Saint Helena Island is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and is one of the world's most isolated islands. If you start crossing the Atlantic Ocean at the border between Namibia and Angola, Saint Helena Island will appear just less than half way to Brazil. As the most populous of the United Kingdom's territories in the South Atlantic, it governs the others: Ascension, Tristan da Cunha, Gough Island and their satellites.
Uninhabited when first discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, Saint Helena was garrisoned by the British during the 17th century (to be used as a refreshment station for ships travelling to and from the East). It acquired fame as the place of Napoleon Bonaparte's exile, from 1815 until his death in 1821, but its importance as a port of call declined after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Saint Helena has three smaller dependencies: Ascension Island is the site of a US Air Force auxiliary airfield; Tristan da Cunha is home to a very small community reliant on fishing for income; Gough Island has a meteorological station.
Saint Helena's most famous resident, of course, was Napoleon, who was exiled there by the British. Apparently Elba was not far enough away. He died there, and you can visit his beautiful gravesite in a flower-laden glade, but his remains were disinterred and are now at Les Invalides in Paris. You can visit his two residences on the island. He stayed at The Briars for less than two weeks, and lived the rest of his life in a respectable house in Longwood. Both can be visited by appointment.
The grandest house on the island, however, is that of the governor. It looks like it was lifted straight out of 18th century England. There are marvelous land tortoises on the grounds, including one purported to be the oldest living vertebrate in the world.
The flora and fauna of the island are marvelous. Though many endemic species have become extinct, there are some left to be seen. Cabbage trees, gum trees and the local ebony can all be seen. The ebony was thought to be extinct until a local botanist found a specimen hanging off a cliff. It is being propagated and planted around the island. The islanders have also begun to restore the native forests of the island. The Millennium Forest has been planted by many volunteers and consists largely of local gum trees. Native, old growth forests can be found on the highest peaks of the island. High Peak and Diana's Peak have beautiful natural areas.
Two animals are of note. The giant earwig was the largest in the world. Truly a terrifying beast for those who fear earwigs, it was between two and three inches long. The species was made extinct by researchers who literally collected them all!
The second species is a happier story. Though endangered, with only about 300 remaining, the Saint Helena Wirebird is a plover-like bird with long beak and legs. It is a land bird, and can be found in open areas. The playing fields behind the high school are a particularly good place to look without having to take a longer hike. The Wirebird is Saint Helena's national bird.
Currently there are no airports on the island, although plans to build one were announced in July 2010.
The RMS St Helena does regular round-trips from Cape Town to St Helena, sometimes via Walvis Bay. It also makes frequent trips to Ascension Island. Trips from the UK take approximately 2 weeks, whereas trips from Cape Town can take as little as 5 days. The other option is to take the boat from Ascension, which you can reach by flying on the Royal Air Force service there. This is a little complicated, but can cut significant time off the trip. The ship itself, however, is a fantastic experience. Filled with the locals traveling home and tourists, it is a great opportunity to meet some very interesting people and talk more about Saint Helena before you arrive. The staff have planned some fun activities that seem like a home-made version of what you might get on big cruise ships. These are truly charming. Cricket on the deck for the Curry Cup is a must!
St Helena has a very limited public bus service . Introduced only in 2003, the routes and timetables are designed primarily to satisfy the needs of locals. Buses are rare, usualy going once or twice only on some weekdays. Visitors can, with some planning use the bus service to reach some of the island's attractions and walking opportunities. Check timetables carefully and allow sufficient time to catch the return bus otherwise you may face a long walk back to Jamestown! Stops are well marked, but a nice wave will also get the driver to stop
Taxis are also availabe in Jamestown (the rank is behind the Tourist Information Office).
Rental cars (£10-12 a day) are probably the more practical method of travel, but be sure to reserve one in advance. There are not too many, and when the boat arrives with its twenty tourists or more, the travel industry can be overwhelmed, and don't expect your rental car to be a recent vehicle (Ford Escorts are common)! Ask your hotel to arrange car hire for you.
Saint Helena drives on the left, as in the United Kingdom. Likewise, the traffic signage in Saint Helena resembles that of the United Kingdom.
Walking is wonderful, but mostly in the highlands in the center of the island. The 21 Post Box Walks, a series of graded trails are a good way to explore much of the island. The walks and routes with maps are available in a book written by the island's Nature Conservation Group, available at the Tourist Office. The cliffs all around the perimeter make it impossible to walk along the coast at most points, access to the sea is normally by descent of the numerous steep valleys that cut through the volcanic landscape. Though small, however, don't be deceived, distances can be great for a walker. Bring water and sunscreen, but the Saints on the way will be happy to provide a refill if your water bottle runs dry.
It is very hard to walk out of Jamestown. The city is in a deep canyon coming from the highlands down to the shore, and there are three roads out, one up either edge of the canyon and the third, Barnes Road, an old track that leads to Franicis Plain, perched on a plateau 500m above Jamestown. The other way to get to the highlands is via the vertiginous Jacob's Ladder, an extremely tall 699-step staircase, originally built as an inclined plane to bring goods in and out of town. Walking on the roads out of town would mean sharing narrow switchbacks with cars, lots of dust, and no sidewalks. If you walk, even once you climb Jacob's Ladder, you still aren't halfway to the green spaces at the top, and have to walk through the beautifully named, but not so beautiful to look at, Half-Tree Hollow. A rental car or the bus are much better options.
