This is a personal account of the ultimate guided Príncipe day trip: where we went, what we thought, and why we think you’ll love it!
As the sun smooched with the horizon, sending gentle orange ripples across the ocean, I felt like I was standing on the edge of the world. Príncipe does that to you. This tiny islet off the west coast of Africa has a way of making you feel like you can reach out and almost touch what lies beyond the horizon. Yet I was content to stay put in the shadow of the coconut trees, watching the impossibly blue waves crashing against the black volcanic shoreline. Wild, unspoiled and vivid, Príncipe is like nowhere else on Earth.
Hubbie and I were spending a couple of weeks in São Tomé and Príncipe, visiting both islands and staying in dreamy beach lodges along the way. Today had been a good day. We’d left footprints on palm-fringed sands, explored cacao plantations and chatted to locals in tiny fishing villages about their daily catch. While there were a few other tourists visiting Príncipe, we didn’t see any of them that day. It felt like we were the only outsiders, easily identified by our red faces and sweaty shirts. It was hot!
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A Príncipe day trip – how to do it
There are two ways to enjoy a day trip around Príncipe – either by self-driving or going on a guided tour. We’re not usually ones for organised excursions, preferring the flexibility and freedom of independent travel. However, Príncipe isn’t your average holiday destination so we booked a private guide for the day, and were so glad we did.
Self-driving in Príncipe
You can hire a vehicle if you’re lucky enough to find one (being an island nation, São Tomé and Príncipe doesn’t have a lot of cars). We actually thought the sealed main road was in a bit better condition than the one we experienced on our day trip around São Tomé, although we were still pleased we’d opted to go with a guide.
Many of the attractions on this itinerary require you to head off the road on dirt tracks, so a 4X4 is essential. For experienced drivers, there wasn’t anything major to contend with, but just bear in mind that it gets muddy after periods of rain, which can pose challenges when negotiating the unsealed roads. Frankly, we were glad we weren’t driving, so we could just enjoy the scenery and not stress about the roads. Signposts aren’t exactly abundant either, so navigation has the potential to be quite stressful if you don’t know the area.
Guided day tour of Príncipe
If you want to book a day trip on Príncipe, it’s easiest to do this through your hotel. There aren’t lots of tourist offices on the island where you can just rock up and arrange something on a whim. So organising an excursion on Príncipe via your accommodation really is your best bet. We found that we could just do this once we were there, rather than planning things before our arrival.
This particular Príncipe day tour was booked through Hotel Roça Sundy, the atmospheric plantation manor house where we were based for a few days. Our guide was Vanda, and it was a pleasure to spend the day with him – we learnt so much and had a lot of fun. I’ve probably spelt his name wrong so bear that in mind if you ask for him! We also went on a half-day boat tour of Príncipe during our stay at the luxurious Sundy Praia beach lodge. I’ll write about that later, as it’s a corker!
First impressions of Príncipe
If we’d thought that São Tomé was remote, we were in for a treat with Príncipe. This island truly feels like you’ve walked off the edge of a map, in a good way. I often envy the pioneering explorers of old, who got to see so many of the world’s incredible places long before accessibility led to mass global tourism. There are very few destinations left in the world that can offer anything close to what expedition adventurers must have experienced, but I reckon Príncipe comes pretty close.
Fun fact: Fewer than 9,000 people live in Príncipe, and many of the residents here think that São Tomé, an island we felt was wild and remote, is too busy!
Our guide told us the story of a local boy who got lost on Príncipe for six months. He was only 9 years old but knew how to live off the forest so he survived. He’s now a guide at a hotel and continues to put his skills to good use. It’s amazing to think that there are still places out there that are so remote that getting lost like that is a real danger. Thankfully, we didn’t need to worry about getting lost on our Príncipe day trip!
Driving around with our guide on our tailored Príncipe tour, we didn’t encounter a single other overseas visitor – I imagine many places around the world were once like this, before tourists ‘discovered’ everywhere. It was a real privilege to feel like one of the front-runners, and I hope that the island stays this way, without being destroyed by mass development and holiday resorts. To put things into context, São Tomé and Príncipe is the second least visited country in Africa, after Equatorial Guinea! It’s also the eighth least visited country in the world.
