Until now, São Toméans were unaware how unique their lush, verdant and vibrant island was.

It boasts miles of solitary white beaches, turquoise sea, some of the best diving in Africa, turtle projects, whale watching, endangered birds, exotic fruit and vegetables, cloud jungle, rain forests, volcanic magma peaks, waterfalls, trekking, eco lodges, amazing restaurants, cocoa, coffee and palm plantations, and some of the most cheerful people on the planet.

Any tourists who visited preferred the sandy idyll of Principe in the south, where expensive hotels dot the sands, giving the main island a miss altogether.

But keen to advertise itself as a new tourism destination, the former Portuguese colony off the west coast of Africa, has popped up on 2019’s ‘go to’ lists - the new place for intrepid explorers.

We flew from Heathrow, then Lisbon, from where TAP Portugal flies direct, refuelling in Ghana.

We had a guide for our stay, as is the norm, to escort you by car, foot and ferry, also on hand when your Portuguese falters.

William was a godsend; cheerful, funny, hard-working and patient, he revealed his island to us day by day, peeling back the layers, in a seemingly inexhaustible supply.

Arriving as we ate breakfast in the upmarket Pestana Hotel with its infinity pool overlooking the sea, to take us into the jungle, we left the capital. The roads were ringed with makeshift wood and corrugated iron shacks. Children in uniform paraded past.

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We stopped in front of a brightly coloured obelisk, which commemorates the island’s worst ever massacre, when the Portuguese murdered over 1000 locals in an uprising against the colonials.

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It was a stark reminder of São Tomé’s brutal past where slavery and subjugation were the norm. Living on a tropical paradise came at a cost, as much of Africa and its slave trade can attest to.

As the week unfolded, we saw numerous deserted plantations, the São Toméans leaving them to rot, disappearing back into the jungle from whence they came after their oppressors left in the 1970s.

Local families have snuck back into the ghost towns once inhabited by slaves and their masters, relying on the abundant produce, women washing their clothes in the local rivers.

The landscape was every shade of green, towering trees bursting with strange fruits and vines, pigs and chickens roaming free, clouds creeping in as we got higher.

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Stopping at a wooden restaurant perched on the side of a mountain, with views to die for, the food was outstanding, course after course of delicious local food, beautifully presented. São Tomé is nothing if not contradictory.

Men with huge bunches of bananas slung over their shoulders greeted us as we ventured further inland to the botanical gardens, hilariously modest compared to the rampant jungle around them, returning via a gushing waterfall.

Back to the capital, the St Pedro guesthouse, with its little bar, swimming pool and clean, refreshing rooms.

The first mouthful of fresh fish at Mama Tete’s famous restaurant that night was also unforgettable. The capital is charming; the national museum in a tiny fort, the cathedral’s blue and white Portuguese tiled altar, then a coffee plantation on the outskirts.

We bought wooden painted masks and African print dresses in the Mercado Grande market which stretched as far as the eye could see, crammed with fresh fish, meat, fruit, veg, herbs, pastes and spices.

Afterwards we discovered our favourite bar, The Container, overlooking the sea, where the best passion fruit caipirinhas were concocted under a tropical sky.

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Hotel Central was unmistakably Portuguese, all dark wood and huge paintings, but the rooms clean and comfortable. And then we were off to the Praia Inhame Eco Lodge where our turtle adventure began.

The road peters out half way there, meaning progress was slow, but the landscape made it worth every jolt – volcanic peaks, particularly the Pico Caro Grande rising in the distance, towering over the dense rainforest.

At Praia Inhame, log cabins dot the grounds and the main house boasts a fun restaurant, framed by a huge deserted beach. That night we watched a huge turtle laying her eggs on the beach, right in front of our eyes.

It was a moment I will never forget, thanks to staff at the conservation project who man the beaches 24/7, digging up turtle eggs and reburying them in a safe compound, to hatch away from marauding crabs, dogs and pigs, two months later.

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Reluctant to leave, we stopped at local celebrity restaurant Rica Sao Joao de Angolares for lunch, and its Le Manoir style reverence to food and service. We lost count after 10 courses.

Rolas Island was something else. The ferry terminal alone was utopian; local kids diving into the warm sea as the sun set around them. Then a tiny white motorboat appeared, to take us to Pestana Equador, with its tropical beachfront, swimming pools and cabanas. On the equator, make sure you visit Coffee Beach, whose turquoise waves crashed onto the white sand as we whiled away the afternoon.

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Could things get any better? Yes, heading up north, after visiting the Blue Lagoon where swimmers bathed in the bright blue water, we stopped at the inauspicous Jale beach – tripping over a shark caught by fishermen earlier that day.

A guide brought in some baby turtles, just born in the protected compound outside. It was a seismic moment, but then São Tomé is full of surprises, and this was one of many.

Onwards towards Macumbli, another veritable ecolodge, to revel in the wildlife and plethora of birds on the northern tip of the island. Twitchers will enjoy the rare plumages fighting over the bird-feeders outside each cabana.

We spent the last day lounging by the pool, finally able to catch our breath and process the spectacular landscapes, experiences and characters we had found along the way. So much more than a holiday, São Tomé will change the way you see the world for ever.

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The facts:

  • How to arrive:

TAP Portugal flies from London, Manchester and Dublin with a stop in Lisbon (Portugal) to São Tomé International Airport (TMS). www.flytap.com

The national flag carrier STP Airways flies in cooperation with Euro Atlantic Airways from Lisbon (Portugal) to São Tomé International Airport (TMS). www.stpairways.st www.flyeuroatlantic.pt

  • Where to stay in the city

Luxury – Omali Lodge at the first beach after leaving the airport. A bit outside city.

www.omalilodge.com

Upmarket – Miramar (by Pestana) Hotel, a classic hotel with a diplomatic. Right at the coastal avenue.

www.pestana.com

Middle Class – Hotel Agôsto Neto. Simple, clean, well maintained family hotel in the city centre, next to the President’s Palace

www.hotelagostoneto.com

Budget – Ten rooms with bamboo and wooden decoration, close to city centre.

www.sweetguesthouse.com

  • Where to stay (on the islands):

Penstana Equador – Luxury hotel on a semi-private island, with wooden bungalows, all next to a huge pool and right on the Equator’s line.

www.omalilodge.com

Mucumbli Eco Lodge – Romantic little bungalows between mountains and tropical forest, overlooking the Ocean. Italian kitchen.

mucumbli.wordpress.com

Hotel Club Santana – Luxury hotel bungalows at a pristine private beach, within a huge private park. Overlooking the Ocean and Santana Island.

www.clubsantana.com

  • What to visit:

Small villages in the mountains and at the sea shore.

National Museum inside the city fortress.

Roça São João with its famous TV cook.

The Ôbo National Park primary forest with hidden valleys and waterfalls.

The Equator Island Rolas with the monument and view to São Tomé Island.

  • More info:

www.turismo.gov.st

Information desk inside the airport arrivals hall

Information desk at Coastal Avenue, next to STP Airways and Post building.

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