Chocolate Islands Adventures
Visiting the chocolate islands is just that: an adventure. Be prepared to lose your heart to this gorgeous place like Salty Dog did. The experience you have when you visit São Tomé and Príncipe will be absolutely unique. So let me tell you a bit about Salty Dog’s island hopping adventures …
Getting to São Tomé and Príncipe is an adventure in itself. We took the longer route, stopping in Libreville the capital of Gabon, via Paris. It was a pleasant flight, just over 6 hours long. It’s during the day too, so you don’t have that overnight-long-haul feeling after the flight. There are also direct flights to São Tomé from Lisbon. From Libreville, it’s another 50 minute hop over the Gulf of Guinea to the island of São Tomé on a small aircraft.
I very briefly touched on the history of the chocolate islands in the previous blog post, and I have not made an in-depth study of São Tomé and Príncipe‘s interesting past. So excuse any gaps. Here, I will rather depend on the recounts we heard from guides all over the islands, which I think make for a more interesting tale. The history of this island nation is like no other and completely fascinating and makes us love it even more.
History of São Tomé and Príncipe revisited
The biggest date that stands out in the islands’ history is 1975, when they gained independence from Portugal. Every person you meet will gladly tell you about this event and mention it as often as they can; they are very proud of it! And also the fact that they are indeed: the Chocolate Islands! What I find fascinating is that the islands were uninhabited until the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century. They proceeded to introduce sugar at first and later coffee and cocoa (perfect crops for the volcanic soil and equatorial climate) and ’employing’ people from their other colonies in Africa to work on the plantations.
On São Tomé the larger of the 2 islands one of the plantations, Roça Monte Café, has been converted to a museum where you can have a tour and find out more about life on an island plantation in colonial times. Our guide told us in broken English of the labourers that were lured to the chocolate islands from Angola, Cape Verde and Mozambique, with promises of salaried work. They entered into agreements and signed contracts. Once there though, the workers found life hard and pay little; working from 5:30-17:30 (all the equatorial sun-light hours), having to line up in a square when a bell rang, being searched after work, etc. As a consequence when independence finally came and the plantations were handed over to state-owned enterprises, most workers left, having been exploited for centuries. Plantation houses were seemingly abandoned and left to the jungle.
Chocolate Islands: present
Fortunately, throughout São Tomé and Príncipe we witnessed a lot of new investment in old plantations with tourism at its heart. We were on the islands for 11 days, but could easily have spent another 2 weeks on the islands exploring and not get bored. I want to focus on São Tomé in this post, so I’ll only list the things that stood out for us on this half of the chocolate islands. (Watch this space for blogs on Príncipe and Ilhéu das Rolas.)
Quite a few plantations on São Tomé have been developed and turned into something special to visit, like museums, restaurants, and hotels. I mention only a few below, the ones we visited, but there are others.
On the smaller island Príncipe, plantations such as Roça Belo Monte and Sundy have been developed for tourism as well, turning the large houses into 5 * hotels. And another on Ilhéu das Rolas the Pestana resort used to be a plantation.
Cacao & Coffee
At the beginning of the 20th century São Tomé was the world’s largest producer of cacao, hence the name Chocolate Islands. These days the islands don’t produce large quantities of cacao, but the cacao they do produce is Fairtrade and organic cacao. You have to try the local chocolate while you’re there!
As we’re talking about the Chocolate Islands here, you also have to try some raw cacao fruit when you’re there. The locals are happy to share, so there’s sure to be an opportunity. When you drive around through the jungle with a guide, he’ll stop on the side of the road to pluck a ripe cacao fruit from a tree for you to try. The bit you eat is the white fleshy fruit covering the seeds. Guides will also point out the arabica and robusta coffee plants throughout the jungle. Taste the coffee at the museum Monte Café, included with your entrance fee.
A fairly new restaurant not listed in the 2016 guide book we discovered by accident, after visiting Roça Monte Café (see below), is the Case Almada Negreiros on Roça Saudade on the road past Trinidade. They serve a set very reasonably priced 4-course menu. The food is local, prepared and presented very well and we thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. The restaurant is situated on a balcony and can only be described as being in the rainforest. As a result it was truly a unique experience from arrival, being greeted by the friendly staff to the final coffee and piece of chocolate finishing off the brilliant meal.
Another great local find is Papa Figo in the capital city São Tomé. They serve many local dishes, but you can also get a pizza or burger there. On the side there’s a take away counter as well.
You should also put a day aside to visit another developed colonial plantation on São Tomé island Roça S.Joao dos Angolares. This is not only a hotel, but is also renowned for it’s cooking classes and wonderful food. We didn’t have time to have lunch here, but we did stop to have a look around, lots of local art to view and a great atmospheric restaurant. Paul went here on his first visit in 2008, and he said it has been greatly expanded since then.
Chocolate Islands: Things To Do
Waterfalls are dotted around the island. And if you have the time, you could hike to the waterfall of your choice. We were here in the dry season, so there was no point going to the most famous, São Nicolao. At Monte Café we found a driver that drove us in our hire care to another of the waterfalls nearby. The road was a precarious dirt one, that had to be approached very carefully. I would definitely recommend a local driver in this case!
This is a great little coffee museum, where they run tours showing colonial coffee manufacturing machines (no photography allowed inside). It’s also a lesson in the colonial past of the island. This plantation once produced most of the island’s coffee before independence. The bell that used to call the labourers to work every day is still standing. You can also go into the very photogenic old coffee factory which is now in ruins.
São Tomé National Museum
The old fort in the harbour houses the national museum, where you can view relics from the colonial times. Unfortunately we couldn’t get a tour because the guide on duty that day spoke only Portuguese and French. Since all the signs were in Portuguese as well we didn’t understand much. But at Euro 2 entry it was worth the visit if only for the views from the roof!
Chocolate Islands: Fishing
Due to all the exploring of the Chocolate Islands we did, we didn’t get to fish São Tomean waters. Here is a quick overview of the fishing opportunities.
You will need a boat to get where the fish are, because offshore is where it all happens. There is a small mangrove at the south end of the island that’s still unexplored, but this is not a flats destination. Surf casting and popping off the rocks will deliver some surprising species, but the islands are first and foremost a blue water destination.
Also, do not leave your fly rods all behind as you will have opportunities to cast at a sail fish or even a marlin. And that surely must be on a bucket list for any fly angler. When we get to the conventional fishing it is a true paradise for pelagic species. Inshore, accessible by boat you will have loads of fun on a popping and jigging rod.
The Chocolate Islands are indeed an exceptional destination and have something to offer everyone. Consequently with it’s interesting past, colourful and friendly people, beautiful beaches, tropical rain forests, birds, you can’t really go wrong. The islands are still relatively undiscovered and new on the tourist scene. But not for long! So if you want to enjoy it tourist-free, then get in there sooner rather than later.
Most of all while you’re here you’ll truly come to experience this island nation’s motto: léve léve—relax and take it easy. And also the best chocolate mousse, in our opinion, this world has to offer;)
Salt Dog Crew
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