We chose São Tomé and Príncipe (STP) as a destination purely by flicking through the pages of the ‘Lonely Planet Guide to the World’ and stopping at random. It seemed as good a method as any. Yet when we started planning our trip, we then found that there is actually very little information about STP in guidebook form or online.
Whilst frustrating at times during the research stage, this lack of practical information was actually rather refreshing. We could make our own discoveries, without feeling we had to follow the well-trodden tourist trail, and we knew we wouldn’t be disappointed by unrealistic high expectations.
São Tomé and Príncipe is a country still very much undiscovered so there isn’t a lot of information for visitors out there. So we’ve put together a few handy tips for anyone planning on travelling to the islands for the first time, things that we would have found useful had we known ourselves.
Flying with TAP to São Tomé
Stopping in Ghana
Most visitors to São Tomé and Príncipe will fly with TAP Air Portugal via Lisbon, which is exactly what we did. We knew that there would be a stop in Accra, Ghana, but didn’t have a clue how long it would be for, or if we’d be getting off the plane. It turns out that the stop is for about 45 minutes, with onward passengers to São Tomé remaining in their seats whilst other passengers disembark, security checks on remaining cabin baggage are carried out, and new passengers board the plane. The cabin is then sprayed.
No In-flight Entertainment
Unusually for a long-haul flight, there was no in-flight entertainment on the TAP Air Portugal flight. Luckily I had clicked on the small print regarding flight facilities so we managed to upload a few movies onto our phones whilst we were over-nighting in Lisbon, so at least we had something to watch, even if it was on a tiny screen. There are USB charging points at the seats. So go prepared, otherwise it’ll be one long and boring flight.
São Tomé Airport
Getting through Immigration
Immigration on arrival at São Tomé was one of the simplest processes we’ve ever experienced at an international airport. No visas are required for UK residents for trips under 15 days, and there was no immigration paperwork to fill out, and no trying to work out which line to stand in (there are two – residents and non-residents). Just have the answers handy to a few simple questions like “how long are you staying for” and “where are you staying” and you shouldn’t have too many problems. It is slow though. There were only two staff working at the immigration desks (we counted a potential five maximum), so try and book a seat at the front of the plane so you can disembark first and be near the front of the queue.
São Tomé Airport Departure Lounge
São Tomé airport has one small departure lounge, but there are plenty of seats, toilets and a small drink/snack counter. It even has air-con!
STP Airways to Príncipe
There is no seat allocation on the flight to Príncipe, it’s a free-for-all. So if you want to choose some decent seats, then try and sit close to the check-in desk and be quick on your feet when boarding starts. We had been given the heads up about this so planned accordingly. The best seats on the plane to Príncipe are the front row on the right of the plane as you face forward. There was plenty of leg room (without any charge!) as it’s an emergency exit row, and fantastic views of Príncipe on approach to the island. The views on the left side of the plane weren’t half as good. Leaving Príncipe is the same seat allocation process, but you’ll want to be on one of the single seats on the left if you want views across Príncipe. Just don’t sit in the front row single seat – the single cabin crew member usually sits here and asks anyone in the seat to move.
Baggage Weight Limit on Flight to Príncipe
All our research informed us that there was a 15 kg weight allowance for the STP Airways São Tomé and Príncipe flight. This is for your checked luggage. We found nothing about hand luggage until we were actually here, but it turns out you can have hand luggage as well as the 15 kg checked bag. They weighed the checked baggage (on enormous ancient scales!) but not the hand luggage.
At Príncipe Airport
On arrival at Príncipe we had our temperature taken with one of those hand-held devices held against our forehead. There was no explanation given as to why (presumably it was to prevent outbreaks of illness on the tiny island), and we’re still a little perplexed about what would happen if the staff were not happy with the readings. Surely it would be better to do this prior to leaving São Tomé?
