When you look at the way the British, French and Spanish plundered whole continents, it's hard to disagree that colonization was mostly about greed. But you have to wonder about the Portuguese. Macau in China, Goa in India, Brazil's coastline, Cape Verde? Whatever the imperial ambitions of their rulers back in Lisbon, could it be that Portuguese mariners, once at sea, were spurred on more by the idea of a nice spot in the sun?
The tiny nation of São Tomé and Príncipe adds some weight to this theory. The two volcanic islands off the west coast of Africa aren't big enough to catch the eye of colonizers out for big land grabs: even today, the island group has a population of just 193,000. But if Lisbon's explorers were motivated by a vision of a languid paradise with pristine beaches, crystal waters and fresh fish, then they hit the jackpot in São Tomé.
Visitors should begin their adjustment to an altogether slower way of life a speed known locally as leve, leve (easy, easy) in the main town, handily also called São Tomé. The capital, just five minutes from the international airport, is a sleepy waterfront settlement of bicycles, cobbled streets and faded pastel townhouses. There's not a whole lot to do except wander the streets, browse the open-air market and catch a few hours on the beach before settling into a café for a coffee or a glass of vinho verde. Dinner at your hotel the best are the Hotel Miramar, the Marlin Beach or the Residencial Avenida will likely be a hearty plate of bacalhau (salt cod) and boiled potatoes. Or for the traditional Portuguese pigs'-trotters-and-beans gut buster known in Brazil as feijoada, try the excellent Al Gharb on the road to the airport.
If all the inertia is proving too much, take the short flight to Príncipe to the north, whose undisturbed rain forests offer some largely undiscovered nature hikes. There are more walks in the hills above São Tomé town, and a half hour along the coast to the south there's the Boca del Inferno (Mouth of Hell), a rock channel in the surf that shoots out sea spray in rather less than diabolical fashion.
But exert yourself too much and you'll miss the point of São Tomé. Much more in tune with the indulgent spirit of the islands is a visit to one of several boutique chocolate makers, which produce bars so rich, buttery and big they'll give you sugar shakes. Italian Claudio Corallo, who grows cacao on Príncipe, wins rave reviews for his paper-wrapped bars. The idea is to make like the Portuguese: settle in for a few days, or even a lazy year or two, and build your empire leve, leve. www.navetur-equatour.st