People in Príncipe follow the moli moli way of life, where time has little meaning and schedules are pretty much unheard of. It can be difficult for us Westerners to adapt to the slower rhythm, but once you do, you’ll get a whole lot more out of your trip. Moli moli is similar to the ‘leve leve‘ we struggled with in Brazil, but things feel even more laid back here in the islands. It’s a ‘stop and smell the roses’ kind of vibe, and we could all learn a lesson or two from it.
Príncipe is all about nature. The beaches here are home to nesting turtles in season, while whales cavort off the coast and endemic birds flit about the forests. You’ll be excited by your first sighting of the brightly-coloured Príncipe Kingfisher, but after a few days here, you’ll realise they’re almost as common as sparrows back home! Still beautiful though.
The highlights of a day trip on Príncipe
Anyway, here’s what we got up to on our day tour around Príncipe, and highly recommend that you follow the same itinerary, whether you’re on a guided excursion or going it alone.
1. Roça Paciência – an organic farm plantation
This was the first stop on our Príncipe day trip. At first glance, Roça Paciência appears to be another of Príncipe’s beautiful but abandoned plantations. But look a little closer and you’ll discover an industrious haven of organic farming and cultivation. Up in the northeast of the island, Roça Paciência was once a satellite plantation of nearby hotel Roça Sundy. The latter is now a boutique hotel owned by HBD (we loved our stay here in the heart of history), while Roça Paciência serves as an agricultural hub for the hotel’s operations.
It was raining when we arrived, which gave the estate an even lusher feel. The paths were quite muddy in places so wear sensible shoes if you’re visiting during the wet season! We explored the estate with our guide, stopping at the various outbuildings and plant beds to learn about the organic processes that take place here. Everything from soap to muesli is produced at Roça Paciência, as well as coconut oil, dried peppers and of course veggies and herbs. Vanda told us the names of all the plants, which we promptly forgot, only to be slightly mortified when he tested us on them later. Must pay more attention!
It was fun wandering around the site, discovering more about organic production on the plantation and chatting with some of the workers. We were the only visitors there, which made the experience all the more ‘real’. There are no souped-up tourist experiences here, this is seeing behind the scenes at its most authentic.
2. Roça Belo Monte – a beautiful colonial plantation
Roça Belo Monte is a former coffee and cacao plantation, set in a delightful location up on a forested hillside overlooking the ocean. Today, this atmospheric plantation is a boutique hotel and a great place to base yourself for exploring this part of the island. Even if you’re not a resident, visitors are welcome to pop in and have a look around, enjoy a drink at the bar and soak up the views. The classic décor is beautiful, with elegant furnishings and timeless appeal. Staying at Roça Belo Monte is high on the list for our next visit, and it’s a common stop on many a Príncipe excursion!
While Belo Monte is similar to the luxury plantation hotel Roça Sundy, where we stayed, there was one stark difference. At Roça Sundy, the plantation was full of life, with local people still living in the old buildings on the premises. Meanwhile, at Roça Belo Monte, people live in the local village rather than on the plantation itself. We felt as a result the place felt a little eerie and abandoned, which perhaps just adds to the experience. It’s certainly a peaceful estate and a great spot to base yourself if you’re looking for a luxurious and quiet stay.
Across the courtyard from the hotel, one of the original plantation buildings is now home to a museum. Inside, you’ll find an exhibition on the cultural and natural environments of São Tomé and Príncipe. Small but perfectly curated, the museum is a great place to spend 20 minutes learning more about the islands that you’re visiting. It’s free to enter and you can just wander around at leisure.
3. Praia Banana – the island’s most iconic beach
Praia Banana (Banana Beach) is probably the most iconic sight in Príncipe, thanks to a certain Bacardi advert that was shot here during the 1990s. We were excited to see it but wondered whether it would live up to the hype, since in our experience, these things rarely do. The beach is shaped like a banana – hence the name – and is found a short distance along the coast from Roça Belo Monte on the northeastern coast of Príncipe. It’s a popular jaunt for visitors staying at the hotel, and anyone else visiting the island too.
