I’ve been meaning to post something on this for a while; I think that Travel News is probably the best place for it, rather than adding it to my old trip report, @Game Warden if you think it would be better somewhere else please move it.
Recently there was a thread If you could open a safari camp well if you’re looking for a serious challenge and you’re willing to take on a serious ‘fixer upper’ and you’ve got a pile of spare cash down the back of the sofa how about instead of a safari camp buying an old abandoned plantation house on a beautiful paradise island.
Eight years ago back in 2008 I had the good fortune to visit Gabon and the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe since then while I’ve tried to keep up with anything that might be going on Gabon I haven’t really paid that much attention to São Tomé and Príncipe Africa’s second smallest country after the Seychelles. When I returned from that trip I joined Flickr and uploaded some photos but with a free account you could then only upload 200 so I didn’t upload as many as I might have and the ones I did upload I’d made very small. Just recently I decided I should replace many of these Flickr photos with slightly bigger versions and also add some additional shots. When I put photos online I always like to give them a proper title and if I have time a brief description however my memory of some of the places I visited is slightly sketchy and I’m really not certain if I’ve remembered what I was told by the guide properly. So I decided to see what I could find on the web about some of the places I visited on Príncipe the smaller of the two main islands to update the information that I’d added to my photos.
During my stay on the island I stayed at the Bom-Bom Island Resort as I described in my trip report Gabon and São Tomé & Príncipe 10th Feb to 2nd March 2008 at the time aside from some simple guesthouses this was the only accommodation on the island. From there we took a day tour to some of the sights on Príncipe this included a working cacao plantation called Roça Belo Monte although it was still a working plantation the main plantation house was abandoned. The house was in a slightly sorry state but not a complete ruin unlike some of the other plantation houses on the island, our guide for the day found a key to the house and showed us around. In my report I stated that a Portuguese family had bought and restored the house but had then just upped and left for some reason I don’t know why but it seemed as if they had just walked out the door and never come back. I don’t know any more details or when they left but if the house was restored sometime after independence that would explain why it was in much better state than other plantation houses on the island. Most of the plantations were abandoned in 1975 following independence. According to my Bradt Guide that I had at the time it stated that the plantation was back in European hands and certainly there was a Portuguese farmer living in another farmhouse nearby I don't what if any connection he had to the family who lived in the main house.
Here are a few of the photos I took
Entrance gate Roça Belo Monte on Principe Island, São Tomé & Príncipe
Our guide in the dining room at Roça Belo Monte Principe Island, São Tomé and Príncipe
Old Family Photos Roça Belo Monte on Principe Island, São Tomé & Príncipe, it seemed slightly remarkable that these photos had been left behind.
While looking for information on the Roça I discovered that it now looks very different to how it did at the time of my visit. I don’t know the exact details but in 2014 a Zimbabwean Henry Cronje who’d fallen in love with Príncipe began the challenging and no doubt very expensive task of restoring Roça Belo-Monte. Prior to the start of this work back in 2011 they built some new homes for the local people who had taken up residence in some of the buildings. The house is now a luxury boutique hotel and I have to say that although it may lack some of the romance that it had when it was semi-derelict it does look very nice. It has everything you would expect such a hotel to have including a swimming pool and as I can confirm from my visit 8 years ago it is a fantastic location with a great view out to Bom-Bom Island.
The view from Roça Belo-Monte showing Ilheu do Bom Bom, São Tomé and Príncipe
Just nearby is a viewpoint that overlooks Praia Banana which is said to be the prettiest beach on the island.
Praia Banana on Príncipe Island, São Tomé & Príncipe
A number of Roças on the main island São Tomé were restored and converted into tourist accommodation some years ago but this is the first time it has been done on Príncipe. Although it is only small it should boost tourism on the island which can only be a good thing.
Having been completely unaware of the restoration I was amazed when I saw the photos of what the house now looks like on their website
On their facebook page you can see some photos of the restoration work
Here’s a video in Portuguese showing the president attending the opening of the new hotel.
I don’t speak Portuguese but I’m pretty sure they said the investment was dez milhões de dólares which is ten million USD.
The following is very brief bit of history that I wrote to go with my photos on Flickr.
