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Island life: how tourism hotspots are born

Why luxury lovers are heading to these islands you’ve never heard of

Floating off the coast of Africa, the obscure islands of Sao Tome and Principe are now in the spotlight.


Words by Ute Junker

Photos by Scott Ramsay

Originally published in Traveller

In Principe, the leaves are on the move. Almost every road on this island has been carved out of the jungle, and the jungle seems eager to reclaim the lost ground. Trees and brush and vines press relentlessly against the dirt edges of the roads, their leaves pushing towards the road like dogs straining at a leash.

They quiver as a tropical breeze plays over them: the flat plates of banana trees and the fringed fronds of the jacaranda, latticed leaves and leaves that resemble propellers, shield-shaped leaves and heart-shaped leaves. There are leaves that grow from branches and leaves that sprout epiphytically from trunks; there are leafy vines that slither along the ground or drape like a veil from high branches or clamber their way eagerly up a tree trunk. There are leaves that can be pressed against your skin to leave a silvery tattoo, and leaves that will help treat malaria.

This is no ordinary jungle. The island of Principe – half of the West African nation of Sao Tome and Principe – is a UNESCO-listed biosphere reserve, a place where vividly coloured kingfishers and raucous African parrots flit through the trees while turtles nest on the pristine beaches. Its natural landscapes are the major selling point for a country trying to kickstart a tourism industry. Its major drawback? That would be the fact that few people have ever heard of Sao Tome and Principe, let alone know where it is.

Paradoxically, however, that drawback may be precisely what draws a particular breed of traveller. Well-heeled voyagers who have been there, done that, will be intrigued at the idea of exploring a place that no one can locate on a map. These two compact islands floating off the coast of West Africa – 300 kilometres from Gabon, 200 kilometres from each other – constitute one of the world’s smallest countries, with a population of about 200,000, only 7000 of whom live on Principe.

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