an experience you simply cannot miss!
São Tomé Food Heaven!
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again – São Tomé is the greenest place I’ve ever been to, lusher than my wildest imagination. It also boasts waters that are the bluest of blue. So, on such a fertile island, it only makes sense that there’s an abundance of vegetable, fruit, and seafood.
Vegetarians (and even vegans) will delight in the variety of plant-based food items on offer here. Similarly, those with a liking of seafood will certainly not be disappointed.
And if you are a meat eater? Don’t worry, you’ll find your fuel too!
And oh, many restaurants offer foreign cuisine as well, so if an Italian food craving strikes, you can find spaghetti bolognese and pizza with ease. But you know me, I prefer to eat what the locals eat as much as possible. For me, that’s a huge part of truly exploring a land.
And in the limited time I spent on the island, I was able to try an impressive number of places – this fact in itself is a testament to the quality of food in São Tomé! Here’s a quick round-up of some of my fave places in the city.
If you happen to be in the city on a Thursday evening, head over to Cacau, where you’ll find live dancing and music, along with mouth-watering food. They have a fantastic buffet with local dishes, lots of fish, plantain, flavorful vegetables. Did I already mention how São Tomé is the perfect destination for vegetarians? It was here that I tried passion fruit mousse with fresh fruit for the first time and I was blown away.
Another gem is Camões, a fantastic and rather small restaurant that has incredibly good food. Try the oven dish with fish. Yum! The stuff of dreams!
If you’re scouring the area for finger-licking local food, Papa Figo is a must. It’s bustling most of the time, but that’s always a good sign, right?
And although it’s almost impossible having favorites here, Dona Tété would definitely make it to my top three picks (if not the first). This place doesn’t have menus (yup, you heard that right), just super fresh food daily and you gobble up whatever the cook serves. The variety of items in the shared plates is crazy. I honestly don’t think anyone can actually finish the amount of food they give! Since it’s not right next to the main streets, you might have a tiny bit of trouble finding it. But Google Maps to the rescue!
Restaurante Casa Museu Almada
If you’re after something a bit different, Restaurante Casa Museu Almada serves to taste lunches. Enjoy several plates of local food that lives up to the highest standards. Bonus points for the welcoming atmosphere. The place also boasts a fantastic view and the terrace is dotted with beautiful, colorful flowers. Here, too, you don’t have to deal with the confusion of picking from a menu. The yummy plates will just keep arriving… and each plate will make you more and more content. This is also one of the few places where you’ll definitely bump into a few other travelers.
São João de Angolares
Let’s just say I’ve been to a lot of places – from Michelin starred restaurants to famous street food markets in Asia. I’m not a crazy foodie, but I do enjoy the experience of good food with a variety of tastes and textures. And this has been my very best culinary experience until now. Why?
The local food is extremely fresh and you can actually touch it as you see the chefs cooking live. The views of the lush greenery and the sparkling ocean are magnificent. It all starts with an awesome tasting experience as they prepare your taste buds. You chew fresh cocoa, a single strand of fresh pepper, fresh ginger, and some strong local chocolate. What a rollercoaster, no? All this is washed down with some divine Portuguese wine. And then, dish after dish comes out to blow you away. Around 14 dishes will cost you EUR25 and it is SO WORTH IT. Many of the dishes take hours to cook, so it’s only fair to take your time and savor each bite when you sit down to eat. Savor. Sense. Sit back and enjoy.
When in São Tomé, it would be a travesty to not try the national dish, calulu. This dried smoked fish is cooked in a luxurious soup with a motley of herbs and vegetables. It is also a perfect example of the slow cooking this island champions and takes around eight hours to prepare. Many places serve it, so I doubt you’ll have trouble ordering a bowl or two.
Ah, who can forget those delectable and tantalizing flavors? Certainly not me!
São Tomé and my unforgettable memories
Merely five minutes after I checked in at Pestana Equador, just as I was putting my suitcase in my room, a staff member enthusiastically ran towards me and asked if I “wanted to see a small turtle”. Any guesses to what my answer was? Grinning from ear to ear, I said yes and was led to not one, but more than 30 baby turtles that were just around 5o days old being released into the ocean as the sun starts to set. What an experience! I get to hold one baby turtle in my hand and it was so beautiful that I can’t resist but let him stay on my palm for a few minutes. And I experienced firsthand how the locals truly care about the well-being of those ocean creatures and it was one of the most humbling experience I have so far. As a sustainable traveler, it really felt good to be seeing individuals who put forth an effort to maintain the balance of our ecosystem!
The morning after, I went on a private boat trip around the island at 6 am. The things I saw truly blew my mind: fantastic beaches, small geysers and the bluest of blue water! Truly, I’ve never seen such staggering vistas. Oh, another crucial detail: NO TOURISTS. And there, I must reiterate: how I wish I could protect São Tomé as a little piece of heaven forever! Regular, irresponsible tourism is bound to ruin it all. But If tourism grows sustainably, the citizens will stay happy, there will be better job opportunities, and the fantastic nature will be preserved. What a win-win situation!
If you’re looking for a place to breathe and just take your time and not rush in doing things, São Tomé is perfect for you. ‘Leve, leve’, the Sӓotomeans said. It was not until I get to know the culture and the locals, and experience the beauty of this paradise, that I grasp the true meaning of those words. ‘Easy, easy.’ That’s their common motto. And you can see it on how they do their daily life activities. No rush, just easy. No tension, just happy.
São Tomé – a place where each sense is evoked in the best way possible, a place where you remember to breathe, a place where you can feel life emanating from within. Oh, what an experience. Surely, I’ll come back with more enthusiasm to explore this hidden beautiful world.