I am bobbing along beside a fish bigger than a school bus, ahead lies a boundless sea of marine life, and I have a shark’s-eye view of the southern Atlantic Ocean. This is St Helena, the edge-of-the-world British territory adrift off West Africa, and my adrenaline levels soar as I eyeball an absolutely gargantuan whale shark through my mask. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt edible.
With the recent launch of flights to St Helena from Johannesburg – and later in the year from Cape Town – the island’s spectacular natural flora and fauna has seen it dubbed the Great British Galapagos and climb the list of must-see destinations.
The lush island is home to everything from black-sand beaches and Jurassic-era cloud forests to rolling plantations and twisty roads. On land you can find the world’s oldest giant tortoises (four of them), and at sea you’ll find a pod of 800 dolphins.
Jurassic world: Astronomer Edmond Halley set up a marquee observatory on Diana’s Peak (pictured)
Gorgeous year-round temperatures make the volcanic outpost a far-flung alternative to the Canaries or Cape Verde for winter sun, but there is also as much of the unfamiliar as there is of fish and chips and cheap beer.
Geographically, St Helena is about the size of Jersey and is an island with a split personality. It can’t make up its mind if it’s British or Brazilian, Creole or Caribbean, with a tablespoon of Iceland thrown in.
All of its attributes – tropical, volcanic, mountainous and moonlike – can be found in equal measure. This may explain why Charles Darwin waxed lyrical about St Helena in his memoir The Voyage Of The Beagle, and why astronomer Edmond Halley set up a marquee observatory on Diana’s Peak. With zero light pollution, the skies are a feast of huge, twinkling stars.
PLAN YOUR ROUTE
All roads in St Helena lead to the capital Jamestown (above), set in a deep gorge
Flights are now running to St Helena from Johannesburg – and later in the year from Cape Town
As part of the world’s most remotely inhabited archipelago, St Helena takes time to get to. The new airport was controversially built with £285 million of UK Government funding, but the launch of commercial flights was delayed because of dangerous wind conditions.
Previously, visitors had to take a four-day cruise from Cape Town, but you still need to factor in the best part of two days to get here from the UK – including a stopover in South Africa. Expect spectacular views as you fly in – it’s like landing in Jurassic Park.
The island observes GMT so you don’t have to worry about jet-lag. Scheduled flights land only twice a week, so you’ll have to spend a minimum of four days exploring and shifting down a gear to island pace. By the time you leave, you’ll be treated like a local.
CASH IS KING
British pounds and pence are accepted, but a word of warning for those used to contactless and credit cards. There is no ATM and international credit cards are not used. Indeed, St Helena is a throwback to the early 1960s when cash was king. If you need to withdraw more money, there is a government-owned bank (with a £5 charge per transaction), but the island is cheaper than you might imagine. Think £2 for a beer and £12 for a two-course dinner.
The island is chain-free with no fast-food outlets. Online shopping is big (shipped in from Cape Town). There are little local shops and the odd souvenir outlet, but don’t expect to spend a lot of money.
LOCAL CAR HIRE
The island is decidedly run on first-name terms, so you won’t find Avis or Hertz – instead car hire comes from Brendan or Jeff. Set aside about £20 per day for a shoestring rental (sthelenatourism.com/car-hire). There’s no public transport, but taxis will take you on a tour of the island for about £25.
MEET THE SAINTS
The Saints, as locals call themselves, are a happy crowd, safe in the knowledge they’re 5,000-odd miles removed from Britain’s problems, but they are genuinely pleased you’ve made the effort to come. They’ll bend over backwards to help. The new attorney general, Allen Cansick, pulls pints at The Consulate to help out in the evening and everyone knows the chief of police as David.
If you visit Plantation House (£10), the governor’s official residence, you may get to have afternoon tea with the Queen’s representative. If she’s not at home, befriend Jonathan, the estate’s 187-year-old giant tortoise, who shuffles around the front lawn.
WHERE TO STAY
All roads in St Helena lead to the capital Jamestown, set in a deep gorge. Here, Main Street functions as the island’s emotional barometer. On Monday morning, it is buttoned-down and business-like, but by Friday afternoon, locals and Brit expats are relaxing with a beer outside The Standard, The White Horse and Mule Yard – the town’s three watering holes.