After visiting Roca Belo Monte, Praia Banana was the next stop on our Príncipe day trip. We drove up to the viewpoint that overlooks the beach, which is the shot you’ll see in all the São Tomé and Príncipe travel guides. Happily, the scene exceeded expectations. Several photos later Vanda asked if we’d like to go down to the beach. We hadn’t realised it was a simple case of driving through the forest, as most beaches on the island are only accessible by boat. So it was a hearty yes from us, and off we went. The track was steep and slippery after a bit of rain, and I was glad we had someone experienced behind the wheel.
Down by the shore, there were a few wooden beach tables, a little food shack and even a toilet – these are all provided by Roça Belo Monte. It suddenly didn’t feel quite as remote as we’d anticipated, by Príncipe standards anyway, but there was hardly anyone there and it was still beautiful. The beach itself is smaller than it looks from above, with black volcanic rocks at either end. As we settled into the sand after a short stroll, Vanda asked if we’d like lunch. After seeing two hungry travellers nodding eagerly, he scampered off into the trees, leaving us a little puzzled. Was he going to catch us some food?
A few minutes later our trusty guide reappeared, brandishing a collection of leaves and twigs. We were still none the wiser and wondered whether ‘lunch’ meant something different on Príncipe. We were completely blown away by what happened next. Vanda proceeded to craft a small table for our food using the foraged sticks and foliage. He then fashioned a tablecloth out of leaves and laid out a feast for us to enjoy. We were given leaves to sit on, so our bums didn’t get damp on the sand, and even our water bottles were allocated their own greenery coaster. The condensation on the chilled bottles would have meant they’d have been covered in sand in no time, but with one simple leaf, that was avoided. Now that’s what I call service! Definitely a major perk of booking a guided tour on Príncipe.
The food itself was delicious too, provided by the hotel earlier that morning. It was all individually wrapped up in banana leaves, so we felt like proper locals! We tucked into everything from burgers with bacon and egg to coconut shards and bananas. Did you know there are eight varieties of banana in São Tomé and Príncipe, including the plata and ouro – silver and gold? As the Famous Five once declared, food always tastes better outside. We’re inclined to agree. As we munched on our midday feast, every now and then we heard the heavy ‘thunk’ of coconuts falling in the grove behind us. Some of them rolled down the beach into the ocean. We inched forward a little to avoid becoming the next coconut casualty statistic. What a way to go!
While we loved visiting Praia Banana, our parting thoughts were that the best panoramas were from the viewpoint above, and that there are better and more secluded beaches further along the coast. Still totally worth seeing though, and still way better than most of the other beaches we’ve been to on our travels around the world!
4. Nova Estrela Viewpoint – the dreamiest Príncipe panoramas
Next on our magical guided Príncipe day tour we headed south, past Santo Antonio (where we’d stop later) and through the village of Nova Estrela until we reached the island’s most iconic viewpoint. For me, this was my favourite spot on the whole island when it came to quintessential Príncipe panoramas. The Nova Estrela Viewpoint is just at the side of the road, surrounded by lush rainforest foliage and sweeping vistas out across the ocean. It was perfect.
The viewpoint overlooks a beautiful jungle-clad headland, which is home to the last house on Príncipe. Apparently, just one person lives there along with his animals. As you gaze out to sea, on a clear day you’ll be able to spot the Ilhéu Boné de Jóquei (Jockey’s Cap Island), named for its unusual shape. This is a great place to look out for African Grey parrots too – they live up in the tree canopy on these rainforest slopes.
As we snapped our photos, we were soon joined by a group of young children, who had been running along the road behind our vehicle on the way up, calling out Ola to us and waving. There’s no expectation in the youngsters here, they’re simply curious about seeing visitors (which is still not a common occurrence here) and just want to say hello. I waved back and felt a bit like the queen. Once they’d checked us out and shared a few shy smiles, they headed back to the road to resume playing with a rake. Kids here are so resourceful when it comes to having fun, just like everywhere in the world. Possibly one of our most treasured moments on our Príncipe day trip.
