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São Tomé and Príncipe

Castaway African Islands Transparent Turquoise Waters

Castaway African islands known to few travellers, São Tomé & Príncipe have recently seen a trio of stylish, ethical hotels complement its Treasure Island-style shores and jungle interior. Which means now’s the time to get there.

Seriously far-flung

Chartering a motorboat along Príncipe’s western coast, one can easily imagine being a castaway or daring Victorian explorer.

The lowdown

  • Best for

    Eco-friendly adventure, offbeat escapism in style and budding Robinson Crusoes…

  • When to go

    Year-round with May & October considered the best months. Combine with: A few days in Lisbon. Its an ideal stopover en-route.

  • Cost

    From £2,770 per person for a 10 night tailormade journey, including flights & transfers.

Ahead beckons an exotic tropical island: behind transparent turquoise waters and small coves of butter-coloured sand are misty, jungle-swathed peaks. Peculiar bird whoops emanate, and not a building is visible. What on earth is this place? Príncipe is, in fact, the autonomous and smaller half of a two-island African nation. But ask your friends to locate São Tomé (the bigger brother) & Príncipe on the map, and most will flounder. “Er… is it in the Caribbean?” “Near Indonesia?” In fact, the isles sit beside the equator, 140 miles west of Gabon and the African mainland.

    Snoozy Príncipe

    Originally uninhabited, it was a Portuguese colony – one which, remarkably, once produced more cocoa than anywhere else on Earth – for five centuries until 1975. Since then it has been one of Africa’s stablest and most democratic nations, as well as one of the world’s smallest countries. Despite the views from that boat, there are small towns and villages; the internet has arrived, and so too have smartphones.

    Yet the vibe, especially on snoozy Príncipe, is still one of a forgotten, uncharted realm; of somewhere borrowed from a Stevenson novel. Getting here isn’t straightforward – a flight to Lisbon, then another, eight-hour one to São Tomé which stops in Ghana. An additional 30-minute flight connects to Príncipe. Still, there’s no jetlag, what with the country sharing our timezone, and that fiddly journey only increases the sense of having fallen off the face of Earth.

    Here Be Dragons

    Stylish hotels are the last thing one expects to find on a teeny, lost kingdom like Príncipe, and yet three await. All are there thanks to investment by Mark Shuttleworth, a computer-tech millionaire who later became the second-ever space tourist. After that he founded Here Be Dragons, a venture capital firm looking to invest philanthropically and help the environment. Quickly, Principe became his passion project.

    First to open was Bombom, eye-catchingly located on Príncipe’s northern tip where two perfect, palm tree-lined beaches vie for attention either side of a rocky headland. Rather rustic, Bombom’s 19 cheerful bungalows lie close to the sand, and next to a hammock-lined pool bar.

    Next came Roça Sundy, located in one of many grand cocoa-plantation houses built by the Portuguese. Having been sympathetically restored, the beautiful building offers a sea-view veranda where delicious food is served, and huge, high-ceilinged chambers. The surrounding Sundy plantation has been lent new life, and guests are encouraged to make friends with the gleeful children and chat to villagers.

    Newest, and most luxurious, is Sundy Praia. Scattered along an impossibly idyllic beach, its 15 giant tented villas include three-bedroom affairs with private pools. There’s also a main pool and bar, and high-quality food from chef Angelo, poached from Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck. His organic and local ingredients emphasise its commitment to sustainability.

    Get Involved

    Available daily are a roster of active, culture-focused or wildlifeobsessed adventures with which to explore Príncipe. On beach-hopping boat trips you might explore the perfect curves of aptly-named Praia Banana or see whales breach the water. Humpbacks reliably appear in July and August.

    Elsewhere, turtles nest and hatch on protected beaches from November to April. Short guided walks, including those in southern Príncipe’s Eden-like biosphere reserve, will yield sightings of indigenous blue kingfishers, squawking parrots and perhaps even small monkeys.

    Alternatively, delve into various projects, from Roça Sundy’s new chocolate factory to a chic, internationally-acclaimed jewellery co-operative using recycled bottles. More local flavour is available via market tours and meals in Santo Antonio, Príncipe’s bijou capital.

    Whatever you do, it’ll be authentic, unusual and a bit random – and that’s the joy of Príncipe. It’ll only stay a secret for so long, though…