Have you ever really thought about why you love travelling? The thrill of escaping the daily monotony of real life? The chance to gorge yourself on new culinary experiences? The feeling of warmth and allowing your shoulders to drop below your ears as you escape the biting cold? Perhaps it’s a pinch and a sprinkle of all of the above.
We all have an idea of what we really love; of what we look for in a destination.
For me, I think, travel is about finding somewhere like Sao Tome and Principe.
What do I like? Heat. Vast skies. Beaches containing interesting detritus so I can stroll up and down poking around in the sand for hidden marine treasures. Rainforest. Wildlife. Just the right amount of crumbling vintage architecture which is still lived in and used (this last point is important; I’m not interested in derelict colonial buildings sprouting trees and decay. I want to sample life among these gently melting bricks). Friendly locals. Not too many tourists (we all like to feel special…)
Sometimes we travel to places where we know that our likes won’t be found but that will be interesting anyway. Then there are places we go which tick plenty of the ‘like’ boxes and so we return year after year. And then there are the places you go with very little expectation – or even knowledge about the destination – and which you fall in love with instantly. In essence, it’s the blind date where your ideal partner turns up.
Sao Tome. Direct flights from Lisbon via Accra mean the majority of tourists are moneyed Portuguese with a smattering of backpackers eager to see what the island is about. Principe is yet another flight away and covered in thick forest surrounded by wheeling birds.
The compact city of Sao Tome is home to photogenic and gently dilapidated buildings housing pharmacies with floor-to-ceiling wooden cabinets containing lotions and potions, tiny cafes with naked bulbs swinging from the ceiling, whirring fans and the football on screens dotted among the tables, and panaderias churning out fragrant fresh breads, rolls and pastries to hungry workers.
We drove around the north of the island first, along palm-fringed roads running parallel to the black-sand beaches, past colonial-era plantations and cocoa-farms (the chocolate can be bought in shops and make ideal souvenirs) and through tiny villages where kids splashed about in the surf and learn to swim by holding onto wooden planks and paddling frantically with their feet.
My friend is a keen diver and was in rhapsodies about the underwater community shimmering just below the waves in the south. In contrast to the close-cropped grasslands and sometimes savannah-esque landscapes of the north, the south is doused in dripping rainforest complete with waterfalls, women and children washing in the tumbling rivers, and foliage-clad beaches spattered with driftwood and washed up seeds.
Oh! The people, the atmosphere, the sights…I want the world to know I have fallen in utterly in love with my blind date destination.