Tuesday, December 29, 2009

SAO TOME: Tranquility disturbed only by falling coconuts

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Underwater bank 2, originally uploaded by Martin Berkeley.

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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, are coconuts falling from the trees.

With few flight connections and just a handful of embassies abroad, Sao Tome isn't easy to get to, however.

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 (kilometers) 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.

Fishermen drive canoes onto sandy beaches and sell the seas' harvest direct _ huge catches of squid, crab, shrimp and giant fish.

For tourists intent on catching their own, game-fishing for blue marlin and sailfish can be booked at most large hotels, as can whale- and dolphin-spotting tours from July to October.

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, 6,640-foot (2,024-meter) 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.

What is remarkable about Sao Tome is how overwhelmingly laid back the island is.

The foreign minister cruises a beachfront road on a motorcycle alone, without bodyguards. Acoss the street from the airport, the health minister dines under the nose of a rusting plane that was converted into a makeshift restaurant after expiring decades ago.

In many parts of Africa, taking pictures isn't easy. Authorities are uptight, concerned about security. Not so in Sao Tome.

An Associated Press photographer who snapped pictures of a guard at the presidential palace was quickly set upon by an official inside. Bracing for a lecture on state security, the photographer was told the camouflage-uniformed guard was, well, not dressed well enough.

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."

Most Sao Tomeans, living on just over a dollar a day, are hoping a much-hoped-for oil boom will pull them out of poverty. The rights to a first field in the Gulf of Guinea were sold to ChevronTexaco and Exxon Mobil Corp earlier this year.

"There will come a day when the oil will run out, but the tourism industry, that can last forever," Testori says, his small wooden boat slicing through the waves past banks of palm trees arching over an empty beach.


If You Go...

GETTING THERE: From Europe, Air Portugal flies once per week from Lisbon. Within Africa, Air Sao Tome and Air Service Gabon run flights from Libreville, Gabon, several times a week.

ENTRY: Visas are required for most visitors, but can be had fairly easily (within 24 hours) at Sao Tome missions in Lisbon, Libreville and New York.

ACCOMMODATION: It's best to book rooms in advance because of the shortage of high-standard accommodation. In the capital, Hotel Miramar features a large pool, a restaurant with tasteful cuisine and pleasant rooms for about 781,500 Sao Tome Principe Dobra (US$100,A83) per night. Other resort-quality hotels are the Santana in the east of the island, which has smart bungalows, a private beach and a small restaurant on a cliffside with excellent ocean views. In the south, the Pestana Equador Island Resort is a short boat ride from the mainland. For those on a budget, there's a good range of less-pricey guesthouses. The smaller island of Principe, accessible by 45-minute flight from Sao Tome, is home to the Bom Bom Island resort.

EXCURSIONS: Most hotels can help arrange scuba diving, snorkeling, game-fishing, sailing, trekking and sailing tours of the main island of Sao Tome. Club Maxel, http://www.clubmaxel.st, is one of a handful of dive operators. They also rent jet skis and can arrange snorkeling trips and longer excursions to the island of Principe.

GENERAL INFORMATION: A good place to start is the Web site http://www.navetur-equatour.st, which has details on accommodation, a list of most flights, and things to see and do.

Source Citation
"SAO TOME: Tranquility disturbed only by falling coconuts." America's Intelligence Wire 20 Oct. 2005. Popular Magazines. Web. 29 Dec. 2009. .

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