5. Terreiro Velho – an atmospheric cacao plantation
Continuing south, we soon reached the end of the road. Here, amidst the swathes of remote rainforest overlooking the distant ocean, was Terreiro Velho. This cacao plantation is owned by Claudio Corallo, an Italian businessman living in São Tomé and Príncipe with a passion for innovative chocolate and coffee production. Indeed, he’s one of the most esteemed chocolatiers in the world. He’s famed for creating a pure local chocolate without bitterness, and you’ll see it for sale in hotels and shops across the islands. We tried some and can verify it’s delicious! You can visit his chocolate factory in the city of São Tomé for a talk, tour and tastings.
Yet here at Terreiro Velho in Príncipe, you’ll get to see where the cacao process begins. Cacao trees were first introduced to Príncipe in 1819, and by the 1900s, the islands were the largest cacao producers in the world. The trees on the Terreiro Velho plantation descend from the original cacao trees, and this is where Claudio Corallo produces much of his crop. Príncipe is one of the last places on earth with pure (non-hybrid) cacao trees, which is perhaps why the chocolate here is so divine.
Mr Corallo very kindly allows curious visitors on a guided Príncipe day trip to wander around the estate, which feels like it’s been beautifully frozen in time. If you are arriving independently, do be respectful and ask one of the staff in the grounds if it’s okay to have a quick look at the grounds. The plantation house has a quiet air of abandonment, which seems fitting in this remote jungle setting. Claudio wanted to restore the plantation without compromising the original charm of the place, and I think he’s done that superbly. It’s said that this beautiful property has been ‘mouldering elegantly’ through the decades, and we felt that it wouldn’t be out of place on the cover of a design magazine.
In the grounds, you can still see the remains of some of the original mini rail tracks which would have been used to carry cacao produce from the plantation. The views from here are one of the main draws and are similar to those back along the road at the Nova Estrela viewpoint.
6. Praia Abade – a typical local fishing village
The next destination on our Príncipe guided tour was the village of Praia Abade. After Terreiro Velho, we headed north once more but hung a right before reaching Santo Antonio and drove out to the coast. Want to know exactly where the village is? Check out the Praia Abade map location on Mapcarta. We felt quite out of place driving through Praia Abade in the Toyota 4X4 – this fishing village is more about canoes than cars. Wooden boats were pulled up on the beach, clothes were laid out to dry on the riverbank, and people were hanging out in the street, greeting neighbours and tending to livestock.
We instantly became the centre of attention, but in a nice way. I don’t think people see many tourists down here, and several villagers were curious to know where we’d come from. We chatted with a few fishermen on the beach – Vanda did the interpreting. Apparently the men go out fishing at different times of the day, to catch different types of fish. We’d always assumed that fishing was a morning undertaking! These interactions were another reason why it was so good to be here on a guided Príncipe day trip – there’s no way we’d have had the courage to initiate encounters like this ourselves, for fear of intruding.
7. Santo Antonio – the smallest capital city in the world
Our last stop on our Príncipe day trip was Santo Antonio. This humble town is the world’s smallest capital, and we drove through it in just a couple of minutes. There’s a vibe of time-worn grandeur here, with faded colonial buildings lining the pretty main square and a few crumbling residences that are being left to their own devices. It doesn’t feel like a city, and there are few vehicles around which makes it seem very laid back and slow-paced. Just like the rest of the island. The jungle and riverside setting gives it extra appeal, and while there’s not a whole lot to do here, it’s a lovely place for a stroll to just soak up the atmosphere.
One of the options for lunch on our day tour on Príncipe was at a local restaurant here in Santo Antonio. If you’re looking for a real ‘local’ experience, this is a good choice. The eateries here tend to be in people’s houses, and there’s no menu, you just eat whatever they’re cooking that day. We opted instead for a beach picnic, but next time we’ll definitely try out a Santo Antonio restaurant.
The Verdict: the best day trip on Príncipe?
This was certainly quite a long day out because we wanted to take in as much as possible. If you’re on a private guided Príncipe day trip, the itinerary can be tailored to suit your interests and the pace can also be adjusted accordingly. If you want to linger for longer at just a few spots, just say the word. We thought we had just the right amount of time at each destination and never felt rushed like we did on our São Tomé day tour. It was a rewarding experience travelling around the island with a guide, and we got so much more out of the experience than we would have done had we attempted the trip independently. Sometimes having an expert local on hand really does pay off.