Principe is a small West African island, considered a new and upcoming luxury holiday destination by various travel experts. We sent marketing director Stephen Bailey to check it out. Here’s his trip report.
Expect golden beaches punctuated by lava rocks. Thick rainforest populated by monkeys and tropical birds. An outstanding five-star beach resort and many surprises. If you like a holiday adventure, read on…
What & Where is Principe Island?
Flying into Principe I only saw rainforest. The airport is the only thing on the island not covered by trees.
Principe is located in the Atlantic Ocean at 1 degree north, a few hundred kilometres off the coast of Gabon, Africa. It’s the smaller of two islands making up the country Sao Tome & Principe, with a population of only 8000 people.
Golden beaches encircle the island, dozens of them without any other people. Massive lava rocks cover the beach and palm trees hang over the sand like a postcard. One evening I watched a turtle crawl across the beach to lay eggs, in front of my villa.
I discovered an amazing beach leisure holiday destination.
900-metre mountains rise up from the rainforest, granite fingers reaching for the sky. Monkeys and endemic tropical birds fill the trees. Waterfalls tumble between the trees. There were so many trails to walk.
So I also found an amazing destination for exploring nature.
Exploring the island I found the remains of Portuguese towns, churches and cacao plantations. They’re in ruins, literally taken over by rainforest. Trees have grown on top of the rocks!
With local guides I found an island with an unknown history and friendly local culture to discover.
I wouldn’t recommend Principe purely as a beach destination. It’s an adventurous destination for explorers, with incredible beaches. It’s a few different holidays in one.
A Very Sustainable Luxury Holiday Destination
Tourism in Principe is new, less than ten years old. Less than 150 tourists a week arrive on the island. I didn’t need to avoid any crowds. Instead, I was always surprised to see another tourist and ask how they discovered Principe.
Mostly, I was incredibly impressed at how the island is developing sustainable luxury tourism. The lodges are either converted from abandoned plantation buildings, or tented villas on the beach. Nothing in the rainforest has been chopped down.
Want to Holiday Somewhere New?
You pay a conservation fee for staying on the island and each of the three accommodations is doing some amazing work to preserve the natural and cultural environment. The island is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Conservation is so important, because this is not a typical island. It’s much more like the Galapagos Islands than Seychelles or Maldives.
The accommodations are small scale and boutique, just 12 – 16 rooms. I think tourism here will always be high quality and low volume. A cruise ship would never dock here. If an A380 landed in Principe the charm would be lost. Here you don’t have marble bathrooms and opulence. It’s a different kind of holiday experience.
Sundy Praia is the best place to stay on Principe Island. It’s a boutique beach resort with 16 villas, including a stunning villa with a private pool. All the villas are spaced around the rainforest so there’s lots of privacy.
These villas have wooden walls and floors, but a canvas roof, which is better protection from the rain. I loved the big four-poster bed and deep bathtub, carved from volcanic rocks found on the island.
Sundy Praia is on par with the best beach resorts I’ve experienced around the world. Really high levels of service and gastronomy, while preserving a local authenticity.
I also loved the contemporary African style, like the artwork and restaurant constructed from curved bamboo. A pool overlooks the beach and the sand just goes on forever, with nobody else on it. There’s also a small spa.
The staff are always doing something surprising. Like setting up a private breakfast on the beach. Or arranging a fish barbecue on a nearby beach. Out of nowhere they create these experiences that will usually cost extra at resorts in the Indian Ocean islands.
Roca Sundy and Sundy Praia are part of the same group, HBD Principe. Their concept is all about sustainability and exploration. Stays at both properties are half board, including drinks and a daily activity.
Roca Sundy is a four-star property. I found it a nice enough for a couple of nights and the view over the rainforest was fantastic from my balcony.
But Roca Sundy isn’t on the beach and doesn’t have a pool. I’d recommend skipping it and spending all your time at Sundy Praia, except to have one dinner at Roca Sundy, where each evening the chef creates a new four-course tasting menu.
HBD Principe doesn’t just have its own vegetable garden. They have their own island plantation. Almost everything they serve comes from the island.
Most important about a stay at either Roca Sundy and Praia Sundy are the activities. I was given my own guide and each day we’d discuss what to do. Like a waterfall hike, a boat trip to different beaches with snorkelling, visiting a cacao or coffee plantation. Activities on land were private, the boat trips were in a small group.
These activities made my holiday experience. Every morning I could explore how I wanted to explore, then spend the afternoon at the beach or pool.
Belo Monte is a grand plantation-style hotel on another part of Principe. It’s located on the cliffs, above the island’s most spectacular beach, Praia Banana. This beach was the setting for this 1991 Bacardi Rum commercial – it’s so old school!
I walked 15 minutes down to the beach or took the free shuttle. They have private cabanas and staff providing a food and drink service. It’s a magical place to hangout for the day.
In my experience Belo Monte delivers a high quality of accommodation, somewhere between Sundy Praia and Roca Sundy. The service wasn’t quite as good and their food offering definitely needs improvement.
One reason to stay at Belo Monte is their activities. They have their own helicopter for scenic flights and are the only operator offering scuba diving on the island. The owner shared a long-term plan for the property, including a new sundowner spot on a different beach, a new cliffside restaurant and a two-bedroom villa with butler service.
I’m excited about seeing Belo Monte develop, because with improvements it has the potential to be an outstanding boutique property.
Planning Your Principe Holiday
Although I visited Principe in November, the best time to travel is considered December and January or June to September. These are the driest months. The challenge with a remote island paradise is accessibility. Principe is not easy to get to.
I flew first to Lisbon and then took the daily TAP Air Portugal flight to Sao Tome. Due to the connection a layover in Lisbon was unavoidable. I recommend extending your Lisbon layover to two or three nights, because Lisbon and Principe makes for a really interesting holiday contrast.
I arrived in Sao Tome at dusk and needed to overnight at Omali Lodge, which is also part of the HBD Principe group. Omali is passable for a layover and it’s only five minutes from the airport. The rooms are clean, the pool is nice and the restaurant is good. But don’t stay longer than necessary.
From Sao Tome I took a morning 30-minute flight to Principe, in a 16-seater plane. There were some hiccups with my return flight, a reminder that this really is an adventurous destination.
But it’s definitely an adventure I recommend. I’ve never experienced anywhere like Principe before. Just to lay eyes on this rainforested island is worth the journey.