Five minutes away you’ll find The Consulate, a creaky 18th Century colonial bolthole decorated with sea charts, ship’s wheels, portraits of Nelson and enough maritime memorabilia to sink HMS Victory (consulatehotelsainthelena.com).
Nightly entertainment comes from singalongs by the piano, but if you prefer quieter contemplation, head for a seat on the wrought-iron balcony with a G&T.
Main Street in Jamestown, St Helena. On Monday morning, it is buttoned-down and business-like, but by Friday afternoon, locals and Brit expats are relaxing with a beer
Double rooms have period interiors to match the vibe and cost from £200 a night, including breakfast which is reassuringly familiar – eggs, bacon and pots of tea.
For the ultimate in peace and quiet, Bertrand’s Cottage is the former home of Napoleon’s right-hand man, Grand Marshal Henri-Gatien Bertrand (bertrandscottage.com). The French emperor was exiled on St Helena after the Battle of Waterloo, and Bertrand built a lovely retreat across the road from his master’s mansion, Longwood House, which is now a beacon for French history-lovers chasing Napoleon’s ghost (entry £10).
The three snug rooms at Bertrand’s Cottage have splendid views across the island, including to Diana’s Peak, St Helena’s highest point. Rooms cost from £130, including breakfast of French omelette and croissant.
Seafood in St Helena is a big deal. Tuna and wahoo are go-tos and the island’s cuisine is a fusion of trends and recipes from Britain, South East Asia and Africa. The most familiar are sesame-seared tuna or spicy fish cakes, scone-shaped patties of tuna belly and thickly sliced red chilli.
Don’t miss the local black pudding (made from rice instead of grain) and ‘plo’, a one-pot, open-fire cooked curry. Other unusual specialities include tomato paste sandwiches, known as ‘bread ’n’ dance’ for their ubiquitous appearance at carnivals and town hall dances.
For an exceptional experience, eat at the Mantis hotel (mantissthelena.com). Save it for your last night and enjoy delicious smoked tuna pâté and local pork belly.
Over at the world’s remotest distillery, prickly pear liquor is produced by Welsh expat Paul and a tour and tasting costs £5. Then there is the unexpected bounty of chocolatey St Helena coffee. It is made with pure, green-tipped bourbon arabica and can be found in only two places on the planet – at the St Helena Coffee Shop, run by Sheffield couple Bill and Jill, or at Harrods (where it is costs £75 per 100g).
Settled by the East India Company in 1658, and used as the service station of the shipping world for centuries, St Helena is a tried-and-tested survivor. The fortified walls, cannons and moat of Jamestown make it look like an impregnable, ends- of-the-earth castle.
Huff and puff up the 699 stone steps of Jacob’s Ladder, the remains of the company’s cargo-carrying cable railway, and you’ll be rewarded by an explosive sunset. High Knoll Fort, which dates from 1799, is worth a visit, as is the Museum of St Helena (museumofsainthelena.org).
WILDLIFE TOURS AND STARGAZING
Sea giant: St Helena is the only place in the world where male and female whale sharks are spotted in such huge numbers
Exotic: Pictured is a St Helena Waxbill, which is a small passerine bird and one of the island’s distinctive species
Did you know St Helena is the only place in the world where male and female whale sharks are spotted in such huge numbers? In season, from January to late March, it’s not uncommon to see two dozen cavorting in the water as they migrate through the island’s shallow summer waters.
On the way to Flagstaff Bay, you’re also likely to spot the island’s resident 800-strong pod of pantropical dolphins. The cost of a half-day trip is about £20 per person and in a land of spectacular sightings, this is a standout moment (divesainthelena.com).
Skittish wire birds – all silver plumage and cartoon legs – are endemic and nest alongside thronging populations of terns and petrels. Pack your binoculars and be ready to be surprised by a kaleidoscopic bustle of red-billed tropicbirds, noddies, masked boobies and gibbering Indian mynas.
You’ll also get a chance to see the island’s 455 species of invertebrates, including the fairytale-like blushing snail, golden leafhopper and Janich’s fungus weevil.
For anyone wanting to look skywards at night, stargazing tours are available from Derek Richards of Island Images (price on application; islandimages.co.sh).
British Airways (ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Johannesburg from £638 return and to Cape Town from £744 return. Virgin Atlantic has flights to Johannesburg from £609 return. Return Airlink flights between St Helena and Johannesburg (flyairlink.com) cost from £750. A service from Cape Town launches in December.