Remote St Helena was where Napoleon was exiled, but with its own airport could it become the ultimate long-haul destination asks Claire Spreadbury.
Until last this month, St Helena was one of the world’s most remote inhabited islands. Set adrift nearly 2,000 miles from the tip of South Africa, it took a full six days to sail there on the mail boat from Cape Town – and that ship sailed only once every three weeks.
But now for the first time there are weekly flights to the tiny volcanic island where Napoleon lived his last years in exile. Now visitors can get there in just six hours from Johannesburg (including a refuelling stop).
There are hopes that tourist numbers will swell as a result. Previously, only a few intrepid adventurers made it to St Helena – between May 2016 and May 2017 the island welcomed just 4,000 of them. Now the aim is to attract as many as 30,000 visitors a year.
But the British Overseas Territory marooned in the South Atlantic Ocean, only measures 16km by 8km.
The question is: Will anyone actually bother to go?
Maybe they will be tempted for the sheer bragging rights alone. It’s been touted as one of the world’s last undiscovered destinations and very few people have actually been. With between 400 and 502 unique species, and impressive marine biodiversity, it is on the United Kingdom’s list for possible future UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
St Helena’s natural beauty is undoubtedly its biggest draw. Various walking routes wind along rugged coastlines, through stark deserts and across cloud forests. Diana’s Peak, which rises 823 metres above sea level, is one of St Helena’s great attractions and forms part of a national park.
A 200 nautical mile maritime zone in the seas around the island has been designated a Marine Protected Area (MPA), boosting its status as a world-class diving destination. From November/December until March, it’s possible to see and even swim with whale sharks, and 18th century wrecks are accessible all year round. Visibility is generally good and the water temperature ranges between 18 and 26 degrees Celsius.
There are also several historical landmarks on the island, including Plantation House, home of the island’s Governor since 1792. Jonathan the 185-year-old giant tortoise, who is possibly the world’s longest living animal and definitely an internet celebrity, resides in the grounds. House tours cost £10 per person including tea or coffee.
St Helena has been cut off for so long because the airport was delayed for years by environmental and geographical challenges, and was subsequently crowned “the world’s most useless airport”.
Let’s hope it does find a use now. It has cost the British government £285m to serve a population of just over 4,000.
Once you get there you can revel in the island’s history by booking a room at Bertrand’s Cottage, once home to one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s most famous officers, Grand Marshall Bertrand.
Restored by Enterprise St Helena (ESH), it has three en-suite bedrooms and a lounge and restaurant with views across the garden to Deadwood Plain, where horse-racing took place in Napoleon’s time. Rooms start from £130 per night with breakfast.
As for climate, temperatures in Jamestown range between 20C – 32C in the summer and 15C – 26C in the winter. Technically in the tropics, the trade winds of nautical lore keep the climate relatively mild with no dramatic seasonal shifts, although the hottest months are between January and March.
For something more luxurious, try the four-star, 30-bedroom Mantis St Helena which opens next month on Main Street in Jamestown. Three Georgian properties have been carefully restored to make up the property, where rooms costs from £210 per night with breakfast. Both hotels can be booked at sthelenatourism.com
Fortunately, everyone on St Helena speaks English but there are a few local terms it’s worth adding to your holiday vocabulary. ‘Eierce’ (pronounced like pierce) means yes, ‘mussie’ is the phrase for ‘it must be’, and if you want to sound exasperated about something, simply say ‘phew ya’.
Flights are now available to book via SA Airlink (flyairlink.com), starting from £804 return from Johannesburg to St Helena.