Admit it. You’re slightly obsessed with island vacations. You could pack a bag and be ready to depart within 10 minutes if someone tempted you with palm trees, turquoise water, and warm sunshine. But it’s no longer the getaway it used to be. Spring breakers have invaded the Caribbean, backpackers know all of Southeast Asia’s hot spots, and forget the Mediterranean. There must be somewhere a beach-loving girl can still escape.
If you’re really looking to avoid the mile-long customs lines and don’t want to share your sunset view with anyone other than a few birds or an iguana, Africa is your next destination. Actually, off the west coast of Central Africa, since you’re in search of an island. São Tomé and Príncipe, located just north of the equator, is the second-smallest country in Africa. It’s two archipelagos, surrounding the two main islands, were uninhabited until the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century. Plantations, build on slave labor, produced sugar, coffee, and cocoa. Then, after independence arrived in 1975, much of the land, particularly on Príncipe, was reclaimed by the rainforest. It’s now a destination with a “leve-leve”—or “easy-easy”—atmosphere, few tourists, and jaw-dropping scenery. Sounds perfect.
From São Tomé, it’s a quick, 45-minute flight to Príncipe. Santo António, the little capital along the Palhota River, is filled with colonial architecture and small churches. Inactive volcanoes, like Pico de Príncipe and Pico Mencorne, dot the landscape. And Ôbo Natural Park, a virgin rainforest, covers much of the southern half of the island. There’s a lot to explore. But first, you must find your beach.
Macaco Beach and Banana Beach, on the north shore, are both beautiful stretches of sand. But you start right at your hotel, the Bom Bom Island Resort. It’s located on a little islet, just off the northern coast. Your wooden bungalow is surrounded by dense foliage. The golden sand is steps from your verandah. And a São Tomé Kingfisher welcomes you from the railing. As expected, no else is on the beach. Within minutes, you’re walking along the sand, floating in the water, and admiring the volcanoes wreathed in clouds in the distance.
Over the next few days, you explore Macaco and Banana, as well as Ribeira Ize and other tiny beaches that might not even have names. Hike through the rainforest and try to spot Newton’s Grassland Frogs and São Tomé Giant Treefrogs along the way. Search for rare orchids—there are more than 100 species—in Ôbo Natural Park. Kayak alongside African manatees around the coastline. Go deep-sea fishing for elusive marlin. Watch a dêxa beat performance—a combination of dance, music, and theater—in a Santo António plaza. Afterwards, eat rich chocolate and drink the best coffee you’ve ever tasted.
Back at Bom Bom, you sit on the deck as the stars start to light up the sky. Small waves crash on the beach. Palm trees sway in the cool breeze. The smell of grilling seafood fills the air. A bottle of Portuguese Vinho Verde sweats in the ice bucket on the corner of your table. You finally did it. You found a beach resort with no crowds, an airport with no lines, and an island with few tourists. It’s our little secret, right?