From what to eat to where to stay and cultural experiences to how to get around, here’s our guide to the Atlantic isle of St Helena…
Please note, due to the coronavirus pandemic, commercial flights are not currently operating to St Helena. You can stay up to date with the latest travel restrictions in St Helena here. Once travel restrictions have been lifted, to get to St Helena you will need to fly via Johannesburg, where Airlink operates a flight to St Helena every Saturday. Additional mid-week flights operate seasonally from Cape Town between November and February. Please note, due to the coronavirus pandemic, commercial flights are not currently operating to St Helena.
Hiring a car is the best way to get around St Helena. Traffic drives on the left hand side and visitors can use an overseas driving licence for up to three months. It’s highly recommended you book a hire car in advance. Taxis are another option and good value.
Despite St Helena lying within the tropics, the south-east trade winds make the island’s weather mild and often unpredictable. Temperatures can vary across the island; Jamestown can experience temperatures from 14°C to 32°C, while the forested, mountainous interior can witness the mercury flicker between 8°C and 26°C. As a rule of thumb, St Helena’s hottest months are from January to March and its wettest from late March to early May.
At 189 years old, Jonathan the giant tortoise is St Helena’s oldest resident by far and the oldest known living reptile in the world. He can be found patrolling the manicured lawns of Plantation House, the residence of the island’s governor. A tour of the mansion and its grounds will afford you the chance to get up close and personal with this ancient and iconic beast.
St Helena’s capital and the only ‘true’ town on the island, Jamestown was founded in 1659 by the English East India Company. Named after James II (who was the Duke of York at the time), many of the original buildings are still standing today – all were constructed from the local volcanic rock which dramatically wedges the town in a deep valley. A stroll along Main Street, described by many as one of the best examples of unspoilt Georgian architecture anywhere in the world, is like spending time in an open-air museum; its pièce de résistance is St. James’ Church, built in 1774 and the oldest Anglican church in the southern hemisphere.
St Helena’s rugged terrain makes it ideal for hiking and there are 21 marked Post Box walks veining the island. One of them, the closest to the capital Jamestown, is a 1.5km route to Drummond’s Point, where you can witness a 90m-high cascade tumbling down a heart-shaped rock face. Unsurprisingly considering its incredible shape, it’s also labelled as one of St Helena’s seven wonders.
It might be 200 years since the death of St Helena’s most famous resident, but Napoleon Bonaparte’s legacy can still be keenly felt across the island. A trio of sites can be visited today, starting with Briars, a small pavilion in a lush rose-flecked valley where he spent his first few weeks on the island. Located in the island’s emerald highlands, Longwood House was where Napoleon spent the majority of his time in St Helena and much of the furniture that remains – including his own bed – date back to Napoleon’s lifetime. After his death, he was buried in the tranquil Sane Valley, where his tomb remains to this day. Even though it has long been exhumed (his body was taken back to France), both his tomb and Longwood House are moving places to visit.
Charting St Helena’s history from when the first Portuguese vessels landed on its rocky shores in the 1500s, the island’s museum paints a comprehensive picture of its past. Prepare to be surprised by the breadth of things on show, from exhibits charting the island’s many shipwrecks to a model of the more successful vessel RMS St Helena, a Royal Mail ship which was the only way to reach the island prior to its airport opening in 2017. Learn about St Helena’s Boer War history, numerous royal visits and even when termites, accidentally brought to the island aboard a Brazilian ship, forced many of the island’s buildings to be rebuilt in the 19th century after they wreaked havoc among their timber structures.
St Helena may be a British overseas territory, but on Carnival day it’s more like being in Rio de Janeiro. Held every two years (typically during October), the sleepy capital of Jamestown is transformed into a giant, vibrant party where the main street is filled with colourful and elaborate floats and locals (known as Saints) follow alongside dressed in their most flamboyant costumes. As well as being caught up in the festivities, the Carnival gives you a chance to try the staple cuisine, with steaming food like plo (a one-pot curried rice dish) and a Saint Curry served from streetside stalls.
