Chocolate Islands? Yes, Please

A Stop in Sao Tome and Principe

The chocolate Islands; Who doesn’t love the sound of that? The official name, São Tomé and Principe sounds more  like a vacation destination  in the Caribbean rather than two islands thousands of miles away in west Africa; This former Portuguese colony is a jungle paradise full of cacao plantations, as well as a hub for coffee production. Tourism is nearly non-existent in these islands except for travelers looking for a destination less explored. 

So here I am. Halfway around the world, staying in one of the most beautiful resorts in recent memory. Internet is sporadic and it’s not easy to find someone who speaks English, but I’m listening to the thousands of birds outside my bungalow and watching the waves crash on  the rocks below. There’s also cacao trees as well as a dozen different types of tropical fruits ready to be picked off nearby trees. São Tomé is magical. 

When I  Googled STAP for the first time, I saw an intriguing photo of a tall thin unearthly peak protruding out of the jungle. It didn’t even look like it could he real. I soon learned that this alien-looking mountain,  Pico Cão Grande, was formed by a volcano tube and could be accessed by driving south on the main road. So, I rented a car. The weather was perfect as I made the 90 minute drive to the edge of São Tomé’s national park. There the tower stood, defying all rules of reality. Some daredevils climb it, but I was happy to take my pictures and head to the very south of the island. 

The Intersection of the Equator and Grand Meridian Photo: Bill Wiatrak

At the extreme south of the country, Rolas island claims to be at the intersection of 0/0. That’s the equator and prime meridian together in one glorious place. Some naysayers put it at a different spot in the ocean nearby, but there’s a giant monument and concrete map plaza with official looking markers; which works for me. To get there, drive to Porto Alegre and hire a boat guy for 30€ to take you across to the island and back. Our captain somehow signed us up for a big fish dinner and tour guide, which added hours to our adventure (as well as an extra 40€ to the bill). It’s definitely an advantage to speak Portuguese, but I was able to manage with bad Spanish and hand gestures.

The road ends at Porto Alegre but if you have a 4WD, you can continue to Jale beach which is famous for being one of the the best spots in the universe to watch rare sea turtles lay their eggs from November to April. There’s rugged camping in the area or you can arrange a trip with Hotel Pestana on Rolas island. 

Sao Joao Roca Restaurant Photo: Bill Wiatrak

Attention foodies: A couple restaurants offer tasting menus of local fare to give diners a chance to savor unique dishes in a beautiful setting. We tried the two most famous spots, Sao Joao Roca on the east coast and Casa Almada Negreiros  in the island interior. Sao Joao offers a tasting menu of 9 plates, a sip of wine and some other snacks for 25€. The property overlooks the ocean and mountains and has one seating at 1 pm. For 16€ Casa Almada offers a slightly more intimate experience with 2 starters, an entrée and dessert in a jungle setting. Both venues provide great experiences and a nice way to try cacao infused dishes, yucca, taro, soursop, octopus, local fish and lots of artistic inspired taste combinations.  

Cascada Nicolas, Sao Tome Photo: Bill Wiatrak

A mile from Casa Almandes is Cascada Nicolas, one of the islands most photogenic waterfalls . A few minutes the opposite direction brings you to Café Monte, São Tomé’s coffee route. The circuit includes a coffee museum, plantations, a lodge, a cafe and a museum. The coffee museum has some old factory equipment  and photos on display with Portuguese signage and  your 2€ admission includes a freshly made cup of Java. You should be able to hire a tour guide to take you to a plantation or walk around and find some of the coffee plants yourself. 

Cacao drying Photo: Bill Wiatrak

If your interest runs more towards chocolate (and whose doesn’t?),  Diego Vez on the west side of the island is cacao central. It’s here than the cacao is separated from it’s pods  and seeds are dried in long trays. Cacao only grows within certain regions on the planet and this is a wonderful place to spot countless trees with big yellow ripe pods and sample the tasty fruit covering that covers the seeds. 

Where to stay: 

To keep things interesting, I changed up my hotels to whichever part of the island I was exploring that day. My hands down favorite was Mucumbli on the northwest part of the island. Mucumbli is a nature lovers dream with tropical fruit growing in its lush jungle and spectacular views of the ocean and colorful birds. Since most flights arrive at night, Sweet Guest house is a good inexpensive first night option in the heart of São Tomé. On the East side of the island , Roca Santo Antonio Ecolodge offers a nice restaurant, stylish rooms and a pool.  Pestana hotel is a more expensive option in São Tomé if you’re looking for a full-service hotel with a lovely infinity pool if you need a day to decompress. Much of the island is made up of very simple villages that aren’t set up for tourism, so you’re likely to be staying at a European owned establishment regardless of where you decide to spend the night. 

São Tomé doesn’t require a visa for less than a 15 day stay, but airfare can be pricy. The least expensive fares are combined with a trip to Ghana or Lisbon with TAP Portugal.