We all want to escape the modern world for a little bit, but finding those true 'away from it all destinations' isn't easy. Look no further than the tiny island of St Helena...
Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to St Helena for six years, but even 200 years ago, the island wasn't much of a punishment. After all, Bonaparte would have found lungfuls of fresh South Atlantic air on dramatic coastal hikes; dolphins and whales cavorting offshore; and some of the most breathtaking night-time stars and galaxies. Today, for the same reasons St Helena made a great space of isolation for Bonaparte, it makes a great destination for those seeking a little peace and quiet.
On St Helena, it’s positively advantageous to be 1950km from the nearest mainland in Africa because visitors have little choice but to surrender to the island’s mellow pace of life. During both my previous visits I barely used my smartphone. I felt fit from hiking wild trails; never once experienced a traffic jam; ate fresh local produce (okay, a few too many chips); and felt uplifted by the rich marine-life of the surrounding sea. Sounds appealing? Here are eight other reasons St Helena is the ultimate escape from the pace of modern life…
Some people collect stamps, others coins, but for those with a more physical disposition, how about ticking-off St Helena’s Post-Box walks? Twenty-one of these hikes capture the scenic wonders of St Helena. They end with a ‘post-box’ where participants can stamp a souvenir book to show they’ve completed the walk. Ranging from 1.5-to-12kilometers in length, they take in many of the island’s most stunning locations. The walk to Blue Point through the ‘Gates of Chaos’ is a dramatic coastal promontory that literally blew me away – both emotionally and physically as it was windy. The toughest is arguably a magnificent 10.5km yomp along a steep falling ridge to The Barn. An easier jaunt to the Heart-Shaped Waterfall takes hikers to one of St Helena’s most iconic beauty spots.
Setting foot in the charmingly old-fashioned capital Jamestown will feel like arriving in a country village. The local Saints have time to stop and chat, and the pace of life is sedate. A perfect day might start with a promenade along James Bay’s bracing seafront before tracing the jacaranda trees up the high street to explore the town’s 500 years of history in the museum. There are also 17th-century castle gardens to stroll. After lunch, walk to Munden’s Battery for far-reaching ocean views from the Victorian gun emplacement. Then maybe try Cordon Bleu cooking at the Mantis Hotel — the island’s abundant tuna is delicious — before ending a stress-free day with a nightcap of locally-distilled White Lion rum in one of Jamestown’s traditional pubs.
Stargazing requires dark skies for the full magisterial sweep of the heavens above. With so little light pollution on St Helena due to the tiny population of 4,500, the Southern Hemisphere’s night time sky can be dazzling. And don’t just take my word for that. Sir Edmund Halley, Britain’s foremost astronomer, came here to stargaze for a couple of years between 1667-8 and built an observatory, the foundations of which can still be seen today. A recent visiting astronomer, Bob Bower, commented ‘the Milky Way is so good it can be mistaken for a cloud’.
Coffee-aficionados should purr at the prospect of savouring one of the world’s rarest coffees. It’s so precious that the island’s main producer of Yemeni Bourbon Arabica beans, Jill and Bill Bolton of Rosemary Gate Plantation, have supplied Harrods of London. Coffee arrived here in 1732 courtesy of the East India Company and the strand’s genetic stock has survived more-or-less unadulterated. Napoleon was reputedly partial to it, so it’s remarkable today you can still enjoy pretty much the same flavoursome taste at the Bolton’s seafront coffee-shop in Jamestown.
St Helena’s slow evolution from the now extinct 14 million-year-old volcano has sculpted vertiginous cliffs that make for some dramatic coastal hikes. The route that personifies this breathtaking yet cataclysmic geological origin is a hike to Lot’s Wife’s Ponds from Sandy Bay. A gritty trail wends through a contorted lunar landscape, skirting pillars of volcanic pipes alternating between friable salmon-pink cliffs and jet-black lava intrusions. For a touch of theatre, it ends with hikers scrambling down a rope onto a wave-cut lava platform filled by natural turquoise rock-pools that can be swam in if the tide is waning.
Why bother flying when you have no real predators? That thought sprang to my mind when I first spotted St Helena’s endemic wirebird near Prosperous Plain. They do actually fly though, like all plovers, and have attained their name on account of their spindly thin legs. It’s a joy to watch them, particularly during chick-rearing season when the clever adults stagger around feigning injury to lure perceived predators away from their ground nests. They are not alone among island endemics. I am yet to see a spikey yellow woodlice but did see my first tiny endemic blushing snail in the Central Peaks cloud forest.
Centuries of settlers from all corners of the globe have deposited an exotic menagerie of flora on St Helena. They have also wrought deforestation, which means much of the island’s rarest flora, including dozens of endemic trees, flowering plants, ferns and grasses have been left teetering on extinction. Turning the tide is an inspiring project of hope that is well worth a visit. The Millennium Forest has been planted by the St Helena National Trust to nurture these threatened species. The planting includes rare endemic gumwoods, while the extremely threatened St Helena rosemary plant is also beginning to thrive. To get an idea how beautiful the native flora looks in its original forest setting, try hiking to Diana’s Peak where amid swirling mists all manner of endemics flourish, including a rare ebony once though extinct but rediscovered in 1980.
A few years back before the airport’s arrival, the biggest maritime adventure was simply getting to St Helena by its old Royal Mail ship. Nowadays St Helena has a burgeoning reputation for marine activities. Even the most confirmed landlubbers will be wowed by huge pods of dolphins racing the boat and spiralling clean out the ocean. The cetaceans get larger in August and September when humpback whales inhabit the coastal waters, often with calves in tow. Undersea activities are flourishing with dive highlights including encounters with graceful Devil’s rays and shipwreck exploration of likes of the Darkdale sank by a German U-boat in WWII. Wannabe divers can now obtain PADI qualification on short training courses. The biggest buzz, however, surrounds fantastic snorkelling opportunities with majestic whale-sharks; floating above them as they feed in slow-motion in the clear cobalt-blue Atlantic between January-March.
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