Ilhéu das Rolas
We visited the small island of Ilhéu das Rolas off the south coast of São Tomé on our last day. Population: 296 (wikipedia; 2008). At first glance, as you approach the island on a small ferry it feels like you’ve landed in paradise. There are no roads or cars or shops here. A resort with the largest sea-water pool in Africa dominates the inhabited part of the island. The rest is made up of: rainforest jungle, the equator, stunning secluded beaches and very few tourists. You can expect to feel lost in paradise on Rolas.
Firstly, to get to Ilhéu das Rolas is a 2-hour drive from the capital to Ponta de Baleia, the ferry port near Porto Alegre, a fishing village. You can easily rent a car through the hotel you’re staying at, or else take the tour bus. On the way there you’ll have unspoilt views of Pico Cao Grande, with the much debated palms standing in lines at its base.
From Ponta de Baleia a boat service will transport you to Rolas. The boat service is a small open ferry. You will feel every swell and some people complained about feeling seasick. Apparently the local dug out canoes, transporting locals, are much more comfortable to travel in and cheaper too. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to try them.
As you approach the island views of the resort, the biggest salt water swimming pool in Africa and the small church on the island greet you. Friendly resort staff meet you at the pier with coconut water served in coconuts. They will direct you to the reception where you pay for your passage and lunch (buffet at the resort).
Things to do
You could easily spend a week on Ilhéu das Rola, especially if you wanted to dive the waters around the island. We did the whistle stop tour which left us wishing for more!
We had a gorgeous 19-year-old called Icler as our guide on Ilhéu das Rolas. His English wasn’t good, but we were with a couple of Portuguese tourists that translated for us. We got accosted by many youths when we arrived, to take them on as personal guides. Icler just fell in with us as we started to walk and won us over with his beautiful smile. He walked with us up the hill to the Equator where he picked us a coconut, which he promptly broke in half so that we could all have a taste of the water inside.
Even if you’ve never thought about straddling the equator as being on the bucket list, you’ll be glad to do it! A very special feeling indeed, standing with your feet in different hemispheres.
We went on a short walk around the island with Icler. He showed us the most spectacular mango tree that’s even got a spot on the map, and also brought us to the popular Coffee beach, Praia Café, (a must visit). Aquamarine warm water, with a gentle swell and white beach, framed with palms on the beach and rocks on either side. It was standing on this beach that we watched the whales, taking their time to travel between the islands of Rolas and São Tomé – a truly magical place and a special moment to treasure forever!
After our tour of Rolas, Icler took us on a walk through his village, first stopping at his family’s craft shop to pick up some gifts. Our new Portuguese friends translated all the while for us. Apparently the population on the island used to live in the old servants’ quarters of the dilapidated plantation house. We were saddened to find out from the locals that in 2000 when the resort moved in, the families were evicted with very little compensation. The families moved 100m down the beach to build a new settlement of wooden structures.
Including the shack-like homes, there are a couple of local bars, a church, a small primary school and several gift shops. Unfortunately, open sewage run down the hill. Paul visited Rolas in 2008 and he says there’s been some growth from what he could see. There used to be only 1 gift/craft shop, but we walked passed at least 5.
Christmas is approaching fast and the festive season reminded me of the small island of Rolas. The connection between this little rock in the Gulf of Guinea and Christmas is an obscure one so you’ll be excused for being a tad confused! In the craft shop on the island they don’t have a marketing strategy as such, not like you would expect in the UK at least. Everything they have is on display at all times.
So, in August you’ll find the carved nativity sets on the shelf. They are a bit different than the European ones you’d normally see of course, but still lovely and beautifully crafted. The best thing about them is that there weren’t sheep next to the manger, but pigs! A bit of context: pigs are everywhere on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe. They walk around freely, on the main roads, in the jungle, through villages. So it makes sense that pigs, not sheep, feature in the nativity scene. Makes for a really colourful twist I thought.
Eating on Ilhéu das Rolas
These days you’re forced to eat at the expensive Pestana resort, because it’s the only place to find food. There used to be a great little pizzeria next to the resort according to Paul, but this is now standing empty. I think I would have preferred the pizzeria, but alas. The buffet lunch to be found at the resort was fine, but not brilliant, and quite expensive. If you take into account that all food has to be brought to the island, then it’s not that surprising actually. They served lots of local dishes and the fish is cooked fresh on a hot plate for you, but there was nothing special about the restaurant apart from the views.
The ferry back to the main island arrives in the late afternoon, all too soon! We could’ve spent another few days on Rolas easily without being bored. Unfortunately there was no time for fishing this time. There is also excellent diving around the island if that’s your interest. The ferry and the dug out canoe the locals take back to Ponta de Baleia, leave at the same time. The canoe is much better suited for these waters and got to the port first.
Rolas is a truly magical place that will always hold a special place in my heart, not only because it finished off our trip to São Tomé and Príncipe on such a high note. I feel very fortunate that I could visit this little island and hope I can do so again in future.