The highest point in St Helena, Diana’s Peak (823m) is well worth hiking up just for the panoramic island views it affords at its summit. A 3.8km-long trail, one of the island’s Post Box Walks, is your route to the top and as you ascend you’ll pass over 60 endemic species of flora and myriad invertebrates, including the pink blushing snails which can be spotted in the black cabbage trees. However, Diana’s Peak isn’t alone: along with Mount Actaeon and Cuckold’s Point it’s one of three pinnacles that are all part of the same mountain range and you’ll top all three on the walk. Make sure you pause at each one to soak up the 360-degree vista over St Helena’s entirety.
St Helena’s historic relationship with the ocean has more readily been associated with the shipwrecks which have sunk close to its shores. Nowadays, the island’s coastline is better known for its rich marine life and encounters with whale sharks are one of the most memorable experiences you can have in its waters. These gentle giants visit St Helena between December and March every year and it’s the only known place in the world where both males and females arrive in equal numbers – ostensibly to mate. Over 30 different whale sharks have been spotted in a single day and a whale shark safari with a local tour operator is your ticket to a nose-to-fin swim with these beautiful beasts.
The 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder are all that’s left of a 19th-century cable railway which once connected Jamestown with Half Tree Hollow but the steep staircase that remains has arguably become St Helena’s most iconic landmark. It certainly looks forbidding from the bottom but the lung-burning climb is certainly worth it for the epic panoramas at the top; the steps may not take you to heaven like its biblical namesake but the natural drama that awaits is just as good. Remember to buy a certificate commemorating your feat in the Museum of St Helena at the foot of the 180m-high stairway.
The East India Company first brought green-tipped Bourbon Arabica coffee seeds over from Yemen to St Helena in 1733. Ever since, it has spawned a love affair with coffee that has led to St Helena producing one of the most expensive and exclusive cuppas anywhere in the world; in the UK, it can only be bought from Harrods. Join a tour of one of the many coffee plantations which dot the island to discover why a cup of St Helena’s finest was Napoleon’s most beloved brew.
Being an island, it’s not surprising that fishing is one of the locals’ favourite pastimes. From groupers to wahoos and dorados, there are plenty of species to catch on a fishing trip either from boats or the coastline. Even though Saints have a particular weakness for tuna, they were wise enough to protect its future by also introducing a special fishing zone in 2017 where tuna can only be caught one fish at a time. After your fishing trip, make sure to try the island’s celebrated fishcakes, made from the same tuna you’ve been catching hours earlier.
Established in 2006 by Welsh distiller Paul Hickling, the St Helena Distillery is more than just the world’s most remote distillery – a visit here is to get a taste of the island itself. Its most well-known – and best-loved by the locals – product is the White Lion spiced rum, named after St Helena’s most famous shipwreck, a Dutch East India Company vessel which sunk in the 17th century. Paul’s other creations are all inspired by produce found on the island: Tungi is a spirit made from wild prickly pears, Jamestown Gin from the rare Bermuda juniper and his Midnight Mist coffee liqueur is born out of St Helena’s plantations.
Nestled within leafy countryside, Harkate Guest House has two modern self-catering apartments overlooking woodland, cows grazing in meadows and the historic High Knoll Fort, while Napoleon’s Tomb is only a short walk away.
A comfortable and contemporary bed and breakfast found in the heart of Jamestown, it’s all about the personal touch at Richards Travel Lodge. A good night’s sleep is guaranteed, but owners Derek and Linda go the extra mile; you can enjoy exploring the island that little bit more if you have a homemade packed lunch in your bag or will have a tasty meal awaiting you in the evening on your return.
Please note that due to Covid-19, St Helena is not currently open to travellers. Keep an eye on the official website for St Helena to stay up to date with the island's latest Covid-19 travel restrictions.
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