Beautiful African islands you've probably never heard of
Nine lost worlds off the coast of Africa, plus advice on how to visit them
São Tomé and Príncipe
One of Telegraph Travel’s 20 destinations to visit in 2019, São Tomé and Príncipe is one of the last unspoilt wildernesses on Earth. But that might change in the near future – so you’d best get there soon.
“Few people have heard of São Tomé and Príncipe, let alone visited it – and that’s why you should go in 2019 before mainstream operators and budget airlines alter its unique character,” explains Andrew Purvis. “Comprising two islands in the Gulf of Guinea, about 150 miles off Gabon in West Africa, STP (as aficionados call it) feels like a lost world of pristine rainforests, bizarre geological formations, breathtaking (and deserted) beaches and tepid, glassy-green ocean ideal for snorkelling and scuba diving.
“It’s a place where nature sneaks up on you, rather than you seeking it out. On Principe, where I spent most of my time, I twice took a speedboat to explore local beaches only to stumble across a humpback whale and her calf, born days before in those plankton-rich waters. On a drive to a restaurant one night, the dirt track was suddenly swarming with land crabs the size of my fist, caught in the headlamp beam. At one resort, Bom Bom, I lay on a sun lounger and watched yellow weaver birds at work in the palm fronds above my head, spotted an endemic Principe kingfisher and was dive-bombed by a grey parrot.
“But the people are what made my trip. Because tourism is so young, there seems to be an absence of malice and a warm-hearted innocence totally in keeping with the untarnished African landscape. Service can be rough at the edges and the infrastructure (water, electricity) creaks at times – but that’s what pioneers have to endure.”
São Tomé Choice (01768 721050) offers a nine-night Secrets of São Tomé and Príncipe holiday from £3,398 per person, based on two people sharing on a half-board basis. The price includes international flights with TAP Air Portugal and internal flights from São Tomé to Príncipe.
You may think the Canary Islands are just a fly-and-flop destination. But where else can you hop from prehistoric jungle to desert, spot whales, and then savour a Michelin-starred meal – in January?
“El Hierro is the smallest of the major seven Canary Islands, making it the easiest to traverse,” says Joe Cawley. “It’s also by far the least developed. Instead of beaches and theme park rides, you get mist-shrouded moonscapes and rehabilitation centres for the island’s famous giant lizards.
“El Hierro has an almost magical spirit that you can feel along the ancient trails of El Golfo, amidst the swells of mist that stroke the twisted juniper trees of El Sabinar, and on the petrified rivers of lava that lie on the rippled volcanic plains of the interior like giant tubes of melted liquorice.
“Divers, too, will find their natural version of an amusement park in the clear waters of La Restinga Marine Reserve, where an underwater eruption in 2011 has refurbished the area’s 10 dive sites with spectacular new colonies of Technicolor flora and fauna.
“Quiet and broody, but with a propensity for the odd explosive outburst, El Hierro is perfect if you prefer your attractions natural rather than man-made.”
Cachet Travel (cachet-travel.co.uk) offers a week at the Parador de El Hierro in May from £1,356 per person, based on two people sharing a standard room on B&B basis. Includes flights, transfers and car hire.
This island off the coast of Tanzania is like Zanzibar 40 years ago, according to Telegraph Travel’s Sally Peck. She adds: “Intrepid adventurers have always come here in small numbers: Pemba’s white sand beaches are ringed on all sides by coral reefs which offer some of east Africa’s best snorkelling and diving. During the annual whale migration, in July and August, humpback whales have been sighted off the east coast. And yet, while the island’s charms are many, visitors are relatively few.
“There’s the inconvenience of the half-hour flight from Zanzibar (it’s wise to break up your journey with a night or two in Zanzibar, for a dose of culture and a historic tour). And there’s also the dearth of mid-range hotels on Pemba. But these combine to create an exclusive paradise that can serve as hideaway, springboard for adventure, or classic beach holiday without the hordes. Here, you’ll find no merchants selling tourist clobber on the beach; you’ll see not a speck of the rubbish that lines mainland roads and beaches as you cycle or motor through quiet villages. For that matter, you’ll see no advertisements – just calm, rural life.”
Four nights all-inclusive in a beach villa at Constance Aiyana plus a night on arrival at the Park Hyatt Zanzibar with breakfast and a guided Stone Town walking tour costs from £1,949 per person (based on two people travelling) including flights and transfers. See turquoiseholidays.co.uk.
Mozambique has grown in popularity as a beach destination and its 1,430 miles of coastline are dotted with modern luxury resorts. But it is in its islands, and in its past, that this damaged but often dramatically beautiful slice of southern Africa shows its soul, says Chris Leadbeater.
