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São Tomé and Príncipe, where nature has the upper hand





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

Dealing with baggage on your trip





(NC)Nothing is more embarrassing than having to unpack your baggage at the airport. It’s common to overpack because you want to make sure you have everything you need for your trip – the right shoes, a jacket in case it’s cold, a bathing suit in case there’s a pool. But you must be mindful of the baggage restrictions. So, how can you be smart with your baggage when travelling?

The first thing to do is talk to your TICO-certified travel agent about the weight restrictions and number of bags you are allowed to take. Some airlines charge per bag, while others may offer one bag for free depending on weight.

You’ll also need to know if there are security requirements for carry-on and checked baggage. For example, there may be prohibited items such as gels and liquids. These limitations vary from airline to airline and depends on if your flight is international or domestic, so you’ll need to check the policy of the airline you’re travelling with.

Naturally, you want to avoid incurring baggage fees, so talk to your travel agent, or contact the airline directly. You can also visit their website to review the luggage policy.

Here are a few more tips to help you manage your baggage when travelling:

  • Clearly label all baggage with your name, home address, and contact information
  • Place an identification tag inside the baggage in case the outside tag is torn off
  • Lock bags with CATSA/ACTSA travel locks
  • Put a colourful ribbon or other identifying marks on your bags so they are easily recognizable
  • Carry valuables in your hand luggage; jewelry, money, medications, important documents, etc.

You can’t carry everything with you, so be smart when you pack. Take only necessary items and focus on your trip.

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Travel & Escape

What travellers need to know if a destination wedding is cancelled





(NC) It’s two weeks before you’re scheduled to attend a destination wedding and then you get the call. The wedding has been called off.

Sure, you’re upset for the couple, but now you’re faced with plane tickets and hotel reservations. So, what can you do?

There’s no reason why you can’t go and enjoy the trip, but bear in mind you may face a price increase, especially if this was part of a group booking. Group bookings often include a minimum number of travellers to get the discounted price, as well as terms and conditions regarding changes or cancellations.

You could ask other travellers to come along to keep the group discount. But name changes often count as cancellations based on the terms of the vacation package and premium charges may apply. If you booked with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour company, it’s better to contact them and ask about options before making any decisions.

While it’s devastating for the couple who planned the destination wedding, the fact is that the cancellation affects all the confirmed guests. So, it’s important to know your options so you can salvage an unfortunate situation. Always book with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour operator so you can circle back and find out what they can do for you.

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Travel & Escape

Be safe not sorry when booking travel online





(NC) With so many travel websites available these days, many people are choosing to book their vacations from the comfort of their own home. Many travel websites are easy to navigate, and offer great vacation packages, so it seems to make sense.

But before you hit “submit”, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. Here are a few tips that can make you more aware when booking travel online:

  • Look for the TICO registration number or logo. All Ontario travel agencies and websites must be registered with TICO, the provincial travel regulator that provides consumers with protections if they don’t receive travel services. The registration number or logo is usually found in the About Us or Contact sections of the website.
  • Know where your credit card payment is going. Some websites are only search engines or booking agents for other providers.
  • Review the terms and conditions, particularly those that relate to cancellation, changes to bookings and refunds. Know what the travel agent or tour operator’s responsibilities are.
  • Keep a paper copy of your transactions, correspondence and confirmations.
  • Double check which currency the prices are quoted in. You could be paying in Euros instead of Canadian dollars.
  • Keep in mind that tax amounts can vary in travel advertisements. Ontario travel agencies and websites can display their taxes in four different ways:
    • A total price
    • A base price plus total taxes, fees and additional charges
    • A base price with a detailed breakdown
    • All taxes, fees and additional charges.
  • Research your destination to find out if there are any travel advisories, which can be found on the Government of Canada website.
  • Check the online travel agency’s website for a live-chat feature, email address or toll-free number to talk to a travel agent. Travel agents are a great resource to answer any questions you may have to ensure you are making an informed travel purchase.

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