Príncipe is a small island off the west coast of Africa. An isolated, volcanic retreat with a generous helping of endemic bird species. Accessible only by plane from Sao Tome which in turn is fairly hard to get to but the trip is well worth the effort.
Príncipe is exquisitely covered in ancient rainforest, cocoa/coffee plantations and empty beaches. The island is best known for its bird, photographic and beach holidays.
Like São Tomé, Príncipe developed as a result of volcanic action, and so all plant and animal life migrated there on the wind, sea currents or carried by birds. The result is a large number of endemic species due to the unique conditions that these migrants have evolved in. Forest covers most of the island, and there are no roads to the south, where the Obo National Park is situated. The island is undeniably ancient and mystical, and the only inhabitants are the occasional fishermen – difficult access makes it one of the most deserted retreats on our planet!
Conveniently located near the Gabon coast, Príncipe is a fantastic addition to Central African safaris and is particularly attractive to keen birders (due to the endemicity of the local wildlife). It is a good beach destination, an infantile diving hotspot and guarantees exclusivity to those that want a quiet retreat.
Príncipe is one of the islands in the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, and is about 136 km². It is located 300 km west of Gabon, in the Gulf of Guinea.
Best time to visit Príncipe
With enough attractions to keep anyone busy for several days, a trip to this island is a great ending to a safari in Gabon or Central Africa and so would slot in during the time period that you visit these areas – see information on Gabon and the Congo Basin. Birders can definitely spend extended periods of time here, and the walk through the centre of the island is a rewarding challenge for photographers.
If you want to go big-game fishing, the best season for blue marlin is July-September, and for Atlantic sailfish, September to December.
How to get to Príncipe
There is an airport to the north of Santo Antonio and flights from São Tomé on Air São Tomé e Príncipe leave regularly; definitely the best way to get there and back.
Príncipe is a fantastic, undiscovered retreat
Access is simply too difficult for the big travel companies to consider it as a serious holiday destination and this is something that definitely works in its favour – the loneliest beaches in the world! Our speciality trip expertise and knowledge of remote areas gives us the experience required to organise a successful trip to the rainforested paradise, and the island will definitely deliver to travellers looking for something above the average African holiday.
The wildlife in the forest includes mona monkeys, African grey parrots and numerous orchids and begonias. The trails are not incredibly well maintained, but there are guides and transport if you want to explore the rainforest.
For birders, by walking anywhere on the island you’re likely to spot endemic birds such as the Príncipe spierops, golden weaver and sunbird. It is also possible to spot the green ibis, which is extremely rare and difficult to find. The many islets off Príncipe have many sea birds on them, and Jockey Cap Island has its own species of seedeater.
The main town is the smallest settlement in the world that has the name ‘town’ assigned to it. Santo Antonio is surrounded by mountains and water, and has a number of churches, the most important of which is the Roman Catholic building. It has two statues inside it which are worth a stop; one of St Anthony, the town’s patron saint, and the second of Christ. Both are at least 250 years old.
To the north of the island is a luxury resort, the Bom Bom Island Resort. Big-game fishing and scuba diving are the most popular occupations here, and there is a fishing tournament every year. The two beaches near the resort are good for swimming or jogging, and the hotel provides snorkelling gear.
Diving is very popular as there is a lot of volcanic rock and hard coral in the water – bountiful fish and the water is warm all year round. Night dives are available if you bring your own torch. The most popular dive sites are Bom Bom Resort, Pedra de Adalio, Pedra de Galle, Maria Coreo, Jockey Cap Island and Shark Dive.
Bom Bom Resort has a shore dive for beginners – snapper, octopus and angelfish can be seen as you swim through an underwater arch.
Pedra de Adalio is a reef dive west of Bom Bom which you reach by boat, and has octopus, eel, groupers and sturgeons.
Pedra de Galle is a deep dive to 30 metres that challenges divers as it goes down a sheer rock face teeming with trigger fish, snapper and barracuda.
Maria Coreo is again to 30 metres and is only suitable for advanced divers. There are many reef fish here, along with moray eels, turtles and nurse sharks.
Jockey Cap Island has a diver of 24 m with large schools of small fish, barracuda, parrot fish, trigger fish and sometimes turtles.
To swim with reef sharks and hammerheads, there is a dive site about an hour south of Príncipe by boat.
The most famous beach on Príncipe is the Praia Banana, which is a curve of sand the shape and colour of a giant banana. The beach was made famous by a Bacardi Rum advert and can be reached by crossing the land of the Bela Monte plantation or by boat. It’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll have this beach to yourself.
If Príncipe is too far off the beaten track for you, or you’re looking for something a bit easier to complement safaris in East or Southern Africa, we’ve got several recommendations that you might want to consider.
Lake Manyara in Tanzania has given us some brilliant birding experiences, and we’ve had happy reports of identifying more than 100 species in a single day. Whilst not on the coast, the little national park has been similarly overlooked by the big companies and gains a certain charm for its lack of visitors. An alkaline lake bed attracts thousands of flamingos, pelicans and quelea – and the tree-climbing lions are definitely worth some attention! Lake Nakuru is Kenya’s alternative.
Pemba and Mafia Island, also off Tanzania, are similar to Príncipe in their small island appeal – good diving, beautifully lonely beaches and scenery worth a lifetime of memories.
Mahale National Park covers unfathomable depths in one of the world’s deepest lakes and spreads to a series of incredibly high, shrouded mountains – hiding an assortment of unique species. One of our favourites, deserted and beautiful.
Madagascar and the Seychelles (especially North Island) all make for good tropical holidays, although more frequently visited.
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