10 reasons to visit St Helena in 2021

With the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death in 2021, the island of St Helena is the ideal bucket list destination for the coming year.

Published 4 Jan 2021, 15:17 GMT, Updated 2 Jul 2021, 13:17 BST
St Helena is one of the most remote places in the world, offering isolation at its ...

St Helena is one of the most remote places in the world, offering isolation at its most splendid.

Photograph by St Helena Tourism

Billed as the best-kept secret in the South Atlantic, St Helena is a rather unique island, thanks to the contrast of its rugged volcanic landscape set against the quaint trimmings of bygone-era British life. Colonised by the East India Company around 350 years ago, this British Overseas Territory and its historic fort-guarded capital, Jamestown, brims with stories of the traders, prisoners – among them exiled Napoleon Bonaparte – and the slaves that came here. Their descendants, the 4,500 or so hugely welcoming locals, are known affectionately as ‘Saints’. It’s one of the most remote places in the world, offering isolation at its most splendid: a largely wi-fi-free zone where everyone can disconnect, gulp great lungfuls of fresh air and revel in nature at its finest.

1. History and heritage

St Helena may be small, but it’s played a surprising role in history. Naturalist Charles Darwin, explorer Captain James Cook, novelist William Thackeray and astronomer Edmond Halley all visited, but its most famous resident was exiled military leader Napoleon Bonaparte. Longwood House — where he was imprisoned until his death in 1821 (rumour has it on account of the arsenic-laced green wallpaper in the drawing room) — is now a museum, and you can also visit his tomb. Around 6,000 Boer prisoners were also brought here, as well as exiled Dinuzulu, the last king of the Zulus — their stories are told at the Museum of St Helena.

2. Dark skies and starry nights

More than 1,000 miles from land and with just one main town, St Helena has zero light pollution, resulting in exceptional night skies — an uninterrupted dome of bright stars that stretch to the far-off horizon. And because it’s just a thousand miles shy of the Equator, stargazers can also, rather uniquely, see the main constellations of both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. Officials are in the process of applying for official Dark Sky status and locals are training up to lead tours.

3. Food, glorious food

Tuna crops up in everything here, thanks to the rich Atlantic fishing grounds nearby, and a favourite way to eat it is in fishcakes, spiced up in the unique Saint style. They even put them in sandwiches with ketchup. Local specialities also worth working up an appetite for are: plo, a one-pot curry, and coconut fingers, delicate madeira cakes dipped in icing and rolled in coconut. The main crops on the island are pumpkin, sweet potato and banana.

4. Watersports galore

Don a mask and flippers and dive beneath the blue waves of the Atlantic. Between December and May — when visibility is best — the rocky reefs, caves and all eight shipwrecks are humming with life, including 10 endemic species such as the St Helena butterfly fish. There’s also a chance to see devil rays, green and hawksbill turtles, bottlenose and pantropical dolphins, and there are sites suitable for all levels of qualification. Prefer being on the water? Sailing is available, plus the chance to reel in tuna, dorado and even black or blue marlin while fishing.

Jonathan is a 189-year-old Seychelles giant tortoise that resides in the garden of the Governor’s House and is believed to be the world’s oldest living land mammal.

Photograph by St Helena Tourism

5. Creatures great and small

St Helena has been isolated for over 12 million years since it rumbled up from the seabed, giving rise to a veritable Eden of endemic wildlife. From the protected wirebird — named on account of its spindly legs — to 22 species of spider and the tiny blushing snail. However, the island’s star resident is undoubtedly Jonathan, a 189-year-old Seychelles giant tortoise that resides in the garden of the Governor’s House and is believed to be the world’s oldest living land mammal. St Helena’s other big sell is whale sharks. There are less than a dozen places on Earth where it’s possible to swim with these friendly, filter-feeding giants, and each year, between December and March, around 30 individuals arrive to feed. From June to December, humpback whales arrive to give birth to their calves.

6. Island festivities

Move over Rio de Janeiro ­­— St Helena’s Carnival is the highlight of the islanders’ social calendar. Organised every other year to raise funds for a local cancer charity, residents design flamboyant costumes for the Grand Parade, which takes place through the streets of Jamestown. There are souvenir stalls, snacks aplenty and, as night falls, live bands strike up at the seaside bars and the dancing continues until the early hours. It’s also worth coinciding a visit with St Helena’s Day, celebrated annually on 21 May to mark the day, in 1502, Portuguese navigator Joao da Nova ‘discovered’ the island. It’s a joyful celebration of Saint culture, comprising a themed flotilla parade, five-a-side football matches and fireworks.

7. Hiker’s heaven

Put on your boots and a backpack and pit your calves against one of the island’s 21 Post Box walks — so-called because at the end of each trail is a cubby hole containing an ink stamp to officially mark the walk as complete in ‘post-box passports’ that are available from the tourist office in town. Hikes range in distance from 1.5km to 12km — from the short 45-minute scramble to a heart-shaped waterfall to the two-and-a-half-hour trek toward the summit of Diana’s Peak for 360-degree views of the island. Of course, many will argue the toughest hike of them all is scaling the 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder, which stretches up the near-vertical rock face above Jamestown.

The capital Jamestown is situated on the northwestern coast of the island, and offers visitors a range of places to eat, drink and sleep.

Photograph by St Helena Tourism

8. A tipple or two

Coffee connoisseurs will get in a real froth about the local brew. Not only is it the world’s most remote, it has a unique and pure heritage descended from a single type of coffee seed, brought to the island from Yemen in 1733 by the East India Company. After something stronger? Ivory traders from East Africa brought the first prickly pear plants to St Helena to brew rudimentary whisky. The cactuses still grow wild, and local distiller, Paul Hickling, has revived and improved the recipe at his local distillery to produce tungi, ­a potent-yet-smooth spirit.

9. Local radio station

On St Helena, it’s not the TV that’s always left on, but the radio. Saint FM, the local station, is not just for entertainment, it’s a communication lifeline. Everything from the latest updates on flight arrivals to neighbours sending personal messages — on a first-name basis, because everyone knows one another — asking if so-and-so has seen their dog, or a reminder to come and pick up their car. You can also tune into SAMS Radio 1, launched in 2011, which offers listeners a mix of news, features and entertainment. 

10. The distinct language

English is the official language, but locals are descended from a mix of Malay, Indian, African and other immigrant ancestors, and over the years they’ve developed their own local dialect, known as ‘Saint speak’. A fast-paced patois that’s easy to decipher when you’re asked something straightforward such as ‘How you is, lurvie?’ (‘how are you, dear?’), but trickier when the ‘chirren’ (‘children’) are invited to a ‘swing round’ (‘dance’). 

For more information on St Helena, visit sthelenatourism.com

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