Belo Monte Plantation.
Belo Monte Plantation.
Image: Supplied

Read Lerato Mogoatlhe’s (@madamafrika) São Tomé travel recommendations. The author of travel memoir Vagabond ditched her job as an entertainment writer to journey solo through Africa.

São Tomé and Príncipe is made up of two islands — the larger São Tomé, and Príncipe, which is 35 minutes by air from São Tomé. There is no other way to get to Príncipe other than flights from São Tomé, and it is worth a stop.

Both islands are “lovely beyond any singing of it”, to borrow Alan Paton’s words. Being here felt like living in the middle of a tropical rainforest — so lush, green and rich with biodiversity. Every moment was a wow moment. It’s the kind of destination that pulls you in instantly with its easy-going social life that’s fuelled by wine and palm wine.

It’s not uncommon for a street corner to turn into a jam session with kizomba music and dancing. The beaches? Long stretches of soft sand and leaning coconut palms. São Tomé and Príncipe beaches are also the place to witness Hawksbill, Leatherback and Olive Ridley turtles nesting and hatching (in season). It’s a small country, one of the smallest in the world, but there is nothing low-key about the island. It is one of the highlights of my travel about Africa.

Where’s good to eat?

Roca São João Dos Angolares in Santa Cruz. Everything about this hotel is amazing. It’s on a hill and the restaurant comes with incredible views of the sea. The property is a restored six-roomed rural eco-tourism venture owned by a famous TV chef João Carlo Silva, who serves up traditional São Toméan and contemporary cuisine. So food is a big part of the experience, but only for the tasting menu. It turns everyday staples such as beans, okra, banana and so on into haute cuisine. It’s an experience that starts with tasting a cacao fruit. It’s the island’s chief export, so chocolate is also a big part of tasting São Tomé. After sampling the cacao, you are taken to another table for a wine and chocolate tasting. You have to book! I recommend sleeping over so you can experience breakfast here. It is an event with a fruit platter, the best coffee I had on the island, fluffy scrambled eggs and a couscous-like cassava dish seasoned with a hint of cinnamon and honey, served warm. Another amazing food experience is in Micolo, the main street is lined with seafood cafes. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, very easy-going.

Micolo.
Micolo.
Image: Supplied
Roca São João Dos Angolares.
Roca São João Dos Angolares.
Image: Supplied

Additional recommendations from Zodwa Kumalo-Valentine:

  • Claudio Corallo (claudicorallo.com) has been producing coffee and chocolate for more than 40 years. Interviewed by The New Gastronome contributor Francesca Zanardi, she writes that Corallo’s belief is that 60% of the work that leads to delicious chocolate is done before roasting the beans, and the work in the field and the harvesting period are both key to the special result he is looking for.
  • Paris-based architect Didier le Fort and his team at DL2A, designed the award-wining (Prix Versailles World Architecture Design Award in 2019) restaurant Oca Sundy (@ocasundy.restaurant) at the five-star Sundy Praia (on the ecotourism-geared island of Príncipe, bought by SA tech entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth in 2011), which mimics a giant fish crafted from bamboo. Inside its belly, guests are treated to a world-class experience with cuisine to match.

What were some of your favourite activities?

This being an island, you simply have to swim with dolphins or go whale watching. I also enjoyed the excursion through the northern parts of the island. It includes going to the Blue Lagoon — my favourite place in the island.

Blue Lagoon.
Blue Lagoon.
Image: Supplied

Where did you stay?

Roca São João Dos Angolares is famous for the tasting menu but it is also a beautiful, peaceful space. My favourite memory, besides the breakfast, is sitting on the patio in the evening to enjoy the perfume from the flowers in the lush garden. São Tomé brims with activities and adventure but it is the simplicity and joy of everyday life that made me fall so hard in love, I am learning Portuguese. I also loved my stay at PZero Hotel (@pzero_hotel). It overlooks the sea and looks twice as beautiful when the full moon is out.

Also recommended?

  • The Dutch family-owned Belo Monte Plantation Hotel (@belomontehotel) in São Tomé looks over five beautiful beaches including Banana Beach (a 15-minute walk from the property) made famous by the Bacardi commercial shot there in the 90s. The boutique hotels classical architecture is a popular meeting or pickup point for any planned activities and excursions.
Belo Monte Plantation Hotel, Manor House.
Belo Monte Plantation Hotel, Manor House.
Image: Supplied

If you visit again, what would you do differently ...

I would have used Banben Tours for all trips. They have an amazing tour group that speaks English. I joined a tour group that promised an English guide. Needless to say, the playlist about the island was the main event of the trip. He barely spoke any English. I would have also gone to Ilhéu das Rolas, punted as the heart of the world.

And the all-important question: Are there ATMs and connectivity?

Yes, all available but as a rule, I always get a local sim card. Be warned — power cuts are almost as common as they are in SA, but everyone has a generator.

Top island experience?

The walk to the Blue Lagoon is one of the most amazing moments of my life and travels about Africa. At the time I was based in Morro Peixe, which is about an hour’s walk to the lagoon. There’s transport, and it can be organised as part of an excursion, but the walk there stands out because I barely spoke Portuguese then, so we didn’t have a language in common. We walked in silence and found other ways of expressing joy in the moment. For the man I was walking with, the highlight of the walk was when we reached a spot where you can feel the ocean breeze. It was a welcome respite from the heat. He opened his arms, like a bird preparing for flight and asked me to do the same. We were so giddy! My moment — being a solo woman who can barely see in the dark and being assured of my safety and security. It was another affirmation of my why — Africa is an incredible destination that has it all, especially the kindness of strangers.

• Lerato Mogoatlhe (@madamafrika) is a travel writer, TEDx speaker and author of the critically acclaimed travel memoir, Vagabond wandering through Africa on faith. She curates her travel at www.vagabond.africa. Vagabond is sold by blackbirdbooks.africa, Bargain Books, Book Circle Capital and Africa Rise Store in Sandton.

Lerato Mogoatlhe.
Lerato Mogoatlhe.
Image: Supplied
Image: Supplied
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