By sea, it takes five long days to reach the rugged coast of tiny St. Helena. Until the first aircraft landed on the island in 2015, traveling by boat was the only way to reach this remote place, which is about 2,000 miles northwest of South Africa. The quaint British Overseas Territory is best-known as the place where Napoleon was exiled, so those few willing to board a British Royal Mail ship to make the journey were mainly intrepid history buffs.
But “Saints” (as the locals call it) is more than just a relic of the past. In October 2017, the St. Helena Airport opened to commercial flights, reducing the trip to a mere six-hour flight from Johannesburg. Suddenly, this less-traveled tropical island, home to around 4,500 people, is set to welcome an estimated 30,000 visitors per year. (According to government estimates, there was a 50 percent increase in arrivals on the island between October 2017 and February 2018, compared to the numbers during the same months of the previous year.)
There’s currently only one flight to and from the island each week, arriving and leaving every Saturday, so travelers have at least seven days to explore. (However, the government recently announced a new flight on Tuesdays starting December 2018.) Because the tourism industry is just starting to ramp up, visiting with a tour outfitter is still the best way to find local experiences on the island. (Or, make it a two-for-one trip; many companies, like Cox & Kings, offer St. Helena extensions to South African safaris.) St. Helena enjoys a subtropical climate, so the best time to visit is during its summer, from November to March.
By far, the most popular attraction on the island is Napoleon’s old residence, the Longwood House. Wander through his home—now a museum owned by the French government—viewing some of his furniture, including the bed where he died, then head to the lonely Sane Valley for a stop at Napoleon’s Tomb, the infamous emperor’s original burial site. (His remains were later moved to a crypt under the dome of Les Invalides in Paris.)
The waters around St. Helena are teeming with wildlife, including bottlenose dolphins and whale sharks. Book a tour with Into the Blue or Sub-Tropic Adventures to snorkel with endemic fish, dive with green turtles, swim with whale sharks (from December to March), or watch hundreds of dolphins swim alongside your boat.
Nature lovers can traverse parts of the volcanic coastline and the verdant interior landscapes on 21 “postbox walks”; at the end of each trail is a postbox containing a comment book and a pile of collectible souvenir stamps—leave a comment, take a stamp. The most famous of these walks scales the 699 concrete steps up Jacob’s Ladder, a 600-foot incline overlooking the Georgian buildings of Jamestown and the Atlantic Ocean.
The hike up to Diana’s Peak, the highest point on the island, is a particularly stunning two- to three-hour round-trip trek. St. Helena is home to hundreds of endemic species of flora and fauna, many of which only exist here, so keep your eyes peeled along the way. At the summit, take in the panoramic view, which includes two of the island’s other mountains, Mount Actaeon and Cockhold’s Point.
St. Helena Coffee Shop
Coffee connoisseurs probably already know that St. Helena produces some of the rarest and most expensive coffee beans in the world. (It retails for around $160 per pound.) The local strain, the Green Tipped Bourbon arabica bean, was originally brought from Yemen by the East India Company in 1732. It’s been cultivated here ever since. At St. Helena Coffee Shop, you can get a cup of the complex, delicate brew, which has notes of chocolate and citrus, for just a few St. Helena pounds (US$1 equals about SHP0.74) when you order your full English breakfast.
The quirky, flag-covered decor of this local favorite is as diverse as the island itself. Located just off Main Street in the peaceful Jamestown Castle Gardens, Anne’s Place is a family-run restaurant, like most businesses on St. Helena. Order the island’s most popular dish, St. Helena fish cakes, which are made with tuna, potatoes, and herbs.
Rosie’s Bar and Restaurant
This new restaurant at the top of Ladder Hill offers sweeping views of the ocean. Sip a cocktail on the second-floor veranda, then head to the downstairs restaurant to sample an eclectic menu of freshly caught fish, pastas, burgers, and Asian-inspired dishes.
Where to Stay
The island’s only four-star boutique hotel opened in the heart of Jamestown last year. Built in 1774 as officers’ barracks for the East India Company, the historic brick-and-mud structure has been completely renovated. The original buildings now house three heritage rooms and five heritage suites, and a new addition contains 22 contemporary rooms.
Farm Lodge Country House
Like most buildings on St. Helena, Stephen Biggs and Maureen Jonas’s peaceful garden retreat was designed in the classic Georgian style. Located outside of Jamestown, the five-room Farm Lodge Country House may be reminiscent of your grandmother’s home, but that’s part of the charm. There are no TVs and limited Wi-Fi, so unplug and wander the property’s 10 acres, which include a coffee plantation. You can even take a tour to see some of those famous beans up close; it’s one of the few plantations on the island open for tours on request.
Napoleon’s aide and close friend General Bertrand stayed at this cozy guest cottage, which is within walking distance of Longwood House, during the emperor’s exile on the island. It has since been renovated and turned into a bed-and-breakfast with three rooms, a popular restaurant, and excellent views of St. Helena’s rolling hills and abundant greenery.