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São Tomé and Príncipe, where nature has the upper hand

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The immense wall of crumbling, whitewashed stone might have belonged to an abandoned castle. Turrets lined a roof that was no longer there and watchtowers poked the sky at each corner. This had been the province of horses, though, not kings, servicing a Portuguese cocoa plantation on the tiny island of Príncipe. All that remained inside the stone stables was rain forest overgrowth in shades of green and purple.

“This,” said my host, Claudio Torres, “is the place where you can finally confirm that nature wins.”

The former horse stable at the Roca Sundy hotel, on the island of Principe, in São Tomé and Príncipe, Sept. 18. Owner Mark Shuttleworth’s approach has to been to treat the hotel, on the site of a former plantation, as a kind of living museum.
The former horse stable at the Roca Sundy hotel, on the island of Principe, in São Tomé and Príncipe, Sept. 18. Owner Mark Shuttleworth’s approach has to been to treat the hotel, on the site of a former plantation, as a kind of living museum.  (JADA YUAN / The New York Times)

Looking at a map of the dual-island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, Africa’s second-smallest country — some 225 kilometres off the coast of Gabon, right on the equator — cannot prepare you for the otherworldly feeling you get when stepping off a plane there. Even before you land, it is difficult to imagine that those two dots of dense, tropical forest in the expanse of blue below are an entire nation.

São Tomé, the larger of the two islands, has an international airport and a Portuguese-speaking population of 200,000. Roosters wander past pink and turquoise facades threaded with wild foliage in the capital city (also called São Tomé). Drive 10 minutes and urbanity gives way to quiet fishing villages and banana groves.

It wasn’t until I got there that I realized I should have brought euros to either use or to convert to dobras — since, like many places in West and Central Africa, cash is king. Luckily, my lovely hotel, Omali Lodge, was one of the places that took credit cards. And when the banks opened after the weekend, I was able to exchange some British pounds.

Príncipe, an impossibly green island

My plan had been to stick to the main island, which is filled with enough lush rainforest, volcanic peaks and cocoa plantations to keep an intrepid tourist interested for days. But at the airport I met some workers for UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency in charge of improving human settlements, who had just returned from a project in Príncipe. One of the workers connected me with Torres, the ebullient Chilean running the project. Within a day, I was on a propeller plane to an impossibly green island with a population of around 8,000.

The only way to get to Príncipe is infrequent flights from São Tomé, or a 24-hour boat ride that locals advised me not to take. But, oh, does that effort come with rewards. UNESCO designated the entire island a biosphere reserve, and at times it feels uninhabited. The largest gathering of people I saw was at the airport watching the spectacle of our plane touching down.

Tourists, too, are relatively rare, coming from mainly Europe or elsewhere in Africa to stay at isolated eco-resorts with access to some of the world’s most pristine beaches, like the hilltop Roça Belo Monte, Bom Bom, the island’s oldest resort; or the new five-star luxury tent complex Sundy Praia, with an infinity pool right on the ocean.

I had chosen the least resort-y option, Roça Sundy, both because its lack of beach access made it more affordable and because it’s the location of the UN-Habitat project. A hotel driver picked me up for a half-hour SUV ride on a red-dirt road, past bright, elevated homes and children running to school in cream-and-navy uniforms.

Some of those children live in a community on the Roça Sundy property, just opposite the hotel entrance. When I arrived, adults were cooking breadfruit in a wood-fired, outdoor kitchen. Young men passed a soccer ball back and forth. Many others were gathered at a bench under a large tree. “It’s called banco ma’ língua,” Torres said, “which is where people go to gossip.”

I was learning many Portuguese words. A roça is a plantation. And senzalas, the small cluster of buildings where those cooks and athletes and gossipers live, were once slave quarters.

Slavery is inextricably linked to these islands. Portuguese colonialists began using São Tomé and Príncipe as slave outposts in the 15th century, bringing forced labour from African countries like Angola and Guinea there to be sent to Brazil and the West. Many captives were kept on the islands to work the fertile volcanic soil, eventually leading São Tomé and Príncipe to become the biggest cocoa producer in the world — with labour exploitation continuing long after the official abolition of slavery. Before the islands achieved independence in 1975, almost all of the land had been divided into roças.

A street view in the city of São Tomé, in São Tomé and Príncipe, Sept. 17.
A street view in the city of São Tomé, in São Tomé and Príncipe, Sept. 17.  (JADA YUAN / The New York Times)

Roça Sundy, the hotel, just opened last year. It is a project of the South African tech entrepreneur (and second tourist in space) Mark Shuttleworth. Before his HBD (Here Be Dragons) venture capital firm swooped in, it was on the verge of being acquired by a palm oil company — a business that has led to the destruction of rainforests in São Tomé. Príncipe’s citizens were so against the idea, said Torres, they went to their capital city to protest.

