“St. Helena. Small Island.” In 1785, when Napoleon Bonaparte was still a student, he scribbled these words on the last page of his geography book. And oh, the irony: 30 years later the deposed French emperor was exiled (and later, died) on this remote British outpost in the Atlantic Ocean.
Yet even today, few people know anything about the place, or even where it is. But that’s changing because, in October 2017, St. Helena welcomed its first commercial flight. Previously only accessible via a five-day trip on the RMS St. Helena, the 47-square-mile island can now be reached by a four-hour flight from South Africa.
Accessibility hasn’t come easily. The inaugural flight was delayed for over a year due to dangerous wind conditions. The headlines weren’t kind: the British press dubbed it “the world’s most useless airport.” Even though downgrading to smaller planes and training pilots intensively for eight months solved the issue, the airport has struggled to shrug off its shaky start. Currently, only nine pilots in the world are qualified to fly into St. Helena. “It’s classed as a Category C airport—the toughest tier,” says Jaco Henning, the South African pilot who landed that maiden flight.
From British port to sleepy backwater
About the size of Nantucket, some 1,200 miles from the Angolan coast, St. Helena—surprisingly—used to draw many visitors. Naturalist Charles Darwin, explorer Captain James Cook, novelist William Thackeray, and astronomer Edmond Halley all stayed here.
A swimming pool in Jamestown draws “Saints,” aka St. Helena residents.
And Napoleon’s future war foe, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, made a memorable visit in 1805 as he returned to England from India. “The boat taking him ashore capsized in the rough seas. Three people drowned,” says octogenarian local tour guide Basil George, as we stroll around the docks of the capital city, Jamestown. “Wellington couldn’t swim, but a young boy came to his rescue. If he hadn’t, the Battle of Waterloo might never have happened!”
Now, the island’s own fate is changing. “Before the Suez Canal, 30 ships a day docked here,” says George. Trade had been booming since 1657, when Oliver Cromwell granted the East India Company a charter to govern the island. A small platoon and a gaggle of planters arrived—making St. Helena one of Britain’s oldest colonies. And with riches from the passing trade from India, they built a fort, castle, St. James’ Church, and Plantation House. Merchants such as Solomons and Thorpes—both of which still operate stores in Jamestown—set up shop in the 1790s.
But when the island passed from the East India Company to the British Crown in 1833, “we became poor,” says George, and things got worse in 1869. “The canal took us off the map, and since the collapse of the flax trade in the 1960s—when Royal Mail decided to start using rubber bands instead of twine to tie the post—we’ve been dependent on government aid,” says George. Jobs were so scarce, children were left with their grandparents while their parents sailed to the U.K. to work as domestic staff for rich families.
One of those to experience this was Ivy Robinson, who runs Wellington House B&B in Jamestown. “My sister left when I was four years old, and I didn’t see her again until I was 44,” she says. And many residents still must seek work away from St. Helena. “The island can be a circle of security, or a trap,” says George.
Will the airport open things up?
Residents hope the airport will give younger islanders (known as Saints) a shot at a future that doesn’t force them to leave in search of work. Aaron Legg—a fifth-generation Saint—used to depend on farming, but has diversified to offer 4x4 adventure tours of the island. “I don’t have to wait three weeks for my next client,” he says as we scan the scrub for the endemic wirebird (also known as the St. Helena plover). “The airport also gives me the freedom to travel, without taking too much time away from my business.”
But not everyone is pro airport. In 2002, a referendum was held allowing islanders to vote for or against it. Only half the population turned up, making the win somewhat skewed. The economic crisis hit, funds dried up, and plans were iced until 2012, when ground was broken without a second vote. “I didn’t vote for the airport. I wasn’t sure if we could adapt quickly enough. The younger ones can, but we’re used to a slower pace of life,” says Robinson. She worries that this impingement on their isolation will be detrimental. “We’re so protected here: no crime, no locked doors.”
For others, it’s the airport’s practicality. “It wasn’t built for Saints,” says Vince Thompson, editor of the island’s Independent newspaper. “Seventy-six seats a week will not fulfill our needs.” He’s concerned limited seats means an insufficient influx of tourist funds. Mantis, a newer boutique hotel, has relied on foreign investment, but local B&Bs need visitors first before money can be poured back into upgrading services. Some residents grumble the flights are too expensive.
