São Tomé e Príncipe
Leve leve ?
Another assignment for the travel magazine. Boy, do I love these.
This time around we flew to the tiny archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe. These islands are lost in the Gulf of Guinea and going there is not usually on someone’s plans unless you’re Portuguese and then maybe it’s a little more on your plans than on most other people’s.
We boarded our TAP plane, the company still owned by the state, ready for the flight over. Our plane out of São Tomé, five days later, would be from the same airline, but now on private hands. Still sad to see it go.
Our group was a medium sized one, ten people, from different travel magazines and newspapers. Some new faces and others I knew from before. Always a pleasure to find someone you know for 15 years in a relaxed atmosphere like the one we usually get on these trips. I was already sure we’d have a great time.
A stop was made on the way, and my feet almost touched the ground in Ghana. Never been. As we couldn’t get off the plane I took the mandatory wing shot so I could add Accra (?) to my Instagram map. Back in the air in no time.
Arriving at São Tomé International is an experience, but nothing to rave home about. Got off the plane, got our temperature checked, past the usual throng of taxi drivers trying to pick up a client and soon were on our way to the first hotel of the trip. It was late in the day, and dinner was waiting for us at Pestana São Tomé.
Buffet style dinner, and our first taste of matabala and the local beer, Rosema. We would quickly become fans of both. Matabala could replace all other chips, forever, and the ice-cold, label-less, Rosema is a very decent beer. We would drink it whenever we could find it.
Now… Regarding the internet situation. Wi-Fi is available on common areas but Ethernet (!) cables are required to have web access in your room. Why would someone do that in 2015 beats me!
Leaving all mobile devices without access to the internet while in our rooms is really odd and something I would love to have changed. I, along with a ton of other people, never bother to pack a computer while travelling. On the other hand there’s always a group of teenagers across the road from the hotel, piggybacking on their Wi-Fi. Day and night. I guess that’s fair.
Moving on: sleep, well, and get up early next morning, we have an island to explore.
This would turn out to be the most productive day of all. We had issues with the weather on the following days, most were rainy and dark. Sun was out most of the day today and we visited a bunch of places.
We had our first encounter with a group of rather vocal fishermen (or fisherwomen) who did not want their pictures taken, and then another group who was more than willing to pose for a couple of shots, and didn’t mind us hanging around while they worked.
We also made our way to a couple of rivers where women washed their fabrics before visiting our first roça. All visitors to the country are expected to visit a few while travelling around, and we did our part and went to Roça Água Izé before lunch, where we saw cocoa in various stages of the growing process. I love chocolate, I do. But the smell of that fermenting cocoa was a bit too much for me.
Lunch would be served at Roça São João and we would visit another on the following day. Roças ? Check.
Still time for a coconut at Boca do Inferno and soon we wanted more food. We needed a proper lunch. We got it.
Lunch at Roça S. João is a must in São Tomé. The chef is a TV personality from the islands, one that we know from one of the TV shows that aired in Portugal. João Carlos Silva is an amazing chef and a superb storyteller. He’ll keep you entertained for hours with his stories and tasty treats.
The sun sets early on the islands, and it was time to call it a day and move back to the hotel. More matabala for dinner and early to bed.
Quick visit to Trindade, where we climbed the church bell tower, and off to Roça Monte Café, where the coffee museum is located. Sadly photos are not allowed inside, but the museum is not that photo-worthy anyway. Coolest part were the kids that played with us while we were there. Great coffee at the museum, but not worth the trouble of going up there for that cup alone.
Most of the roças are in rather bad shape and people still live in the old slave quarters. Some buildings are now museums, others have been turned into schools and such, but almost all of them are falling apart. Of course some are still producing cocoa and coffee but even those could benefit from a little renovation. Quite sad, but everyone loves an old building, right ?
Another inland road took us to the São Nicolau waterfall and to the botanical garden, Bom Sucesso. Both are also on most people’s itineraries. Those two and the restaurant where we had this day’s lunch: Roça Saudade. Simple, delicious food. I’m eating more fish than I can keep track of!
We kept meeting the same people everywhere. If you bump into someone at some roça, you can bet you’ll see them again at a restaurant, or a market somewhere. All the guides seem to follow the same itinerary, and you see the same faces at all the landmarks.
Again the sun is setting and I took this opportunity to visit Barbearia Rita on the way to the hotel and get a haircut. I had not been able to do that before leaving home, and finding a barbershop with theLovelyWife’s name was a sure sign I should go in. Quick (very well done) trim, a five-minute visit to the busy market next door, and I was walking back to the hotel.
Sad note: There was no more Rosema at Pestana, we had already drank their modest stock to the ground.
Today we move to Príncipe island.
We fly in an old Dornier, one that feels like a sauna sitting on the runway. It’ll be a short thirty minute flight, but expect to loose a few pounds. We’re weighted with our bags before boarding, and the flight safety demo is done on the ground, as there’s no room in the airplane for that, you can’t even stand inside. Loved it.
There was an official ceremony on the tarmac, one that involved the Prime Minister, complete with red carpet, so we had some time to kill before taking off. After a while (a longish while) we managed to bum a Wi-Fi password from one of the airport staff. That helped, the bar was closed.
Landing in Príncipe feels like landing in a National Geographic documentary. Maybe that old Dornier is also a time travelling machine. The airport is tiny, even by São Tomé standards. A couple of jeeps waited for us outside, but not much else was going on. There’s only 18 seats on the plane so there’s no real reason for a big turnout, nothing like the one you get in São Tomé’s largest international airport anyway… And it’s raining.
We made our way to Bom Bom Island Resort, and were directed to a conference room for a briefing by the HBD’s CEO. Environment, Eco, Green, Sustainable, Royal Marines General, Bigger airfield, Staff training, Luxury roça hotel in the future…
After that was done we were free to drop our carry on bag on our assigned bungalow and roam around the resort. We had plans for the time left before lunch, but we dropped them. We barely escaped a visit to a couple of other roças and went to the beach instead. Still raining though..
But, Boy, is it beautiful out there! A real postcard paradise, pristine, one that’s not been tampered with so far. Cleanest water ever, palms as far as the eye can see and, if you’re lucky, you’ll even spot a monkey up on the trees or, if you’re truly blessed, a turtle. They lay their eggs on this beach, Santa Rita’s beach. Yep, the beach also has theLovelyWife’s name.
Sadly, the rain would not quit. Time for a quick dive, lunch, and we were off for a tour of the small island. We might not be able to shoot it, but there’s a whole island to see, and one day only to do it.
First stop: Praia Abade, with the nicest group of fishermen in the world. Period.
I got to see a flying fish, a first for me, and play like a madman with the fishermen’s kids. After what seemed like an hour I felt I could lay down and die, tired and soaking wet. It was time to go. Grab my camera and boots and we were back on the road, the sun long gone for the day.
Before returning to the hotel and getting ready for our dinner at the captain’s table we made a stop at Kitanda do Betinho, a very small shop managed by a friend of one of our group’s members. It mainly sells alcohol (Yay, Rosema), but they also had a foosball table and managed to commandeer a pretty decent speaker at the local church when we asked about music. Soon enough we were playing match after match with a super nice group of locals, while others danced to the booming church speaker. We could have stayed there forever. Or, at least, have dinner there.
But the clock was ticking and we had to be back at the hotel for dinner. The walk to the resort’s restaurant is a brilliant one, over a long bridge, to a smaller islet. That’s where you’ll have your meals. Loved it.
You get a flashlight on your bungalow’s keyring when you check in, one of those where you charge a battery by turning a lever. You’ll find it very useful when crossing this bridge at night, as well as finding your way back to your room when the sun sets. It’s dark out there, even more so when the rain won’t stop!
Rosema also not available at dinner time, we seem to have done it again. Second hotel, second time they ran out of local brew.
Waking up at five is never a pleasure, but we had no photos to show for from the previous rainy day, and this was our last chance before getting on the plane back to the main island.
And it’s not everyday you get the chance to open the window on your bungalow and great the sun on such a great setting.
By five thirty everyone was out of their bungalows, some trying to get a decent shot from an amazing place, others already taking a swim in the warm ocean. By seven we were starving and ready for breakfast. Bag already packed, as we had a plane to catch after tucking away a healthy dose of pancakes and pineapple. Good thing we were done shooting already, as the clouds started creeping over the nice blue sky and we could tell a downpour was coming soon.
Protocol in such a small airport is a bit different from what we’re used to, the safety talk is done on the ground, on the waiting room or just before climbing aboard the aircraft. There’s no X-Ray machine either, so inspection is done by hand. It takes little time, since there’s only 18 of us per flight, and we were instructed to carry a small bag only. All aboard, and thirty minutes later we land in São Tomé. It’s… surprise… raining.
By now it’s raining so hard that we’ll have to stay at the hotel and miss an entire afternoon, and a couple of our colleagues who were flying in on a later flight were unable to take off, and will have to spend another night at Bom Bom. Bummer.
Lunch was epic. We were staying at Omali Lodge this time around, and the chef here is a genius. He set up a table by the pool deck, and we stuffed ourselves. I ate another ton of fish, octopus, and a lot of raw stuff. Not the usual me. I loved it. Also worth noting that Omali’s chocolate mousse is indeed the best in the world.
Afternoon spent dozing by the pool, hiding under the big umbrellas until they couldn’t hold any more water. We moved inside when that happened. Nothing left to do but wait for dinner. Prepared by the same chef, you can guess how good it was. (It was very good)
Slept like a baby.
Time to say goodbye to São Tomé.
Wake up in Omali, pack the bags one last time, and remember to leave a pair of trousers on top for the late afternoon flight home. We’d be spending the day on the road and at the beach.
Before we still had a couple of hours to walk around town, something we hadn’t been able to do yet. Our trusty driver Coreano was waiting for us and dropped us downtown on his van. Stroll through a couple of markets, have an espresso on a pastry shop, and slowly walk back for our van pickup. A police officer bummed me for a soda, and we were gone.
Loaded the bags on the van and it’s time to move to Club Santana.
On the way over Coreano decided to stop at his place and introduce us to his family. They were so cool and smily, and we loved that he thought about stopping by, it was a great moment on our last day on his country.
On to Club Santana, a few bungalows on a slope that leads to a nice beach, complete with resident fishermen. We had our lunch there, spent a couple of hours doing as little as possible, took a 20-minute boat ride to an islet with some caves and it was time to leave for the airport. Boarding a bigger plane means a ton of time at the airport. No X-Ray, remember ?
Still time to help a family whose car had veered off road on the way, listen to the CD Coreano had on repeat one last time and pay our way out of the country (20€ per person) at the visa counter at the airport.
We had the Wi-Fi password from our flight to Príncipe still stored on our phones, the bar had plenty of ice-cold Rosema and the price of those was a quarter of what we were charged in the hotels. This was, without a doubt, the best waiting room in the world, better than any VIP lounge in a giant airport. We were a happy group. Leve leve.
We were invited to São Tomé and Príncipe by the nice people at Soltrópico.