Checking in for Departure
You may be confused as to why on departure from Príncipe you get taken to the airport so early – it’s simple, all security checks are done by hand! We were held outside the ‘airport’ whilst passengers were allowed in one and two at a time. This took ages, and thankfully it was not raining! After dropping passports and booking forms off at one desk you get directed, with all your luggage, to another desk. Here everything gets checked by hand as there are no scanners or metal detectors. This happens in front of other customers, so you might want to make sure your dirty undies are well and truly buried. There seemed to be no hard and fast rules as to what was allowed in hand luggage. For example:
- My phone charger was removed from my hand luggage and I had to put it in checked luggage, yet Heather was allowed to keep hers in her hand luggage.
- My small compressed can of deodorant which was 100ml was allowed in hand luggage, yet Heather’s larger can of deodorant, despite only being 75ml was not allowed.
Having been through the security bag search, you walk back to the desk, pick up your passport and ticket and move to the departure “lounge” – a door that is about 6 metres from the security bag check. Here your hand luggage gets searched again, as well as your person. All this takes time, so that’s why you’re taken to the airport so early!
The departure lounge at Príncipe is a small, hot room with limited seating. You’ll either want to get there early so you can have a seat, or be at the back of the queue so you don’t have to stand in there for too long. There are toilets back out in the departure hall.
Take your own Water Bottle
São Tomé and Príncipe is heavily into protecting the environment and recycling, which is fantastic, and you can see on the beaches and in the water just how pristine the coastline is. In the hotels there are glass bottled filled with treated water which is perfectly safe to drink. Yet when it comes to taking water with you out on excursions it wasn’t always as straight forward. Plastic bottles of water aren’t readily available (which is a good thing!), so you really need to take a reusable bottle with you. The hotels where we stayed all had water bottles in their gift shop, but at €25 each we felt that was extortionate and didn’t buy one. There wasn’t always an obvious source of water to fill up bottles either. Sometimes we just asked at the bar, but were never quite sure if that was the right thing to do or not.
Don’t get hung up about the Weather
The weather on São Tomé and Príncipe is confusing and unreliable, so it’s a good idea to plan your trip according to what activities you would like to do, rather than trying to second guess what the climate is going to throw at you. There are four main seasons on São Tomé and Príncipe – main dry, short wet, short dry and long wet!
You don’t necessarily get crystal clear skies during a specific season, and even though we went during the ‘main dry season’, there were periods of torrential downpours. Speaking to staff, there is no real pattern to the rain. Unlike in some countries when you know it’ll rain for two hours every afternoon (and can plan accordingly), here in São Tomé and Príncipe, rain could be for three days, three hours or three minutes.
Food in São Tomé and Príncipe
The food on São Tomé and Príncipe really was quite an adventure, with lots of fresh local produce, some of which we’d never heard of before when it came to vegetables! Being islands, cuisine here is understandably biased towards fish, and whilst there were non-fish options on most menus, they were limited so if this is a concern, you might want to speak to your hotel before arrival. The food we experienced was really inventive, with some incredible (and unusual) flavours, and it was fun trying new dishes.
We had read some mixed reviews (the limited amount we could find) regarding the level of service on São Tomé and Príncipe, which is why we went on the trip with quite low expectations. However the service everywhere was spot on! Happy, polite, friendly staff who could not have been more helpful. We don’t ever expect staff to speak English and do try and learn a small amount of the local language to show willing, yet we had no problems communicating with staff, whether it be organising/re-scheduling tours or ordering food and drink. It really was a fantastic surprise, given the remote location and the relatively recent introduction of tourism to the islands.
The Islands really are Stunning
Finally, nothing can really prepare you for just how beautiful these islands are. Any holiday company will gush about pristine sands, turquoise oceans and swaying palms, no matter where you’re going in the world. Yet São Tomé and Príncipe don’t just deliver, they go above and beyond when it comes to a picture postcard perfect holiday. If you’re still undecided on whether to go, then take it from us, you won’t be disappointed!
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