Exploring St Helena

1 rocky cliffs st helena

1a Jamestown St Helena view PinterestSt Helena is exceptionally isolated. The nearest point on Africa – Angola – is about a thousand miles away. Brazil is nearly 2,000. There weren’t any humans here in 1502 when Portuguese were first reported to visit. Arriving by boat, the steep rock face of the cliffs may not seem inviting, but for hundreds of years it’s been an invaluable provisioning stop: ships sailing from Europe to the “far east” could get fresh water, and later provisions from farms.

Signing up at a tourism office for guided tours aren’t our usual approach but it felt like the best way to quickly learn a lot about this unique little (four by eight mile) island. But as a truly special place, one we don’t have much time to experience, it felt like the right kind of splurge to learn a lot quickly.

1b tour guide st helena

Our tour guide is an islander of many generations, and like a lot of Saints- yes, that’s what they’re called!- claims roots that reflect the mix of cultures that arrived here over the centuries as colonialists, their indentured workers, or slaves. “I think my family was Indian; my wife’s more Chinese.”

Heading inland from the waterfront, Robert gave us a birds-eye view of the largest (and oldest) settlement, Jamestown.

2 jamestown st helena cliffs

It’s been more than 300 years since the English made it an Atlantic base, and the town is full of colonial-style buildings. Narrow streets are built for pedestrians (or carriages, or mules); cars, not so much, but a number squeeze in anyway.

3 historic colonial jamestown st helena

St Helena is probably most famous as the remote residence of Napoleon Bonaparte, who spent his last years in exile here. The serene little glade where his tomb is located; it’s empty (he’s long since been re-interred in Paris) but embraces the visitor into reflective peace.

4 napoleon tomb st helena

That is, until the kids start tearing around. They couldn’t resist running on the mossy path…barefoot, of course.

5 kids running barefoot moss

St Helena has only been accessible by water, but a new airport is scheduled to open in May. The island, mostly supported by the UK, hopes to develop an economy based on tourism. But change comes slowly, and there aren’t actually any new hotels to accommodate an influx of visitors…yet. Robert takes us along winding ridgetop roads to the far side of the island, where the massive landfill and construction project nears completion.

6 st helena airport

The island’s peak is nearly 2,700 feet (over 800m), and on an island this small, the moutaintop and high ridges drop steeply to the sea. Our meandering path (meandering is the only option) has a lot of hairpin-curved switchbacks like this one.

7 switchback road st helena

It also creates stunning microclimates, with dramatic diversity. From the colorful but barren moonscape near the airport, to the cloud forest that covers the higher elevations, the views are breathtaking.

8 moonscape

9 cloud forest

On an island this small, those microclimates literally bump right up into each other.

10 lots wife

In the early twentieth century, an economy based on growing flax for rope, but synthetic fibers eventually killed the industry. Flax plants, introduced from New Zealand, still dot the island – we’re told they’re not considered a harmful invasive, as they help prevent erosion and keep other noxious weeks down. Robert shows us how to scrape pulp off the long, spiky leaves to find the strong fibers inside.

11 flax leaves girls st helena

He tells us about working in a flax processing plant from the 1940s, when he finished school, and twines a strand of flax around Siobhan’s neck. “I think that’s about 50 years old,” he says.

12 flax rope

No island tour is complete without a visit to the governor’s residence – partly for historic interest (it’s a striking 18th century mansion), but also because it’s home to Jonathan…a Seychelles giant tortoise gifted in the 1880s and possibly the world’s oldest living animal. Speculation ranges, but he’s thought to be in his 180s. WOW.

13 governors mansion st helena

Sure enough, he’s on the lawn in front of the mansion, happily munching away in the grass.

14 jonathan worlds oldest tortoise

One of the kids’ favorite moments from the day: meeting donkeys on one of the ridgetop farms. Robert brings them ginger biscuits, and they literally came running- well, as close as donkeys get to running- when they heard the horn of his van.

15 kids donkeys

Niall, our military history buff, is most fascinated with the fortifications and sites associated with Napoleon. We visit a few, but many are impossibly perched in cliffsides.

16 old fort Jamestown 1837

17 cliffside battlements

I love the more recent relics around St Paul’s Cathedral, where a plaque commemorates Saints who fought in The Great War.

17 great war plaque

18 st pauls cathedral st helena

We get an advance peak at the view from the top of Jacob’s Ladder, the obligatory climb for all visitors to the island. I’m not ready to climb the 699 steep stairs to the top yet…maybe by the weekend.

19 jacobs ladder view

Robert Peters was an incredible tour guide. He teased us to guess his age, and eventually copped to 80. His wealth of knowledge, “stories” of the old days, and historical references (frequently sharing pictures of sites or visitors from a well-used notebook). He gave us a thorough and unforgettable introduction over the course of the day. Even Visitors can request him at the tourism office.

robert peters

, , ,

7 Responses to Exploring St Helena

  1. Yvette March 10, 2016 at 2:27 pm #

    Hey, if you need more motivation to climb Jacob’s Ladder, there’s a geocache associated with it! http://coord.info/GC1G8QB

    Seriously though, it looks appropriately like what you’d expect an island in the middle of nowhere to look like. Awesome. 🙂 I wonder how much it’ll change once the airport opens though.

    • Behan March 11, 2016 at 4:19 pm #

      Wouldn’t that be cool to find? We will definitely be tackling Jacob’s Ladder while we’re here!

  2. Victor Raymond March 10, 2016 at 4:51 pm #

    Our boat has been there with the previous owner. I hope she will take us there again. It looks beautiful but I worry that the airport and major tourism will take its toll.

    • Behan March 11, 2016 at 4:18 pm #

      Victor, we wondered the same about the airport – although I think change will be slow. Mostly, it will offer a more affordable way for islanders to access the rest of the world. There aren’t any new hotels being built – yet – so they simply can’t accommodate more than visit the island already for a while! We do feel lucky to have the opportunity to experience St Helena “before.”

  3. Guy Gatien March 10, 2016 at 7:36 pm #

    What an experience you are having! Welcome to Saint Helena, my wife is a “Saint”. We live in California, but we have family back home on Saint Helena. How long will you be staying?

    • Behan March 11, 2016 at 4:19 pm #

      Guy, that’s very cool! We will probably be here for about another week, although we don’t have a departure date set yet. If your relatives are interested in visiting a yacht we would love to host them on Totem some afternoon!

      • Guy March 11, 2016 at 5:09 pm #

        Hello this is Guy’s wife’s Doreen. So thrilling and makes me jealous to read your story. Would you please tell all of our family and the people in St. Helena Island that we send our best wishes. Enjoy your time there . I will call my family and extend your invitation. We have family there that can provide some special day hikes or views of the island not usually seen by visitors.

        Feel free to communicate with my ggatien@comcast.net address

© 2007-2017 Sailing with Totem. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.