Paradise Found

Sao Tome: Where the biggest threat is falling coconuts

AP Photo by George Osodi

By Todd Pitman
Associated Press

SAO TOME, Sao Tome & Principe (AP) _ Hovering below the brilliant blue waters off the coast of this tropical West African archipelago, French scuba diver Jean-Louis Testori spots a tiny sea horse huddled by a rock on a pitch of white sand.

The sea is clear, aquarium-like - thousands of red soldierfish and spidery arrow crabs peek from a bank of coral-covered rocks. Jackfish hunt a bubble of darting silver sardines. Electric rays fly across the seabed.

Testori extends an open palm, and the tiny sea horse swims onto it in slow-motion, its tail gently curling around one of his fingers to balance upright.

"Never grab them," Testori says after the dive, explaining how best to hold the fragile creatures. "They'll panic. They could have a heart attack."

The tranquil scene is one of many to be had in palm-fringed Sao Tome and Principe, a remote pair of volcanic islands smack dab on the equator whose attraction lies in what this undeveloped corner of the world lacks: No mass tourism. No traffic. No terrorism.

At least, not yet.

If the stresses of 21st century life are getting you down, then consider getting away - to a place where the most imminent threat, one poolside hotel sign warns, comes from falling coconuts.

With few flight connections and just a handful of embassies abroad, Sao Tome isn't easy to get to. But for those who set foot here, that's exactly the point.

"It's a country without tourists," says one of the few, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Elophe, sipping cocktails at a tasteful, wood-carved bar perched on a dock above a moonlit bay.

"It's wild, virgin," his beaming wife Martine adds, before settling on the right adjective. "It's zen."

With billions of barrels of oil believed off its shores, Sao Tome may be on the verge of massive change.

For now, though, its name prompts puzzled looks and blank stares, even among globe-trotting adventurers and travel agents. It's a place that rarely makes the news, much less travel brochures.

"The first question people usually ask is, 'Where is Sao Tome?"' says Testori, who set up a seasports outlet on the island three years ago. "The second question is, 'What are you going to do there?"'

Positioned several hundred miles west of the African mainland, Sao Tome is thought to have been uninhabited until Portuguese navigators discovered it in the 15th century.

The Portuguese quickly established a booming sugar-based economy built on slave labor. By the early 1900s, the country had become a top cocoa producer with an exotic sobriquet, "The Chocolate Islands."

Sao Tome hasn't developed much since independence in 1975, and its people are poor. But seafood is abundant, and life on the island appears temptingly idyllic.

The capital has a markedly Caribbean feel. Several cathedrals dot a mostly two-story-high skyline of pastel-colored colonial-era buildings with arched windows and ornate balconies. Wide boulevards wind along the waterside, past black rock outcroppings and sandy bays. Rusting cannons poke from a seaside port transformed into the national museum.

A woman walks past a house in Sao Tome and Principe. The tranquil scene is one of many to be had in palm-fringed Sao Tome and Principe, a remote pair of volcanic islands smack dab on the equator whose attraction lies in what this undeveloped corner of the world lacks.

Snorkelers can head to the Lagoa Azul, or "Blue Lagoon," a turquoise bay at the foot of a small, savannah-grass swept hill topped off with baobab trees and a lighthouse. In season, turtles lay their eggs on the stony shore.

For trekkers, a two-day climb to the island's highest peak, 6640-foot Pico de Sao Tome, beckons. At the top is the rim of an inactive volcanic.

Tours around the island by boat or car pass the Boca de Inferno, or "Mouth of Hell," a coastal blowhole where powerful waves spray skyward through a natural gap in the twisted black rock.

Roads along the coast are magnificent, winding past spindly palm trees that hang over black- and-white sand beaches. In the interior, leafy banana, coffee and cocoa fields rise into lush hills that hide misty waterfalls.

Serious crime is rare. Police and guns, even rarer. The islands' armed forces total only about 600 men.

Pigs, chickens and dogs meander through the streets of tiny villages where the young and old sit out on front-porch stoops at sundown, playing checkers. Local houses are mostly simple, wooden structures, built from thin, painted planks elevated on stilts.

For now, Sao Tome's pristine beaches have been spared the stale high-rise hotels and tacky beach resorts that litter the mass-tourism age.

Over the last decade, the number of visitors to the island - including tourists and businessmen - has hovered around 6,000 per year, mostly Portuguese, said Manuela Lima Rita, No. 2 at the Tourism Ministry. The government expects that number to rise to 25,000 visitors annually in 2010, boosted by a planned ad campaign and the construction of more hotels.

That's a lot of tourists for a country with a population of just 150,000.

"It's a risk," Rita said. "We're small. We don't want to be overrun. But we'll try to be selective. We're not going to adopt mass tourism here."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.