Saint Helena, a British overseas territory in the South Atlantic, reopened to the world in August last year after the relaxation of all its COVID regulations. Tourism Update sat down with St Helena Head of Tourism Matthew Joshua to find out more about one of the most remote islands in the world.
Located almost 2 000km from Africa and 3 000km from South America, the 115sqkm island is a sub-tropical paradise where the mountainous terrain and micro-climates create a diversity of landscapes.
The currency is the pound sterling, although it also uses its own version – the St Helena pound (which is not accepted in the UK).
Joshua describes St Helena as “a little village in Cornwall”, or “a Scottish island with a Hawaiian dress”.
St Helena was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502 and was established as a settlement by the British in 1659. Throughout history, its location made it strategically important for shipping and as a place of exile.
The island is renowned as the place where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled and died 200 years ago.
King Dinizulu of Zululand was also exiled to island in 1890 and was buried there.
St Helena has historical ties to the Anglo Boer War, as it was the first place to receive around 6 000 Boer prisoners.
Due to its history and location for ships, the island’s culture evolved from influences of Europe, Africa and Asia.
Airlink is the sole air service provider, operating flights to the island’s only airport, which was officially completed in 2017. Previously, travellers could only arrive by sea.
Flights operate weekly on Saturdays from Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport with a refuelling stop in Windhoek.
Joshua believes the limited access to the island is part of its charm. “It is a bucket-list destination which gives travellers bragging rights to say ‘I was on this incredible island that not a lot of people have ever been to’,” he said.
Accommodation options include the Mantis Hotel, and the Consulate Hotel, which is in the process of reopening.
A collection of guest houses include the late 1600s ‘Farm Lodge’.
There are also self-catering options and B&Bs available.
Pre-pandemic, the island’s biggest source markets were the UK, South Africa and northern Europe.
Joshua said the island was very popular with the French, who enjoy visiting for its history. There has also been a recent influx of adventure travellers to the island.
Adventures and activities
Visitors to St Helena can participate in a wide range of adventures and activities.
The subtropical climate (15-28°C) makes it possible to swim year-round. The waters offer high-visibility, are populated with endemic and other marine life and are perfect for snorkelling and diving. The water temperature is generally 19-26°C and underwater visibility is up to a depth of 15-25 metres.
Joshua said diving brought in about 50% of the island’s tourism income, and visitors could explore underwater caves and shipwrecks off the coast.
Bird watching is a popular activity as there is an abundance of white terns, noddies, masked boobies, petrels and red-billed tropicbirds on the island.
The St Helena plover, known locally as a wirebird, is one of the most popular endemics and a huge attraction for bird watchers. It is the island’s last surviving endemic land bird, with just 602 adults in the world. Peak nesting season is between September and March.
For those more interested in marine life, there are also year-round sightings of a variety of Chilean devil rays; as well as dolphins (pantropical, bottlenose, and rough-toothed varieties); and sea turtles.
Another big drawcard is Humpback whale season between June and December, and whale shark season between December and March. The island hosts a world-renowned unique population of whale sharks which tourists can swim/snorkel with.
Walking/hiking is popular, with many microclimates and landscapes existing within this one tiny volcanic outpost.
Walks feature everything from rolling and multi-coloured hills; geologically stunning, barren cliff faces falling dramatically into the sea; Jurassic Park-like jungles of ferns and eucalyptus and waterfalls. Some take you past Masked Booby populations and end in swimmable coastal ponds.
The island is also home to an unusual resident with an extraordinary record –Jonathan the Tortoise. Jonathan holds two Guinness Book of World Records titles: The oldest known living land animal in the world, and the oldest chelonian to have ever lived. In 2022, by the local veterinarian’s best estimates, Jonathan celebrated his 190th birthday.
Furthermore, St Helena recently introduced what is probably the most remote go-kart track in the world, and runners can compete in the most remote marathon in the world.
There is a variety of highly accessible ruins, built heritage and history – from the well-known final residence and initial burial site of Napoleon Bonaparte to “the most significant physical remaining trace of the transatlantic slave trade on Earth”.
Jacob’s Ladder – 699 steps cut out into the mountainside – is another attraction. The ladder is 180m high and the record climb is currently just over five minutes.
Other activities include full island tours, marine tours, nature photography classes, flora/fauna voluntourism, traditional craft lessons, sunset picnic at High Knoll Fort, home-cooking classes, tour of the island’s fortifications and canons, donkey walks, golf, kayaking, historical tour of Jamestown, coffee plantation tour, endemic tree planting at Millennium Forest, the St Helena Museum, the St Helena Distillery tour and tasting, plantation house, Napoleonic sites, transatlantic slave legacy tours, a Boer Prisoner of War cemetery, rock climbing, mountain biking, and camping.
Click here to watch a video of St Helena.