With air access an option for the first time, travelers can finally explore the remote South Atlantic Island where history left an indelible mark.
For over 500 years, the only way to reach the gorgeous volcanic island of Saint Helena has been by sea voyage. Over the centuries, some of the greatest figures in seafaring history spent time (some reluctantly) on her shores. But with the end of the era exploration, the island faded into somewhat obscurity. Isolation ended with the opening of the controversial airport in October 2017. So far this aerial connection to the outside world hasn’t been enough to change a place with no chain stores, bank machines, or guile. While visitors are captivated by the island of just 4,500 inhabitants’ rich history, spectacular scenery, and unique undersea world, it’s the warmth of the Saints (as the locals are called) most take away.
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Visit Napoleon’s Prison Home
WHERE: Longwood House
Napoleon may have complained about Saint Helena when he was imprisoned in purpose-built Longwood House—but chances are, the island’s most famous resident didn’t get out enough to properly appreciate the rugged island’s many charms. Furnished as it was during Napoleon’s exile; Longwood offers great insight into Napoleon’s life and mysterious death through an extensive collection of artifacts and documents.
INSIDER TIPDon’t miss the gardens—they were planted using the designs that Napoleon drew during his exile.
Give Your Regards
WHERE: Napoleon’s Tomb
Upon his death in 1821, Napoleon’s asked to be buried on the banks of the Seine in France. But his adversary the British Governor insisted he be buried on St. Helena, in Sane Valley. His remains were returned to France in 1840 but his empty, unmarked tomb remains a sacred place on Saint Helena. The lush garden tomb site and Longwood House both became French Territory in 1858, and Napoleon is recalled with a “Moment de Memoire” every year on the anniversary of his death.
Cast Your Eyes to the Sky
WHERE: Edmund Halley’s Observatory
Saint Helena’s position near the Equator and the height of hills above sea level means that nearly every star in both the northern and southern skies can be seen at some point in the year. Couple this with clear, dark skies and you can see why Edmund Halley (of comet fame) spent 1676-77 on the island looking upward, cataloging the Southern Sky. Dozens of astronomers have followed in Halley’s wake and now the island is working on accreditation with the International Dark Sky Association with a plan of becoming one of the world’s best stargazing sites in reach of tourists.
INSIDER TIPModern stargazers can borrow a telescope from the tourism office and see the skies the way Halley did from his stone observatory.
Climb a Mountain
WHERE: Diana’s Peak
Rising 823 meters (2700 feet) above sea level, Diana’s Peak is the highest point on Saint Helena. Flanked by Mount Actaeon to the east and Cuckhold’s Point to the west, the peaks are linked by a well-developed trail system which leads through a cloud forest of tree ferns, black cabbage, whitewood, and Jellico which are among the national park’s 119 endemic species. Not native to the island are the two Norfolk Pines that top the peaks, which were said to be planted at the command of Captain Cook. The trees help navigators pinpoint Jamestown Bay, the one safe harbor on the island.
Explore the Village Streets
Founded in 1659 by the British East India Company, the island’s capital and looks like an English village that was transported across an ocean and then wedged into a volcanic cleft. Five blocks long and two streets wide it’s hemmed in by the sea at one end and dramatic cliffs on both sides. Stroll the streets and check in at the library, (the oldest in the southern hemisphere) which houses an excellent collection about all things Saint Helena. Then carry on for tea at the Consulate Hotel, which is filled with island memorabilia. Don’t miss the Castle, the government building for the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha which boasts a gorgeous garden.
Stop in for Tea With the Governor
WHERE: Plantation House
Though it’s said to be haunted, tours through the 1792 mansion are more about governors than ghouls. Recently reopened to the public for guided tours, the 35 room Governor’s residence offers a grand and occasionally quirky view of over 200 years of island history. The island’s first female governor, Lisa Honan, believes it’s important that Saints and their visiting guests had access to the house and its grounds, so on top of the tours, she’s hosted teas and charity events.
INSIDER TIPVisits to the excellent Plantation House library can also be arranged through the tourism office. The fee includes a cup of famous Saint Helena coffee.
Take a Selfie With a Tortoise
While it looks like a lawn, the grassy stretch in front of Plantation House is actually a paddock for an unusual group of animals. Jonathon, the oldest animal in the world at 187, is one of four giant tortoises who live at Plantation House. Jonathon’s sex life recently made the international news when his paramour of 26 years, Frederica was revealed to maybe be Fredrick. But considering Jonathon has long since lost both his sense of smell and sight, the fact he’s getting it on at all is impressive.
Explore a Fortification
WHERE: High Knoll Fort
Set above Half Tree Hollow and with 360-degree views of the island and the ocean beyond, High Knoll Fort offers some of the best views on the island. Built in 1790 and expanded by the Royal Engineers 100 years later, the fort was designed as a redoubt to hold the island’s entire population in times of strife. Although it has quarters with small fireplaces and was protected by a moat and drawbridge, the fort was never required to shelter the population. Instead, it has housed prisoners of war and quarantined animals. More recently has been the site of a music festival and other events.