“Príncipe’s government has taken another path,” said Torres. “They want to preserve the island.”

Shuttleworth’s approach has to been to treat the hotel as a kind of living museum. He’s preserved the plantation house’s facade and its original grand wooden staircase and ornate ceilings. Outside, a plaque commemorates the spot where astronomer Arthur Eddington came during a solar eclipse in May 1919 and took photographs that were the first experimental test to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity.

I certainly felt conflicted staying in a former plantation house, not just as an American whose country is still reckoning with its own history of slavery, but also as a tourist who is constantly assessing the privilege of being able to travel to a place as beautiful as this. By supporting their economy and telling their stories, could I, in a very small way, help those who live here move forward?

When Príncipe’s economy collapsed after independence, its people adapted to living off the land — but that doesn’t mean they have adequate living conditions. Families of four are crammed into one-room senzalas. Most children have respiratory issues because the unelevated senzalas are filled with mould from Príncipe’s frequent rains. By request of the regional government, and with funding from HBD, U.N.-Habitat has proposed a voluntary resettlement project, with new, sustainable housing that has basic amenities. All but three of 136 households have signed on. In an effort to cater to individual needs and to give the town some character, each household has chosen its future dwelling from four designs.

As I wandered through the senzalas with Torres and Danilson Gomes, a young manfrom the community who serves as a liaison, we got a warm welcome. One woman in her 70s grabbed my hand and held it as we walked around. Others, who were introduced to me as community leaders, invited us into their homes. There is some concern that the resettlement is a way of clearing up the senzalas to accommodate expansion of the hotel. But Dani, our young guide, told me that he and his family are excited about the move. He will be leaving the island for the first time to attend a university in Portugal, but plans to come back, he said, “to help my country and help my people.”

Back to São Tomé

I thought a lot about the spirit of community here on my last day back in São Tomé. I had hired a local guide, Juliano Pina, to take me to the beaches and villages on the southern end of the island. On the way back, our SUV got hopelessly stuck in mud, three hours before my flight. A man named Ricardo who had been fishing nearby, came over and began gathering palm fronds and rocks to help with traction. More friends from his village joined in, as did another guide taking a tourist to the beach, until we had a team of nine or 10, many of them children, pushing with all their might. The car broke free. I handed out the last of my dobras, and made my flight with time to spare.

This, Juliano said, was the São Tomé way: Leave no one behind. I like to think of it as a moment when nature could have won, but chose to give us a break.

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Travel & Escape

Why your hotel mattress feels like heaven (and how to bring that feeling home)

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(NC) Choosing the right mattress is a long-term investment in your health and well-being. To make a good choice for your home, take a cue from luxury hotel-room beds, which are designed to support the sound sleep of tens of thousands of guests, 365 nights a year.

“When we’re shopping for a mattress, we do lab testing, identify the best materials, bring in multiple mattress samples and have our associates test them,” explains David Rizzo, who works for Marriott International. “We ask for ratings on comfort level, firmness, body support and movement disruption. It takes 12 to 18 months just to research and select materials.”

Here, he shares his tips to pick the perfect mattress for your best sleep:

Understand your needs. People have different food and exercise preferences, as well as different sleep cycles. So, it’s no surprise that everyone has unique mattress preferences. Not sure whether a firm or a soft mattress is better? Rizzo says the best gauge is to ask yourself, “Do I wake up with aches and pains?” If the answer is no, you’re golden.

Foam versus spring. All mattresses have a core that is made up foam or innersprings or a combination of the two. Today’s foam-core mattresses contain memory foam — a material engineered by NASA to keep astronauts comfortable in their seats. It’s special because it retains or “remembers” its shape, yielding to pressure from the sleeper’s body, then bouncing back once the pressure is removed.

An innerspring mattress has an encased array of springs with individual coils that are connected by a single helical wire. This wire creates continuous movement across the coil that minimizes disruption if the mattress is disturbed, such as by a restless sleeper. According to Rizzo, the innerspring is “bouncier.”

Temperature preference. Consider how warm or cool you like to sleep, and factor in the construction of the mattress to find one with a temperature that suits you. The air space engineered into an innerspring mattress promotes ventilation, which some people find keeps them pleasantly cool. To accomplish the same purpose with a foam mattress (or the foam layer of an innerspring) it may be infused with metal, usually silver or copper, to help dissipate heat and humidity.

Need to test out the right mattress for your needs? Find the right fit during your next trip by booking your stay at marriott.com.

