Removed from other tourist destinations, the tiny isle of Saint Helena is one of the Atlantic Ocean’s best-kept secrets
More than 4 000 kilometres west of Africa and over 5 000 kilometres from South America, the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena is a lush yet remote tropical island. For the majority of its history, Saint Helena and its main town, Jamestown, was only accessible to outsiders by ship or boat. The completion of its airport in 2015, has opened the island up to a new genre of travelling – a globetrotting trend known as remote tourism, with South Africans enjoying the luxury of direct flights from Johannesburg.
With a population of just 4 534 and an area of a mere 122 square kilometres, it is paltry
when compared to Mauritius at 2 040 square kilometres or the islands of the Seychelles, which has a total land area of 455 square kilometres. Yet, this outlying destination will keep any traveller on their toes with picture-friendly landmarks and outdoor adventure spots.
For a modern take on history, book a stay at the Mantis St Helena, situated off St James Church. The hotel is home to a range of heritage and contemporary suites, each decorated with old-school British flair. Mantis St Helena also offers numerous activity packages, including hikes along the Post Box trails, diving with whale sharks during season and exploring historical war forts. After a day of sightseeing, head to the hotel’s restaurant for delicious St Helenian delicacies, known as ‘Saint dishes’. These include a mix of Chinese, Malay and British flavours blended into fish curries, fish cakes, soups and roasts.
On Jamestown’s main road, the Consulate Hotel is an idyllic getaway with colonial-style balconies and interiors reminiscent of the 18th-century Victorian era. However, unlike its ancient counterparts, the Consulate is fully equipped with Wifi, a bar, two leisure lounges, laundry services, a terrace and gardens. Traditional pastimes, such as board games and puzzles, can be found at the Blue Lounge or sip on a hot cup of coffee at the coffee shop. The hotel is perfectly situated five minutes from top tourist spots, including the castle, museum, dive centre and yacht club.
Budget-savvy travellers need not count their pennies just yet. Richard’s Travel Lodge is a quaint bed and breakfast, with lunch and dinner as optional inclusions. Two comfortable suites await guests, each sporting Wifi, entertainment facilities and plenty of wardrobe space. In the morning, dig into a full English or Continental breakfast while taking in the views of Half Tree Hollow and the ocean.
There’s nothing quite like sipping on exotic liqueurs while relaxing on a remote island.
Although far from tropical, St Helena’s Tungi Distillery is a one-of-a-kind craft bar.
Located near the former castle moat, Tungi, the name of which stems from an 1850’s whisky made of prickly pear, utilises the island’s natural fruits and herbs to distill some of the Atlantic’s finest gins and whiskies. Before 2006, distilling alcohol was a part-time hobby for military personnel who settled on the island for extended periods of time. Thereafter, Paul and Sally Hickling seized the opportunity to make craft spirits on the island permanently and now offer tours for as little as R94 per person.
While not quite Mauritius, with charcoal-black sand and ice-cold water, Sandy Bay Beach is worth a stroll, if not for a unique selfie on the sand. Known as the Black Beach, it is the ideal spot for beach activities such as a family picnic and, while there is a dangerous undercurrent, swimming can be done under supervised conditions. A walk along the beachfront leads to the popular Lot’s Wife’s Ponds hiking route.
For golf lovers, Saint Helena offers the most remote golf course on earth. More than a century old, the course was the brainchild of Sir Henry Lionel Galway who established the St Helena Golf Club for the sole purpose of sharing the joy of golf as a social sport. As the course is only four kilometres long, the aim is to complete all nine holes twice. Once a year, the commemorative Sir Henry Galway Cup – a 36-hole-stroke play event – is also held in honour of its founder.
One of the island’s greatest draws is its outdoor locations that are ripe for exploration. For a truly breath-taking experience, visit the Heart Shaped Waterfall, one of Saint Helena’s Seven Wonders. At 90 metres high, the waterfall experiences heavy streams during the winter season and visitors can take a dip in its plunge pool before continuing on a hike. For those more enthusiastic about conservation, the Millenium Forest is a wondrous sight. The forest forms part of an earth project dedicated to restoring a previously destroyed plantation known as the Great Wood during the colonial era. After resembling a landscape close to that of a desert, 10 000 new trees were planted in the area in 2012, taking up 35 of the 250 hectares of land allocated for the reforestation. In Jamestown, take a hike up Jacob’s Ladder or, as it is called by those in the know, the Eiffel Tower of Saint Helena. The ancient stone steps and steep gradient may seem impossible but once at the top, this site promises a view like no other on the the island.
From nature to history, the Boer Cemetery is a must-visit for any South African history buff. As a result of overcrowding in the war camps of South Africa, the British transported 20 000 Boer prisoners to Saint Helena from 1899 to 1902. The grounds of the camp have now been converted into a memorial that pays tribute to the fallen.
Over in Longwood, stargazers can venture to Halley’s Observatory where Edmond Halley, the famed British astronomer, and friend to Sir Isaac Newton, built an observatory to document the constellations of the southern hemisphere in 1677. Situated amongst the greenery of a mini forest, the remains of the observatory are watched over by a memorial plaque in ode to the great astronomer and his work. Close by, Longwood House stands tall, surrounded by gumtrees and – quite often – gusty winds. From 1815 to his death in 1821, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte called Longwood House home, having been exiled to Saint Helena by the British after France lost the Battle of Waterloo. The house still carries the ornate decor and furniture, including the bed in which Bonaparte passed away, from when it was utilised as the emperor’s prison and has been transformed into a museum.
Airlink provides direct flights to Saint Helena each Saturday, departing from Johannesburg.
A version of this article first appeared in Edition 4-2018 of Intrepid Explorer.