Despite their proximity to the west coast of Africa these islands were apparently entirely uninhabited when Portuguese navigators João de Santarém and Pero Escobar arrived on the largest of the two main islands on Saint Thomas’s day the 21st of December 1470. The Portuguese quickly settled the islands and were soon importing slaves from the mainland to work in their newly established sugar plantations. The sugar produced here was of poor quality compared to that from elsewhere and from the beginning of the 19th century was replaced with coffee this crop was in turn largely replaced by cocoa. Slavery in the islands’ plantations or roças carried on until 1875 when it was abolished and replaced with a system of contract labour this did not significantly improve the lives of the island’s labour force and the Portuguese continued to import labourers from their mainland colonies. At the beginning of the 20th century the plight of the plantation workers reached the outside world, protests from the Aboriginal Protection Society and the Anti-Slavery Society prompted William Cadbury to send an agent to the islands to investigate. Possibly to protect his company's own commercial interests and to allow time for them to establish their own plantations in the Gold Coast (Ghana) he chose not to act for some years until after he visited the Islands in 1909 to see for himself. Cadburys and other chocolate companies then started a boycott of Cocoa from the Islands. However little changed for the people, they still remained as virtual slaves.
In 1953 a descendents of former slaves known as Forros fearing they would be conscripted and forced to work on the plantations protested at Batepa, Portuguese troops attacked the protesters and in the massacre that followed over 1,000 Forros may have been killed. This event sparked the establishment of a liberation movement however despite the Batepa Massacre unlike in Portugal’s mainland colonies there was no war for independence. Following Portugal’s bloodless Carnation Revolution in 1974 the islands demanded their independence and this was granted the following year.
Although STP's independence had been achieved peacefully the Portuguese plantation owners fled abandoning their plantations and the islands. Soon afterwards the roças were nationalised by STP’s new Marxist government many of them fell in to disrepair during this period.
The history of the islands is fascinating they are both very beautiful with nice beaches and in terms of area they have the highest density of endemic species anywhere in the world. Remarkably given that they are oceanic islands they have a number of endemic frog species but they are really best known for their endemic birds. I visited the islands really as an add on to my trip to Gabon because it was too good an opportunity to miss but didn’t have long enough to do them justice. Afterwards I felt that they could easily be visited as a standalone destination that there’s more than enough to see and do on both islands if you’re looking for a relaxing holiday somewhere few tourists ever get to. Tourism in Gabon has still not really developed or if anything gone backwards since my visit but you could still combine a visit to STP with Gabon as it should at least be possible to visit Loango National Park and do a bit of a safari there. Otherwise it should be possible to visit the islands in combination with a trip to Dzangha-Sangha in CAR or to Congo (Brazzaville).
I was quite taken with Roça Belo-Monte and it certainly occurred to me that if done up it would make a great hotel/guesthouse for tourists, it was however Roça Porto Real that really caught my eye. This one is inland so it doesn’t have the beaches quite so nearby but it was clearly once a beautiful house and the views were pretty stunning. I think though in this case a bit of a fixer-upper is an understatement, but as far as I know nothing has been done to it so if anyone fancies a challenge and has got a good few million dollars or hundreds of billions of Dobras they’re not doing anything with, because sadly I don’t.
Roça Porto Real on Príncipe Island, São Tomé & Príncipe
Roça Porto Real on Príncipe Island, São Tomé & Príncipe
Actually there is someone who does have that kind of money down the back of their sofa so to speak and that’s the South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth. I didn’t know until I decided to write about Roça Belo-Monte that a few years ago he bought the Bom-Bom Island Resort where I stayed on my visit to the island and apparently he has big plans for Principe though I don’t suppose it involves restoring Roça Porto Real. There is oil in the waters around STP but so far I don’t think much has happened as far as developing an oil industry is concerned given what the Dobra is worth relative to the USD at present 1 USD is about 21,375.3 Dobra. Even so big change could be just around the corner so we can only hope that it will be positive. That Mr Shuttleworths plans will help to preserve the character, beauty and biodiversity of the islands and help to protect them from whatever change oil might bring. That he won’t in fact spoil the island.
The unspoilt beauty of the islands is what will attract tourists, I hope that the arrival of more tourists will help to preserve that beauty and the biodiversity and rather than damage it.
I am always keen to promote off the beaten track places and São Tomé & Príncipe is somewhere that one seldom hears anything about, I wouldn’t be surprised if many people here aren’t really even aware of these islands or if they are have never considered visiting them. So when I came across the Roça Belo-Monte Hotel’s website I knew I had to write something about it as it is a very positive development and there haven't been many of those from this region or at least not from Gabon as far as tourism is concerned. Besides I haven’t posted a lot recently and it’s a good excuse to post some photos as well as advertise São Tomé & Príncipe.