St Helena, Atlantic
UPDATE: the airport has finally become operational in October 2017 ... AND: I've booked a trip for this summer! So from August 2018 you can expect an all new chapter (replacing the now outdated text below) about this exotic destination with several separate subchapters. Finally this alluring island destination will get the detailed treatment it deserves. Very much looking forward to it. Can't wait to go ...
A very remote island in the middle of the South Atlantic
, a British Overseas territory, in fact one of the most isolated spots on Earth, more
than 1200 miles (2000 km) from the nearest mainland (in Africa, roughly where the border between Namibia and Angola lies).
The island is most notorious as the place where Napoleon
died in exile in 1821. There have long been rumours that he may have died of poisoning, which enhances the dark element of the place ... even though it now seems widely accepted that the original autopsy, according to which Napoleon died of stomach cancer, was correct. In any case, the house in which he died, Longwood House, on a plain some four miles south-east of the island's capital Jamestown, can be visited by tourists and/or Napoleon pilgrims.
The house, which had been handed over to French government, has been faithfully restored (though today little is original) and contains a museum. Visits have to be booked in advance, tours are normally scheduled for weekdays at 11 a.m. Tours can also include a visit to the initial grave that Napoleon was buried in until his body was transferred back home to France
to be placed in a pompous representational tomb at Paris
's Les Invalides complex (see Army Museum
Other than that, there's a shipwreck and a former Boer POW camp that add further dark elements to the place, but mainly it's the extreme isolation and raw nature that make it an attractive place – often described as the world's best kept travel secret.
This may change when the the new airport currently under construction is finished. There had long been talk about building an airport to serve the island, and now, finally, it is actually happeneng. It will still be a couple of years until it is operational, though, so for the time being the "directions" below still apply. [UPDATE: this has changed now, since the airport finally opened in late 2017! The boat voyages were consequently soon to be a thing of the past .. and meanwhile that has happened, the final crossing was in early 2018.]
Getting there has long been the greatest adventure involved in visiting this island. The only regular way of getting to the island is quite an oddity in itself: taking the RMS St Helena, one of the last few remaining Royal Mail ship in operation. This ship also takes supplies to the island. So it's a combined cargo and passenger vessel. Up to October 2011 the ship used to sail all the way from Portland, Great Britain
, which took more than two weeks before arriving at the island. This long voyage has now been discontinued. Today you first have to get yourself to Cape Town
, South Africa
, and take the boat from there. That takes considerably less time than the long sailing from the British homeland used to (that took over two weeks), but still something like four or five days. There are also various organized package schedules on offer that include use of the RMS Helena and some time on the island, some with a focus on particular themes (history, bird-watching, star gazing …). Once the new airport is finished, this old-fashioned way of travel to the island is likely to be discontinued. In a way that will be a shame. On the other hand it will make it much easier to get to this intriguing destination. For now, the voyages scheduled on the ship's official website go as far as summer 2016. So if you want to experience this special sea trip, get planning soon. [UPDATE: the ship's services have now been discontinued!]
Predictably, it's not a particularly cheap destination, but not necessarily as totally unaffordable as one might think: in budget accommodation on board (in multi-berth inside cabins) on the HMS St Helena prices start at ca. 400GBP, in better cabin classes prices go up steeply, up to nearly 2000 GBP. That's per person for the return journey inclusive of full-board service (excluding drinks), but expenses for time spent on St Helena, as well as flights to/from Cape Town and extra expenses in that city come on top. Themed packages that include all kinds of activities and expert guides naturally don't come cheap either.
Some voyages continue on to another, perhaps even more exotically remote Atlantic
island: Ascension Island (basically a military base), which takes another few days to reach from St. Helena.
One fittingly exotic alternative way of getting to St Helena from the UK is to first fly
to Ascension island, namely by RAF plane from Brize Norton airbase on one of the ca. twice weekly military supply services that refuel on Ascension en route to the Falklands
. They offer a limited number of seats to civilians (but note that any proper stop-over on Ascension itself must be applied for and officially approved in advance). And then you could catch the RMS St Helena from there, if you time it right! It won't save you money, though, as those RAF flights are actually more expensive (namely ca. 580GBP one way) than most regular civilian scheduled flights to Cape Town
. In any case, you need to plan ahead accurately! (See rms-st-helena.com for more info and schedules.) [UPDATE: it's all over, the final voyage took place in January/February 2018!]
The only other alternative, and these days actually the most common way of tourists coming to St Helena, is as part of a cruise. A handful of Atlantic cruises (also on the fabled Queen Mary II) include stopovers on St Helena, but only for between 5 and 10 hours – that's also the only time when it gets crowded on the island.
If you don't want any of those options, you will need your own ocean-worthy yacht … and plenty, plenty of time.
I did mention it's remote, didn't I?
Well, once scheduled flights do become available in a couple of years time when the new airport is finished this extreme remoteness will be somewhat alleviated. I hope I'll be one day lucky enough to be able to make this trip. St Helena has had an almost mystical allure for me since childhood.