Saint Helena (island)

The port at Jamestown

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.

Because of this extreme isolation, Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled here from Oct 1815 until his death on 5 May 1821.

It is the most populous of the United Kingdom's territories in the South Atlantic with a population of 4,255 at the last census in 2006.

Main Street of Jamestown is described as one of the best examples of unspoilt Georgian architecture anywhere in the world and the whole island has been officially proposed to the UK government as a mixed World Heritage site.

Jamestown from above

Understand

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 grave site 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 about two months, and lived the rest of his life in a 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 marvellous land tortoises on the grounds, including one purported to be the oldest living vertebrate in the world.

Napoleon's place of exile

The flora and fauna of the island are marvellous. 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: between two and three inches long. The species was made extinct by researchers who collected them all. The second species is a happier story: although 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.

Orientation

Jamestown is the capital and main town of Saint Helena. It is located in a narrow valley between steep 500 ft (150 m) cliffs which mean that it is quite a struggle to climb out of this V-shaped slot onto the surrounding plateau by any of the three access paths. All visitors to Saint Helena arrive at "The Wharf" in Jamestown. There is pretty much only a single road about one mile long.

The Tourist Office is in a quaint building with a beautiful bow window at the top of Main Street where it branches into Napoleon and Market Streets. Staff there can help you book tours and give you all kinds of advice about what to see and do on the island.

Official island tourism information can be obtained from: St. Helena Tourism

The tourist office's telephone is +290 2158.

Get in

By plane

From Britain, it is possible to catch a charter flight from RAF Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire to Ascension Island and pick up the RMS St Helena from there for a three-day journey to Jamestown, or via Cape Town, South Africa. Travelling via Ascension Island is usually possible a couple times a month and via Cape Town once a month or so based on the RMS St Helena's schedule.

Saint Helena's own airport in the east of the island is scheduled to open in May 2016 with flights from Johannesburg. Progress regarding the airport can be found here.

By boat

One of two ocean-going vessels in the world still to proudly carry both the venerable title of Royal Mail Ship and the mail to go with it, RMS St Helena does regular round-trips from Cape Town to St Helena. It also makes frequent trips to Ascension Island. Direct trips by sea from the UK are no longer possible; the ship last set sail from Portland, Dorset, on 14 Oct 2011. The ship itself, however, is a fantastic experience. Filled with the locals travelling 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!

Get around

By bus

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, usually 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 available in Jamestown (the rank is behind the Tourist Information Office).

By car

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 signs in Saint Helena resemble those of the United Kingdom.

By foot

"The Barn"

Walking is wonderful, but mostly in the highlands in the centre 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 Francis 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, 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 pavements. 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.

Talk

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.

See

Jamestown

Longwood

Central Island

Southern Island

Do

Buy

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 the island museum.

The St Helena Distillery makes a range of local spirits that can be purchased in several of the shops in town. Of particular note are Tungi, a high-proof liquor made from local cactus, and Midnight Mist, a liquer made from the highly regarded Saint Helena coffee.

Locally-produced items include woodwork, fine lace, jewellery and items woven from flax, which grows all around the island. A wide range can be purchaed at the Arts & Craft Centre in The Canister building, next door to the Tourist Office.

Purchases are made in Saint Helena Pounds. The Saint Helena Pound is held at parity with the British pound sterling and British currency can be used interchangeably on the island. Some shops may also accept US Dollars and Euros.

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.

Eat

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. The availability of vegetables and salad is improving, but is still very seasonal. Fruit is generally only available in the days immediately following the RMS St Helena boat visits (apart from bananas, which are available more frequently as they are grown on the island). Don't worry though, you will be able to find a wide assortment of food in various small grocery stores in town and a nice butcher shop. The main local fish on sale is tuna (a wonderful, deep red tuna) and Wahoo. "Pilau" (pronounced "ploe") is a speciality of the island. It is "peasant food" in the best sense. A combination of rice, bacon and other ingredients, it is delicious and greasy.

Drink

Lot and Lot's Wife

All these are in Jamestown:

Out of Jamestown:

Sleep

Work

It is illegal to do paid work on St. Helena unless you have a work permit or are employed by the UK or Saint 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 St Helena, in the Falklands, or on Ascension. This is mainly to get a higher income.

Stay safe

This 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. Law, order and security on the island is provided by the St. Helena Police Service.

Summer heat provides the only common safety issue. Take a bottle of water if climbing Jacob's Ladder or doing a walking tour. Plan in advance as 24-hour shops do not exist and little is open on a Sunday.

Traffic is limited to 20 mph in the entire Jamestown area, so road accidents are also rare and rarely cause injuries.

Rockfalls can occur, due to the steep sided valley in which Jamestown sits. A catch-fencing scheme has been implemented but is not expected to stop all rockfalls. No practicable avoidance measures are possible.

Stay healthy

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.

Respect

Most Saints 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.

Connect

There is no mobile phone 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 the 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 sells stamps from Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan.

For Emergencies call 999 for the Police.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Saturday, March 19, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.