Príncipe: the Prince’s Island
In the blog African Heritage, the author explains the naming of São Tomé & Príncipe:
“Thus São Tomé stands for Saint Thomas. Príncipe was initially named Santo Antão (“Saint Anthony”), changing its name in 1502 to Ilha do Príncipe (“Prince’s Island”), in reference to the Prince of Portugal to whom duties on the island’s sugar crop were paid. Thus Principe stands for Prince. Hence São Tomé e Príncipe really stands for Saint Thomas and Prince.”
This is the same account we heard from locals on arriving on Príncipe. And no wonder the little island is named after a prince, because it’s surely the jewel in São Tomé & Príncipe’s crown! It’s a piece of heaven on earth and well worth a visit. From the moment I set foot on Príncipe I was enchanted, I was completely in love with the place.
How to get to Príncipe
Príncipe is a short flight away, about 45 minutes, from São Tomé by propeller aircraft. There are 2 services offering flights, so that you won’t be stranded if the airplane from 1 service doesn’t work on a particular day (yes, this happened to us, remember this is Africa!). It’s not advisable to cross on a boat or ferry – in the last decade there has been a few accidents and even a sunken boat!
Príncipe has roughly a population of 7,000 and only the upper half of the island is inhabited. The bottom half of Príncipe was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2012, which makes this place a bit unique. You can take a boat ride circling the island while you’re there. Being in the path of a migratory route for whales, you’re sure to spot a few. We opted for a day out fishing instead, obviously, but were lucky enough to see a few whales anyway!
So if you like a remote small-island experience, Príncipe is definitely the place to go. And oh my goodness, it has so much to offer for the whole family! From white beaches (covered with sand, not tourists), to all sorts of water activities (snorkelling, kayaking, fishing, whale watching), bird and turtle watching, hiking through the jungle. The lodge you stay at will also arrange a 4×4 drive around the island to visit the other lodges. It doesn’t sound like much, bu it’s actually very interesting and you learn a lot about the island and the culture of the people this way. The staff at the lodges are very friendly and eager to please and will arrange any available activities upon request.
Where to stay
There are a few options to stay on Príncipe. We stayed at the secluded resort of Bom Bom, located at the northern most tip of Príncipe. The bungalows are spread out over 2 beaches, with a few rooms in between next to the poolside. The restaurant and bar are connected to the mainland with a long gangway crossing a small strip of sea, making this a truly unique restaurant experience.
In the mornings you get to choose from a large breakfast buffet which includes a variety of local produce. The lunch menu comprises of several different options, including panini and burgers. The dinner options are usually between 2 menu options: a 3 course set menu comprising of a traditional island meal and a more conventional Western alternative.
There are plans for a brand new lodge on Príncipe, that will be up and running in 2018. It will be on the south coast of the island in the biosphere. There are no villages in this area, so it will be perfectly secluded, with private beaches and unspoilt jungle – very unique indeed. You’ll only be able to get there by boat.
What to do on Príncipe
Soak up the sights and sounds surrounding you on the island. It is unique and you’ll be hard pressed to find another place like this on earth. Africa makes you feel alive and free and as if anything is possible. Everything is an adventure. Príncipe is Africa and is no different. But I guess because of the small size everything is condensed and feelings are intensified. It was for me. I really felt the local slogan ‘leve leve‘ (take it easy, relax, peace) in my soul here.
The most obvious water activity being to take a dip in the warm aquamarine ocean. With the average temperate all year around 26-27ºC, even swimming when it rains is great. The snorkelling was an amazing experience. As far as I’m aware all the lodges have water toys available for guests to lend during your stay, not only snorkels and flippers, but also kayaks and paddle boards. So if a beach holiday is what you’re after, you don’t have to travel far. The resorts also have swimming pools where you can cool off after any other excursions.
One of our days on Príncipe was dedicated to fishing of course. We decided to go out with another lodge, located a beach-buggy-ride away. Even for a non-fisherwoman like me, this was still an unforgettable day out. I loved every minute. From the dingy ride to the boat, watching Paul pop, jig and cast, the exhilarating ride out to the drop off, watching local fishermen slowly row past in their dug outs sitting low in the water, and of course the unexpected visit from whales, performing as they went past.
Whale watching & turtle watching
The best time to look out for whales are from July to October. And turtle nesting and hatching season is from November to April. We were there during August, so perfect for whales, but unfortunately too early in the year for the turtles. One good reason to plan the next trip to Príncipe!
Birdwatching in the jungle was another one of the highlights. We spotted many birds just walking around the lodge grounds where we stayed, such as Príncipe Kingfishers (sitting on a branch outside our bungalow), Bluebreasted Kingfisher, African Grey parrots (I shared my breakfast with the resident African Grey Chaplin), Golden Weavers (building nests in the palm trees). But it was something special experiencing the birds in the jungle and hearing their stories from a local guide on a birdwatching tour.
4×4 Tour around Príncipe
Another great day out is being driven around the island. At a lack of any other tourist destinations, the other lodges/hotels fulfil this task. There are brilliant views along the way and the driver/guide tells stories of the locals and area as you go along. It’s actually more interesting than it sounds having a snoop around the other lodges. Most are renovated plantation houses, which gives some insight into the past of this island and the culture of its people.
At Roça Paciência you can get out for a tour of the plantation. A small industry of local produce have been started up here, and they supply the restaurants at the lodges with dried fruit muesli, honey, soap, etc. There’s a small shop where you can buy some of their products too.
Roça Sundy is famous for being the exact place where Eddington proved Einstein’s model of physics over Newton’s in 1919. This hotel opened in 2017. The grand old mansion at Roça Belo Monte was also renovated into a hotel and opened its doors in 2014. From here you have easy access to the famous Banana Beach (famous for a Bacardi ad that was filmed here in 1991).
This tour also comes including a lunch break in the capital city Santo António where you’ll be treated to a traditional island meal. The lunch was a very interesting experience.
Other things to do
Other things to do on Príncipe include boat rides around the island, diving, jungle trekking and also climbing the Pico Cão Grande. So remember to pack your walking boots. We didn’t and braved the jungle in our flip-flops. It wasn’t a disaster, but boots would’ve been a better option. Especially if you’re planning to walk through the jungle and climb the peak.
Relax & enjoy
Mostly, Príncipe is for relaxing in the most amazing setting you’ll ever find yourself. Without sounding too dramatic, I do believe it’s a piece of heaven on earth. If a unique, secluded, island travel destination is your dream, then you will find it in Príncipe. We’re trying to keep the secret, but it’s starting to leak, so if you want the place truly to yourself, I suggest you try and get there sooner rather than later.
Watch our video on Príncipe here.