It exists in splendid isolation, at the cutting edge of history and the threshold of a dream, deep in the South Atlantic. It is St. Helena, a 10-mile-long, 7-mile-wide speck on the map, the second-oldest British overseas territory (after Bermuda and the Falkland Islands) and one of the most remote islands on Earth.
About once a year, a cruise ship might stop at this island, which lies about 1,200 miles from Angola and 1,800 miles from Brazil. The most frequent visitors, though, are private boats: More than 700 called on St. Helena last year alone according to the tourism bureau, either seeking safe haven or supplies, or looking to explore the unspoiled destination. Most boaters are stopping for fuel and stores on a southerly transatlantic crossing, and most stay for about a week between May and November, hoping to avoid the Southern Hemisphere cyclone season.
“The beauty of St. Helena is that we aren’t a victim of over-tourism, and we’re not overfished,” says Craig Yon, who runs the eight-room Blue Lantern hotel and restaurant with his brother Keith, and who has a 36-foot sportfishing boat that takes guests out to James Bay to find the yellowfin tuna, wahoo, dorado and marlin, almost all year long. “There’s never a dull moment.”
The result of two volcanic eruptions, St. Helena is essentially 47 square miles of rocky coastline. The interior of the island has a cloud forest, a colored desert and quiet pastureland. As legend has it, Portuguese navigator Juan de Nova Castella discovered the island in 1502 on his way home from India. He named it St. Helena after the mother of Constantine the Great.
St. Helena certainly has its history. It’s the place where the British exiled Napoleon Bonaparte after he escaped the island of Elba off the coast of Italy and rebuilt his French army. He arrived at Jamestown, St. Helena’s capital, in 1815—along with a garrison of British soldiers to make sure he didn’t escape again. He died, most likely of stomach cancer, in 1821, after being detained at Longwood House, with facilities ultimately renovated to accommodate a visiting emperor. Today, the house remains open, maintained by the French consul. And in Jamestown, Napoleon memorabilia is everywhere.
A little more than 4,000 people live on St. Helena today, and the locals, who affectionately call themselves “Saints,” are proudly slow to change. For nearly three decades, the only way to get to or from the island was by booking passage on the Royal Mail Ship Saint Helena—a five-day trip from Cape Town, South Africa. It arrived once every month. And it carried just 145 passengers.
Car license plates have one to four digits. Phone numbers? Four digits. Cellphone service only arrived in 2015, and WiFi is painfully slow. Nearly 40 phone booths are still scattered around the island, and on St. Helena, they’re called “smartphones.” When you pick up the receiver, a local operator—who knows just about everyone on the island—answers and talks to you.
The crime rate? Almost nonexistent. The most recent big case involved two 5-pound dumbbells that were stolen from the local gym.
Visiting boats tend to head for James Bay and the island’s only harbor. No one docks. It’s all mooring buoys and tenders. About 20 miles out, the boaters call St. Helena Radio (on channel 16) or the harbormaster on channel 14. Having admiralty chart 1771 is strongly recommended. The mooring field is to the west of Ladder Hill Point. Mooring and harbor fees are about $45 per visit, and no more than $4 per night, with the first night free.
Most of the island is not well charted, and the moorings are not lighted, so it’s best to arrive in daylight. And count on heavy swells, especially between December and March. The dock where tenders land is in direct line of the rollers and swells, so no one ever ties up there. And timing your departure from the tender is key: Lines hang above the landing area on the cement pier. Wait for the swell to lift the tender in line with the dock, then reach up quickly, grab a line and swing over to the pier.
Each visitor must have a passport that is valid for a minimum of six months beyond the intended date of departure, and stays can be as long as 183 days. Visitors also must prove that they have international medical insurance with emergency medical evacuation coverage.
Visiting sailors typically join the locals in the evenings at the Standard or White Horse bars, or for dinners at Rosie’s or the Mantis or Consulate hotels. There’s also a Chinese place in Jamestown.
By day, boaters can make some great hikes to the summit of the nearly 2,700-foot Diana’s Peak, or dive and snorkel over the wreck of the Papanui, a steamship that foundered off St. Helena back in 1911 (today, it’s home to 10 endemic fish species, along with turtles, dolphins and Chilean sea rays). From January to March, visitors can snorkel with whale sharks. There’s humpback whale watching between June and December.
Landlubber tours can be done at Plantation House, home to the giant tortoise Jonathan, which is nearing 200 years old. The front porch of the Farm Lodge Country House B&B displays the original ship’s bell from the 604-foot historic cruise liner Southern Cross—built in 1954, she was the first passenger ship of over 20,000 gross tons to have the engines located near the stern, rather than amidships (known for making the Europe to Australia run; how the bell got to St. Helena is a mystery). Or, hike down to where Napoleon is buried. The gravesite is still there today, minus the body, which was returned to Paris years after his death.
Perhaps my favorite memory of St. Helena: climbing up the 699 steps of Jacob’s ladder (yes I counted every one of them) overlooking Jamestown. One caution: The climb is longer and higher than it first appears, and you need to pace yourself. When I got to the top, a local fireman graciously offered me a ride back into town.
If there’s been one big change on St. Helena, it’s air service. In October 2017, St. Helena opened its first airport. (And in January 2018, the mail ship made her final voyage.) The airport’s approach is so difficult, over jagged cliffs and with strong headwinds, that when it opened, the inaugural British Airways flight was also the airline’s last. But once a week, there’s still one flight: an Airlink Embraer 190 jet that makes the four-hour journey from South Africa. The landing is always an adventure, and check-in bags are limited because the plane must carry extra fuel for another two hours’ flight. If there’s weather, there’s only one alternate airport: the runway at a mostly off-limits military base 700 miles to the northwest. It was built to be an emergency landing strip for the Space Shuttle.
The airport situation is, perhaps, the most beautiful irony about St. Helena. It is likely the one destination in the world that offers faster long-distance travel options by sea.