Picnic Like a Local
WHERE: Lemon Valley Bay
Once a fortified quarantine station for incoming liberated Africans, Lemon Valley Bay is now one of the most striking picnicking and snorkeling sites on the island. Accessible by boat, or by a steep 1.5-mile hiking trail from Rosemary Plain, the bay looks like much of the island with steep-sided volcanic cliffs protected by cannons and fortifications. The difference here is a well-built trail snaking up the cliff makes easy to explore. A bar-b-que area and dock—which invites you to dive into the crystal clear water and swim with the endemic fish—complete the intriguing site.
INSIDER TIPBring water and snacks—nothing is available on site.
Be Amazed by the Geology
WHERE: Sandy Bay
After driving along winding forest road from the fertile island center, the first view of Sandy Bay is a dramatic one. The black sand bay is edged by naked cliffs studded with rare green-grey rock promontories known as Lot, Lot’s Wife, and the Asses Ears. Some of the island’s earliest fortifications were built here. Look for the gun batteries on the outer bay then explore the extensive curtain wall spanning the beach. Keep in mind that while the blue waters off the popular picnicking spot look inviting, a dangerous undertow makes it unsuitable for swimming (other than for the turtles which lay their eggs in the sand).
INSIDER TIPA rugged hike along the cliffs leads to a popular swimming hole called Lot’s Wife’s Ponds which is safe for a dip.
Is This the World’s Most Beautiful Airport?
WHERE: Saint Helena Airport
The architectural wonder of Saint Helena Airport was only built after literally moving a mountain of over 10 million cubic yards of rock, filling in a valley, and using up £285m of United Kingdom government funding. Because the remote 10 by five-mile island has virtually no flat space it took almost 75 years for the airport to go from idea to reality. Even now, the airport isn’t without controversy. The South Atlantic trade winds hit the King and Queen Rock promontories at the end of the runway, occasionally creating the conditions which forced the island to source a plane capable of landing at the technical airport.
Head Beneath the Waves
WHERE: The Papanui
The 131-meter SS Papanui had just passed Saint Helena when fire broke out in her coal bunker. Returning to Jamestown, she made it just in time to unload the 484 aboard before a boiler exploded. She soon sank in 13 meters. There are many things that make diving to the SS Papanui memorable; it’s visible from shore in warm clear water, the ship’s history is well documented, and it is home to many endemic species. It’s also just one of eight protected wreck sites accessible to divers who come for the island’s pristine conditions and abundant sea life, which includes a thriving whale shark population.
INSIDER TIPThere are several sites where visitors can explore on their own with snorkel gear but to see whale sharks or to SCUBA dive, you need to go with a Saint Helena guide.
Meander Through History
WHERE: St Paul’s Cathedral
A simple Gothic building in the early English style, St Paul’s Cathedral was built in 1850 using stone carved in London and brought as ballast on sailing ships. Inside the church are memorials from two earlier churches, while the haphazard burial grounds contain the wide range of people who found themselves on Saint Helena through the years. Grave memorials include those for past governors, original settlers, two of prisoner Prince Dinzulu’s children, and the newly reburied remains of liberated African slaves who were found in an unmarked site during the construction of a power plant. An estimated 8,000 liberated Africans are buried in unmarked graves on the island. They were some of the approximately 30,000 refugees released on Saint Helena after England abolished the slave trade.
Stroll Along the Waterfront
WHERE: The East India Company Wharf
Considered one of the best examples of an East India Company Wharf left in existence, in its heyday it’s said that at least ships a day called at the Jamestown Wharf for water and provisions. These days, with the Royal Mail Ship retired and the wharfing activities moved to Rupert’s Bay, the historic waterfront is undergoing a transformation, making it a gathering spot for locals and tourists. With historic buildings built into the cliff sides, a wide promenade, and easy access to the water, the waterfront sees use as a festival site and as a pleasant spot for watching the sunset.
INSIDER TIPAt the far end of the wharf are the ropes visitors used to swing ashore. Give them a try and mimic the arrival of Napoleon, Darwin, Chief Dinizulu, the Sultan of Zanzibar as well as members of British Royalty.
Dip Into History
WHERE: Museum of Saint Helena, Jamestown
Thanks to an active historical society, the rich history of Saint Helena is on display at the Museum of Saint Helena. With a wide range of temporary and permanent exhibits, visitors can see artifacts including the telescope Napoleon borrowed for use while on the island, handmade tools and carvings from the Boer War prisoners, and displays that focus on items from archaeological digs around the island.
Climb Jacob’s Ladder
The steep, 699-step stairway from Jamestown up to Half Tree Hollow may seem daunting, but as impossible as it seems, soldiers originally got up and down the slope by rope ladder. The stairs, which are each 11 inches high by 11 inches wide (typical stairs are seven inches high), have long been used by Saints to get around the island. School children developed a terrifying-to-see method of sliding down the rails by slinging their knees over one rail and their arms over the other. Climbing Jacob’s Ladder is a must for most visitors, but those who really want to go all-out can join one of the races. The current record to beat is 5 minutes, 16.78 seconds to clear the 699th step.
INSIDER TIPPop into the museum and pick up your certificate to prove you made the climb.