He adds: “Ibo is one of these outcrops – a fragment of the Quirimbas archipelago which, like the larger, more famous Ilha de Mocambique further south, was one of the hubs of Portugal’s colonial administration in these warm Indian Ocean waters. Lisbon’s sudden abandonment of its overseas possessions in 1974 left the town which sits on the little isle’s west flank as a ghost of a dead era, its merchants’ houses, churches and whitewashed forts starting to crumble in the salt air. They would continue to fall apart for the next three decades, but are now being reclaimed as artists’ studios, small shops and boutique hotels – of which Ibo Island Lodge is perhaps the most special.”
Expert Africa (020 3405 6666; expertafrica.com) sells a six-day “Quirimbas Beach Holiday” that splits its time between the luxury Guludo Beach Lodge, on the mainland, and Ibo Island Lodge. From £2,002 per person – with flights.
Mozambique has other options, including the Bazaruto Archipelago, part of the Bazaruto National Park. Twenty miles off the country’s southern coast, it is so rich in underwater life that it has been dubbed “the aquarium”.
“Frankly, if you don’t like boats, snorkelling, fishing or hanging about in white sand, this is not the national park for you,” says Lisa Grainger.
“Divers from all over the world fly in to plunge the clear depths in search of turtles, coloured nudibranchs, laptop-sized crabs and giant clams. Out beyond the reefs, humpback whales, whale sharks and giant Zambezi sharks can be spotted – the last, rather irritatingly, can whip off a rod-bending tuna before you get the chance to reel it in.”
For all-out luxury, try the Anantara Bazaruto Island. Rooms from £330pp per night.
Another of the lesser-visited Canary Islands, La Gomera is a haven of leafiness that suits those who find holiday heaven in the simpler things in life, like tasty local food, show-stopping sunsets and glorious mountain scenery.
Joe Cawley says: “Monumental landscapes are the main reasons for choosing La Gomera. The island is shaped like a splayed orange, with immense valleys separating each segment. Its craggy interior is topped by Garajonay National Park, a mysterious, misty cloak of ancient laurels and carpets of fern, with moss-shrouded monoliths poking out into the blue sky like the tops of witches’ hats.
“As with El Hierro, there are no international flights to La Gomera; island-hopping via ferry or plane is the only way to get there, which makes the journey part of the adventure.”
Prestige Holidays (01425 480400, prestigeholidays.co.uk) offers a week in May at Parador Conde de la Gomera from around £800 per person, including flights.
Mos Eisley, where Luke and Obi-Wan meet Han Solo and Chewbacca, is really Ajim, on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The exterior of Obi-Wan’s home is actually a mosque, while the domed exterior of the rough Cantina bar, where Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes are the house band, can still be spotted.
Djerba has plenty to offer non-Star Wars fans too. “Djerba was home to the Lotus Eaters of Homer’s Odyssey, and with its sandy beaches, old market towns and Berber communities, it has long been peaceful – a refuge for persecuted peoples throughout history,” says Gail Simmons. “Named after the Gerbatani tribe, Djerba is home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities and has been a centre of ceramic production since Neolithic times. A Roman causeway still connects the island to the mainland, and in its ‘capital’, Houmt Souk, fishermen still hold a daily market as they have for centuries.”
While the FCO’s lifting of restrictions on travel to Tunisia last autumn has freed Britons to visit the country, holiday options remain limited. Thomas Cook offers trips to around a dozen resorts in the country, but most are in Hammamet, a five-hour drive to the north of Djerba.
Package holidays to Djerba can be booked through Expedia, however. A week at the Iberostar Mehari Djerba, for example, costs from £2,562 per person, including flights. Based on a May 17 departure.
This Indian Ocean island is undoubtedly special – but strictly off-limits for the foreseeable future. That’s because it is part of Yemen, a country where Civil War has been raging for more than four years. In fact, despite lying 240 miles off the coast of the country (it is closer to Somalia), it served as the setting for a sideshow in the ongoing conflict last year when the United Arab Emirates landed troops there and took control of the island’s airport.
Socotra was virtually unknown to tourists until the airport was built in 1999 (until then the only way to reach it was by cargo ship) and still barely discovered prior to Yemen’s current troubles – an estimated 1,000 visitors arrived each year until 2014. The main draw is it biodiversity: a third of its 825 plant species are endemic, including its eye-catching “dragon trees”, as well as 90 per cent of its reptiles.
When it will return to tourist radars remains to be seen. The Foreign Office advises against all travel to Yemen, including its islands.