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Travel & Escape

How to make the most of summer travel

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(NC) One of the best parts of our short Canadian summers is the opportunity to enjoy them a little bit extra on long weekends. If you need ideas, check out these creative things to do whether you decide to stay in town or go away.

Do a dinner crawl. Pub crawls are fun for couples, friends and also families with older kids. For an exciting twist that stretches your dollars and lets you taste food from several spots before you get too full, try a dinner crawl. Eat apps at one restaurant, mains at another and dessert at another.

Go on a mini getaway. You don’t need to go very far to enjoy a vacation – exploring a Canadian city over a summer weekend is great way to treat yourself to a holiday. Whether it’s checking out the museums in Toronto or the parks in Vancouver, there’s something for everyone. For upgraded benefits, special experiences and the best rates guaranteed, join Marriott Bonvoy and book direct on Marriott.com.

Host a potluck. Perfect whether you’re staying at home or going to your cottage, gather friends and family together for some food and fun. A potluck is an easy and affordable way to host a big get-together and lets everyone try something new and swap recipes. Make the festivities extra special with a fireworks potluck, too – ask everyone to bring some fireworks or sparklers and put on a light show. Just be sure to follow local regulations for consumer fireworks.

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Travel & Escape

Lottoland: Here’s why Canadians love it!

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Lotteries have been in existence for many centuries now and it’s an open secret that most people enjoy playing a good lottery.

Asides from gauging your own luck, the thrill of playing, the anticipation of the results and the big wins every now and then is something most people look forward to. Since 1982, the lottery has been in Canada, but now there is a way to play both the Lotto and other international lotteries from Canada, all from the comfort of your home.

With Lottoland, all you need to do is register and get access to numerous international lotteries right from their website. The easy-to-use interface has all the information you need, and great amount of care has been taken to ensure that the online experience is similar—and even better—than if players were to visit each location personally.

The Powerball and Mega Millions lotteries are hitting record highs with their prize money, in what the organizers claim to be the largest jackpot in the history of the world. However, the U.S. has gambling laws that are state controlled and buying your ticket through an online broker can be considered gambling.

“No one except the lottery or their licensed retailers can sell a lottery ticket. No one. Not even us. No one. No, not even that website. Or that one,” Powerball’s website says.

Therefore, to stand a chance to win the $1.5 billion-dollar lottery jackpot it means you have to purchase your lottery tickets directly from a licensed retailer such as Lottoland.

Since 2013, Lottoland has been operating in Canada, rapidly growing in popularity amongst Canadians. Due to its easy of use and instant access to lotteries that were previously considered inaccessible—as Canadians had to travel all the way to the U.S. to purchase tickets in the past—Lottoland has attracted lots of visitors.

Currently, there about 8-million players on Lottoland, a figure that points to the reliability of the website.

One of the core values of Lottoland is transparency and that’s why a quick search on the website would show you a list of all of their winners. Recently, a Lottoland customer was awarded a world-record fee of $137 million CND.

Also, due to the incredibly slim chances of winning the grand prize not everyone would take home mega-dollar winnings, but there are substantial winnings every day.

Securing your information online is usually one important factor when registering on any platform and as the site explains, “Lottoland works very hard to verify your information.”

The site has a multi-verification process that will ensure that you confirm your identity and age before giving you a pay-out. However, in the rare case that a player has immediate luck and wins a lottery before completing the verification process, Lottoland will hold on to the winnings until they complete your verification.

While this might seem like a tedious process, it is very important as these safety features would ensure that your information wasn’t stolen and ultimately your winning routed to another account.

Lottoland is licensed with the National Supervisory Bodies For Lotteries in several countries such as the United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden, Ireland and Australia—where it is called a wagering license. Typically, most gaming companies don’t establish insurance companies as it entails that their activities have to be transparent and the must be highly reputable in the industry.

Nonetheless, Lottoland has no issues meeting up to these standards as they have established themselves as the only gaming sector company who has its own insurance company—an added advantage for new and existing users.

Lotteries aren’t the only games Canadians enjoy playing and Lottoland recognizes this by providing players with other types of gaming. As an industry leader, video designers of online games often make them their first choice when it comes to publishing their works.

Online games such as slots, blackjack, video poker, baccarat, keno, scratchoffs, roulette and many others are always on offer at the Lottoland Casino. There’s also the option of playing with a live dealer and a total of over 100 games.

Lottoland has received numerous rave reviews from its growing list of satisfied customer and their responsive customer service agents are always available to answer any questions users may have, along with solving challenges they may have encountered.

More and more Canadians are trooping to Lottoland in droves due to the unique experience of going to a casino without having to leave the comfort of their homes.

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