Beautiful Sao Tome and Principe greets you from the plane with a warm and open hug.
This friendly embrace of tropical maritime air accompanied me throughout my time in this far-flung paradise.
These remote rainforest islands sit on the equator within the warm seas of the Gulf of Guinea. They’re a frontier of tourism where your efforts reveal rewards of untouched, pristine and empty beaches, primary forests full of birdsong, gorgeous small-scale boutique accommodation, and warm and friendly local guides passionate about their island home.
This country has been independent from Portugal since 1975, and tourism (at an appropriate scale) is a clear benefit to the islands today.
It’s as a tourist that I arrive on an Air Portugal flight from Lisbon.
My transfer to Club Santana waits for me to clear customs and collect my hold bag from the tiny carousel. Soon we are bouncing along the surfaced-but-potholed roads along the ocean front of Sao Tome city.
Along with the weather, it’s the traffic that often provides that feeling of being somewhere other than home. It’s Saturday night and the roads are alive with people walking and driving the streets. Motorbikes make up the majority of the traffic – solo riders, two-up, three-up, some helmets, some bare heads – all travelling at a relaxed pace and flowing through the tarmac and dirt streets, horns beeping.
We exit the city and the stone buildings subside into hand-built wooden shacks that the majority of Santomeans call home.
The road is lined with these wooden houses, mostly on stilts so that the area underneath can be used for storage, keeping animals, outside living, and the like. Either side the dark roads are bustling with people on foot walking and socialising – life takes place in the streets.
Arriving at Santana village, we turn off into forest and bump down the drive towards Club Santana.
The resort is one of plush bungalows set on the ocean front of Santana Bay, and my room is fresh and cool, the air conditioning already set so it feels just right. Dinner is in the warmth of the outside air on the beach front, a barbeque prepared before our eyes.
Later in my first week I travel to Praia Inhame on the south coast of Sao Tome island.
The metalled surface of the east coast road ends some 20km before my destination, so after this the minibus transfer bumps along increasingly uneven stone and dirt roads. Now I can feel that I’m getting closer to the Sao Tome I thought I was coming to see – the road quality lends a remote feel to the south of the island and the short journey takes an enjoyable age. It feels so immersive travelling through such a beautiful area at this leve-leve pace.
We drive through fishing villages of houses on stilts, again people everywhere.
Beyond Porto Allegre the road gets considerably even worse, and we drive the final 2km at walking pace. My lodge is awaiting me, wood-built and comfortable. The glimpse of the beauty of the beach from the lodge window enchants me.
I walk through the trees, up and over the storm bank, to the soft golden sand.
Emerging alone from the overhanging trees onto the sweep of the beach, I have to sit down to take the beauty in. It’s profound, stunning, empty, perfect – and it’s the experience of untouched natural wonder that I expected to find.