Hikes, stars, and a very old tortoise
So what can travelers expect? Forget fantasies of white-sand beaches and palm trees. St. Helena stars ocean-carved cliffs, steep rain-cut valleys cloaked in vast fields of flax, and lush fern-filled forests lapped by swirling tidal mists. And the sand spread along the curve of Sandy Bay is black.
The island seems rigged for adventure. Thirty species of endemic fish wiggle in its waters, and, from January to March, so do whale sharks. Naturalists can go nose to nose with the world’s oldest living animal, Jonathan the Giant Tortoise (hatched around 1832) at Plantation House, and spot endemic species such as the wirebird and miniature blushing snail.
You can sip the world’s most-remote coffee, down a dram of Tungi (prickly pear-cactus spirit), and munch on fishcakes or bread ‘n’ dance (tomato paste sandwiches). And, come nightfall, tip your head back to gaze at very twinkly skies. The island is awaiting official Dark Sky Association recognition. “We’re unique because from here you can see both the Southern Cross and the Plough,” says Thompson.
Hiking may be the island’s biggest draw. The headliner? The soaring 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder, which scale the steep valley protecting Jamestown. “Have you climbed it yet?” asks Val Joshua, who is taking me for a hike up to Diana’s Peak. Joshua helped grade the 20-plus trails around the island and has calves as tight as fists. Indeed, it turns out locals are too fit: the paths are being reclassified to allow travelers lacking the mountain-goat gene a fair chance.
In search of Napoleon
History buffs can dig into Napoleon’s past by touring Longwood House, where he lived from 1815 until his death in 1821. Highlights include a copper bathtub where the “little corporal” spent hours reading and composing his memoirs as well as the peepholes he had carved in the window shutters, the better to spy on his guards outside. The tomb where his body was interred until 1840 is less than two miles away, too. (Napoleon’s remains were relocated to Paris in 1840; read here about the long, strange trip of Napoleon’s body).
An idyllic and isolated island
Against this ruggedness and history, island life is a calm succession of days where locals still barter pumpkins for chickens; mobile-phone coverage was only rolled out in 2015; and the two traffic circles “haven’t quite been mastered yet,” says Stephen Biggs, owner of Farm Lodge Country House B&B. With only around 4,500 islanders, family is, literally, everything. “Everyone’s an auntie and uncle—even if they’re not!” laughs resident Matt Joshua. So it’s first names only on the island radio. Indeed, on my second day, as I’m wandering around Jamestown taking photos, a woman crosses my camera shutter. “Can I have a copy? My name’s Molly,” she smiles, as if that’s all the information I'd need to pass it along.
Remoteness does come with challenges: It’s hard to find some cooking ingredients, and internet and mobile phone coverage can be spotty. But isolation is also St. Helena’s appeal. Stranded both digitally and geographically, you slip back into a slower gear and return to simple pleasures. Locals greet you in the street or wave to you when passing on the roads (regardless of whether they know you). There are pockets of prolonged silence, and you find yourself playing board games beside roaring fires.
More change is coming
Travelers should grab this chance of a digital detox. Snaking beneath the ocean is a branch of the South Atlantic Express submarine fiber-optic cable—connecting South Africa to the U.S. East Coast—which will arrive soon and end St. Helena’s digital isolation. “It’ll have a much bigger effect than the airport,” says Helena Bennett, director of tourism.
The RMS St. Helena was retired in 2018. Cargo ships still come, but the age of travelers glimpsing this halo of rock from the water is over. Does arriving by air change the experience? Rainer Schimpf, a South Africa-based dive operator hoping to lead expeditions here, has tried both. “People loved the RMS because it was like stepping back in time—you’d expect to see Humphrey Bogart in the corridors. By the time you arrived, you were friends with everyone and knew all about the island. I was expecting the plane to be different, but there were still lots of conversations being held back and forth across the aisle—it’s not like a normal flight.”
The airport may be a real solution to ending the island’s economic dependency, but tourism can only be sustainable when visitors arrive weekly instead of once a month. Wanted or not, change is—literally—winging its way to St. Helena.
- Nat Geo Expeditions