There are few inhabited places on earth as isolated or as intriguing as St. Helena Island. This lush, subtropical island in the South Atlantic Ocean has an agreeable climate, old English charm, architecture, and a rich history beginning with its discovery by the Portuguese in 1502.
The nearest mainland is more than 1,600 kilometers on the west coast of Africa, making it one of the most remote inhabited islands. The only means of access is by sea; scheduled service is provided by the world’s last remaining Royal Mail Ship, the RMS St. Helena. This extreme isolation has preserved St. Helena’s charm and kept it largely undiscovered from the outside world.
this will change dramatically with the planned opening of an international airport. The projected date for construction, 2011–2012 starting dates, have been repeatedly postponed. Further delays are likely given the financial uncertainties surrounding the current global economic downturn.
St. Helena is governed by the UK as an Overseas Territory with a local population of 4,000 friendly inhabitants known as “Saints” who take great pride in welcoming visitors to their island. Jamestown, the island’s largest town, looks like a provincial English village with many untouched historic buildings dating from Georgian times. St. Helena is perhaps most famous as the place where Napoleon Bonaparte was sent into exile after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Longwood House, his home on the island, is now a museum, owned and operated by the French government.
In addition to numerous historic sites, this tiny 122 sq. kilometer (47 square miles) island offers an amazing number of different landscapes and microclimates, ranging from stark, thousand foot cliffs to lush green valleys filled with fat, contented cattle. There is much to do: walking and hiking, sports fishing, swimming, golf, and visiting the Napoleonic sites. The island’s unique and endangered flora and fauna is a great attraction, and much progress has been made towards restoring endangered forests to their natural state.
The island’s tourist infrastructure is very small, but adequate for the limited number of tourists currently visiting the island (fewer than 1,000 annually). Accommodation consists of three small hotels, several guest houses, and a number of self-catering flats and cottages. The Consulate Hotel is the island’s largest, with 18 rooms. There are fewer than ten restaurants or eating places; advance booking for dinner reservations is essential for most of them. Transportation options include taxis, a local bus system, rental cars, and a charming 1929 Chevrolet open-top charabanc available for guided tours.
Whatever St. Helena lacks in modern conveniences and five-star hotels, it more than makes up for with its warm and friendly people, spectacular scenery, historic sites, and perhaps the cachet of visiting such an unusual and rewarding out of the way destination. The Saints are a warm and welcoming group, representing a diverse ethnic and racial blend of settlers who came to the island from all over the world.
St. Helena still has the charm and character of a remote British colonial outpost from long ago. Island life resembles that of an English village that time forgot, with virtually no crime, and where everyone knows everyone else. With little in the way of local industry, the island is dependent on British government aid to maintain its standard of living. With no natural harbor, and the RMS St. Helena as the island’s sole means of transport and supplies, the airport is the key to long-range plans to reverse years of economic decline, halt outward migration, and provide local jobs.
Improved access to the outside world brings both benefits and drawbacks. Once the airport opens, life on St. Helena will change forever. The Royal Mail Ship will be retired and the island’s infrastructure will have to grow to accommodate a large number of airport visitors. St. Helena’s isolated charms will become a bit less isolated, but still charming!
A visit to St. Helena is well worth the effort to experience this undiscovered jewel before an airport greatly expands access to the outside world. A voyage on the last working Royal Mail Ship is an adventure in itself. Passenger service on the RMS is probably the closest of its type available today, that resembles the old-fashioned service found on early 20th century British ocean liners plying long, slow routes to far-flung outposts of the British Empire.
RMS St. Helena does not have the modern amenities common to massive cruise liners like theaters, casinos, and multiple dining venues. You will find a relaxed, friendly style of service, great people, and the opportunity to see one of the most unusual (and hard to reach) destinations on the planet. Allow plenty of time and flexibility when planning a trip to St. Helena as passenger space on the RMS is limited, voyages tend to be long, and schedules are subject to change.