The official language of Saint Helena is English. However it is often spoken with a strong accent and using ordinary English words in unusual ways. This dialect is locally known as "Saint". Examples include "What your name is?" and "Us need one new tyre" (us = 'we' and 'one' is used where 'a' or 'an' might be expected).
Though the island culture is a melange of people from all over the world, immigration essentially ended long ago, and the Malay, Indian, African and other immigrants to the island have not maintained their original languages or cultures. "Intermarriage" has been the standard on the island for so long that there are no racial differences to be made, let alone linguistic ones.
There are several shops in central Jamestown selling gifts and souvenirs, including locally hand-made items, and there are also interesting things to buy at Longwood House and in the hotels. The island museum has a very nice small gift counter. Tungi, a high-proof liquor made from cactus, is made on the island and can be purchased in the bar on the seafront or direct from the distillery underneath (distillery tours also available).
Locally-produced items include woodwork, fine lace and jewellery.
Purchases are made in Saint Helena Pounds. The Saint Helena Pound is held at parity with the British pound and British money can be used on the island. Some shops may also accept US Dollars and Euro.
There is a bank on the island which opens weekdays and Saturday mornings, but has no ATM, so be sure to plan ahead. The bank can use your ATM or credit/debit card to give you money. Cash can be changed on the ship on the way to the island, but St. Helena money is rarely available in banks outside the St. Helena / Ascension / Tristan area so don't worry about changing in advance.
Cooking for yourself is a great way to go. Visitors renting a room or a house on the island will find it easy to get what they need and fun to get along themselves. Tourists comment that it is surprising that on such a fertile island, there is no dairy or garden market. There are a very few vegetables for sale in the two grocery stores in Jamestown. Organization also does not seem to be the islanders' strong point. UHT milk actually runs out between RMS Saint Helena boat visits! Don't worry, though, you will be able to find a wide assortment of food in the two small stores and a nice butcher shop. Fish is also a funny thing. Despite being in the middle of the Atlantic, the only fish on sale seems to be tuna (though it is wonderful, deep red tuna). "Pilau" (pronounced "ploe") is a specialty of the island. It is "peasant food" in the best sense. A combination of rice, bacon and other ingredients, it is delicious and greasy!
Some corrections to the section regarding Farm Lodge (from the owners : Stephen and Maureen.)
Farm Lodge is situated 5 miles from Jamestown, the Capital. It was built as an East India Company planter's house in approx 1690. It is set in it's own 12 acres of gardens and farmland. The correct address is Farm Lodge, Rosemary Plain, St Paul's, St Helena Island (South Atlantic Ocean) It is not as isolated as the article suggests. A hire car cost approx £12 ($18) per day and there is a local bus service to and from town costing £1 ($1.50) each way. The trip is less than 30 minutes. The farm produces fresh fruit and vegetables as well as meats, eggs, coffee etc for the dining room table. Farm Lodge is not a country inn but is a Country House Hotel. All the 5 bedrooms have ensuite facilities and full board is available. Dinner is 5 courses, and the majority is fresh organic food from the farm. The coffee is Green Tipped Bourbon Yemeni brought to the island in 1733 by the East India Company and was very much enjoyed by the Enperor Napoleon during his years of incarceration here. Guests have the option of B&B, Half Board or Full Board. The house is also open to non residents for morning coffee , lunches, afternoon teas and dinners. A fully stocked bar is available.
Tourists shouldn't come to Saint Helena to work - it is illegal to do paid work on St. Helena unless you have a work permit or are employed by the UK or St. Helena Government.
Wages are low - about a fifth of that paid for the equivalent work in the UK.
A large number of Saints work off the island on the RMS Saint Helena, in the Falklands, or on Ascension. This is mainly to get a higher income.
The island must be one of the safest places on earth. Crime is practically non-existent, though there is a jail with a few inmates. You can feel comfortable walking at night anywhere on the island. There are no bugs or animals of concern (with the exception of scorpions). The only safety issue might be falls for those who want to do some climbing.
While there is no particular health threat on the island (no special vaccinations are required), you don't want to get seriously ill. There is a hospital with trained staff available, however, there are no facilities to deal with very serious health issues. Any complicated medical issue must be dealt with off island, and that is a bare minimum of three days away if the boat to Ascension and the plane is just right. More likely you will have to wait several weeks for the boat to Cape Town.
Visitors are required to carry medical insurance that will cover the full cost of their evacuation back to their home country.
Most St. Helenians have strong loyalty to the UK monarch and to the Christian Faith, and respect for both of these is strongly requested from visitors.
However there are no laws requiring observance of either, by visitors or others.
There is no mobile network on the island! Telecommunications are particularly expensive -- don't expect to be able to use the Internet for extended periods of time. There are Wi-Fi hotspots in Consulate Hotel and in Ann's Place for £6/hour. Stamps can be purchased right across from the Consulate Hotel in Jamestown. The post office is famous among philatelists the world over and brings a significant amount of cash to the island by selling stamps from Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan.