Just São stories: a honeymoon in São Tomé and Príncipe
The Seychelles aren’t the only idyllic African island. São Tomé and Príncipe makes a more adventurous honeymoon destination
First published in The Guardian, Saturday 21 May 2011.
Two young guards stood astride the entrance of the presidential palace in São Tomé town, resplendent in white gaiters and BMX-style helmets. They stepped forward in unison, clapped their rifles to their shoulders, caught each other’s eye, and collapsed into laughter. They didn’t cut very convincing figures as guards, but then military pomp seems a bit superfluous in São Tomé and Príncipe, arguably Africa’s most peaceful country.
This twin-island nation tucked in the Gulf of Guinea, off Africa’s Atlantic coast, seems to be a secret largely confined to purveyors of cocoa – São Toméan chocolate graces the shelves of Fortnum & Mason – and naturalists, who flock here for its rare birds and butterflies. But any visitor to Africa’s second-smallest country would be bewitched by its vivid natural beauty, dilapidated architectural grandeur and disarmingly friendly people.
São Toméans’ renowned “ease of being” is enshrined in the local watchword, leve-leve, meaning something like “easy, easy” – which they say when you try to hurry things along. In this informal island culture, more Caribbean than African, where fruit flops off the trees and the sea is jumping with fish, the question always seems to be, “What’s the rush?”
Watching Príncipe from the plane was like preparing to enter an ancient world: extinct volcanoes, lush forest. Bom Bom Island Resort, on an islet off Príncipe, has 21 luxury bungalows around pristine, forest-lined beaches. Between lunches of grilled red snapper on the jetty, I passed my days snorkelling amid shoals of tigery-looking fish, kayaking to distant beaches and falling asleep to the ebb of the tide on my own private beach. I was in danger of setting up shop here, which was the fate of manager Dmitry:
“Príncipe, and São Tomé, appeared after volcanic activity,” he told me. “They were never part of the African continental plate. That’s why there are so many endemic birds and butterflies around. You get professors staying here for months. They can’t leave!”
The Portuguese were equally bewitched by these uninhabited islands when they arrived in around 1470, but were also quick to see their commercial potential, first sugar, then cocoa. The island became as famous for the inhuman conditions in which its slaves were kept as for the quality of its produce. The chocolate magnate William Cadbury was so shocked by his visit to the islands in 1908 that he boycotted the import of the bean on humanitarian grounds a year later.
Most of the cacao roças (plantations) have been reclaimed by nature since independence in 1975, but a handful still function as cocoa farms (the crop still accounts for 80% of the country’s exports), and are a fascinating record of the country’s history. At one time all roças were self-sufficient, with their own hospitals, and a railway to transport the cocoa to port.
My guide and I hopped on Bom Bom’s quad bikes and set off for nearby Roça Belmonte. We clucked along winding forest roads, past distinctive box-like huts, brightly painted on high stilts, and through Santo António, the island’s main town, where pink-pastel buildings seemed to peel in the glare of the Pico do Príncipe, the island’s highest mountain (948m).
At Roça Belmonte, it was as if the Portuguese had dropped everything and hurried away when independence came. Past the turreted entrance gate, the old schoolroom still bore a blackboard, the image of a horse and the word cavalo (horse) written in old-fashioned cursive chalk.
The largest of the roças are over on São Tomé island. Driving up the wide boulevards of Roça Agostinho Neto, you’re surrounded by the elaborate workings of the plantation economy, with hospitals, warehouses and offices that at one time processed huge amounts cocoa, coffee and copra (coconut kernel). A small boy handed me a cacao pod to try. He cracked it in two, to reveal the sweet, white, gooey flesh of the seeds, which I snacked on until my mouth turned purple.
Roça Agua Izé, on the coast road south of São Tomé town, is a compellingly tumble-down roça. With its throwback warehouses and narrow-gauge railway, the plantation just about shudders along. “Cacao is a good crop, but it can be a real headache if the rains don’t come,” sighed the manager, leaning on a sack of beans. “And this railway hasn’t run in 18 years.”
One roça owner had a radical response to plantation heritage. João Carlos Silva lives in the village of São João dos Angolares, home of the Angolar people (a “maroon” community descended from runaway slaves, with their own language, N’gola). He has restored Roça São João to its original airy charm and, with his cooking school, dance classes and eco-tourism projects, he has also created a renowned centre of São Toméan culture. But he is still best known outside the island for his infectiously enthusiastic cooking show, Na Roça com os Tachos – In the Roça with the Pots – on RTP Africa TV.
We sat on the veranda, nibbling spiced breadfruit fritters and sipping passionfruit juice. “My father was an administrator in the 1960s and stayed on after independence,” he said, “so the blood of the roça is in my veins. “Centuries of slavery have contributed to a national low self-esteem. Yet the country has so much to be proud of.”
The islands are almost completely forested: Obô national park – with areas on both Príncipe and São Tomé – covers 30% of the islands, and boasts 28 endemic species of bird out of 120 recorded here, rare tree ferns, orchids and the giant begonia. Tough walkers attempt the volcanic finger-like picos. I opted for a gentler hike in virgin forest in the heart of Obô, through Bom Sucesso botanical garden up to a large volcanic crater called Lagoa Amélia.
Clad in Barbour jacket and wellies, Francisco, my guide, wielded a fearsome machete. He led me through mosses, massive ferns and vast tree trunks: “The only thing to worry about here is the cobra preta, which is deadly.”
“But it slides away when it hears footsteps, right?” I suggested.
He made no reply, but hiked on, lopping off ferns with a soft ping of metal. Occasionally he would stop to point at plants. “This one,” he chortled, “you grind up and mix with honey, for when you’re on a date and need a – you know – pick me up.”
São Tomé island is a touch more worldly than Príncipe, but it still preserves a slow pace of life. The city has the charm of a colonial metropolis on the long road of decay, with seemingly little repaired since the Portuguese era. Stately boulevards flanked with walnut trees are cracked and split, pastel facades are rough with age and humidity, and life seems to roll by without the pressure of time – safe perhaps in the shadow of the imposing 16th-century fortress of São Sebastião.
By contrast, the centre of town, with its brightly coloured buildings, is alive with chatter. The mercado grande bustles with trade; hefty women flog tuna and sailfish, limes and mountains of chillies and okra, swigging palm wine from old Sagres bottles.
Like in all Africa’s former Portuguese colonies, there is a profusion of pastelarias, where you can eat custard tarts (pasteis de nata) and, best of all, açucarinhas, spirals of fudge and coconut pulp. And when you’ve had your last chocolate liquor at Café e Companhia (the town’s best cafe bar), and the street lights have fizzled out, it’s still safe to wander by the beachfront to suck in the sea air.
You don’t have to be a honeymooner to fly to São Tomé and Príncipe (although they’ve guarded the secret well), or a naturalist, or a chocolatier, but it does pay to leave your watch behind, and forget all sense of time.