The island feels bit like São Tomé in miniature, with a green, hilly interior fringed by a rugged volcanic coast punctuated with dazzling, sandy bays.
Set just off the southern shore of São Tomé, the 2 km2 Ilhéu das Rolas (Rolas Islet) is famous for its equatorial location, and was formerly known as Ilhéu Gago Coutinho, for the Portuguese naval officer who first proved that the Equator indeed crossed the island in 1919. If you want to just stand on the Equator mark once in your life, Rolas can be visited on an organised lunch trip, but for relaxation and to really enjoy the island, two to three nights are ideal, longer only if you are a keen diver.
When the resort was built in 2000, the Angolar villagers of São Francisco had to move, receiving some compensation. Later, the new owners Pestana Group tried to entice the villagers to leave the island entirely, but there was some resistance and criticism of the low level of compensation offered. The state has subsequently moved the school to Porto Alegre, but Pestana has since provided the village a generator, water, medical support, school transport, etc.
There was another recent drive to get the remaining 150 villagers (who are not really welcome to enter the resort by the way) off the island amid escalating conflicts about loud music. Resort jobs are still sought-after locally, despite a waiter here earning only the minimum wage of about €90 a month. Look out for the little chapel dedicated to St Francis, to the right of the pier, when you arrive.
What to see and do on Ilhéu das Rolas
Beaches and snorkelling
The best beach on the island is Praia Café, a 10-minute walk from reception across the staff area and past the Praia Pesqueira fishing beach with a beached, rusty wreck, where you can make friends with the local kids, especially if you’re willing to share your snorkelling mask. There is lovely sand and good shade here, with waters glowing turquoise in the sunshine. Snorkelling yields sightings of various colourful fish (asma preto, bolião, caqui, garoupa), with the occasional turtle or moray eel on the little reef to the right.
According to the locals, the next beach along, down from the abandoned cemetery, Praia Pombo, is also good for snorkelling. Hiring a mask, fins and snorkel cost €10 a day right on the beach from a local, Wilson. Praia Marinho, also on this stretch, is a turtle beach. A volta à ilha trip round the island of Rolas, stopping for a snorkel at Praia Xinha (also some turquoise waters there) is offered free to guests every other day by the resort.
There are several walks you can do, and the island is criss-crossed by a number of little trails cutting through the dense forest of coconut palms, but it is quite impossible to get lost. The resort tidies up more than 20km of trails around the island, and you can pick up a photocopied map from reception. If in doubt, just plough on straight until you hear the sound of waves. You will hit the path going around the island; following that in either direction will get you back to the resort.
Guided walks are offered free of charge to guests at 09.30, otherwise €6. They are very knowledgeable, and will show you all kinds of medicinal plants, ferns and trees along the coast trail, leading past blowholes and steep rocky cliffs. (The only issue for non-Lusophone visitors is a recurrent one in STP in general: none of the guides speak English.)
Diving off the island reveals an undisturbed underwater world of snappers, sweetfish, stingrays, octopus, sea horses, turtles, fan coral, moray eels, sea slugs, and more. There are plenty of surprises for those who haven’t got a fixation with the big fish. Sharks are visible, but are not guaranteed on every dive. Whales have passed by occasionally. There are fewer colours than in the Caribbean; visibility is also not perfect, and the open Atlantic brings a strong swell.
Since 2019, the Portuguese-run Dive Tribe has been offering the full range of diving services in association with Pestana. They get excellent reviews from divers, and offer night dives, snorkelling with turtles (in season), and whale watching (in season).