St Helena is unique in many ways, and many we’ve been able to experience firsthand during our week so far – coupled with the sincere friendliness of everyone we’ve met, it’s going to be a hard place to leave. I’ve confessed to falling in love a little with every destination, but this is different: I’m sure that in the future when people ask us about our favorite stops, St Helena will be on the shortlist. But before going too far into why we love it so much- here’s a smattering of the qualities that make it stand out as the 181st (yes, one hundred and eighty first) island we’ve visited on Totem.
OK, so nothing hugely unique about a small island with a small population, except in this case that island has the mix of being extremely remote and relatively independent (it’s a British Overseas Territory, which provides some important public benefits and services). To put St Helena in perspective for size, though, the population rank is #235 out of 244 countries / dependent territories – the only “independent” that’s smaller is Vatican City! And yes, Saints have their own passport. As visitors, the scale of the island means we’ve been able to get a feel for the physical place even during our relatively short stay: knowing where Man and Horse Cliffs are, or The Needles, or the road out to The Plantation.
St Helena has an exceptionally diverse mix of terrain and micro-climates, made even more impressive by the size of the island they’re all crammed into: lush and arid zones in close proximity. The differences aren’t due to windward/leeward sides, like many other tropical islands, but are mainly caused by elevation. A cloud forest covers the peaks; green pastureland rolls towards the sea. Below the cloud level, land rapidly dries to the barren rocky cliffs of the shoreline. There’s just not a lot of area to go from sea level to 823m / 2700’ with! As avid hikers, that gives us a fantasyland of endlessly interesting paths to explore. There are a lot of walking trails and they’re pretty well documented in references at the tourism office.
The official language is English, but the local dialect is so strong we have generally struggled to understand people sometimes. I don’t know if there’s a study on linguistic individuality to measure the differences but Saints take pride in how the way they speak sets them apart. January 2016 article in the digital magazine Breeze (free with email registration from WhatTheSaintsDidNext.com) is a great article where thirty Saints share about culture and identity: a remarkable number call out their unique dialect.
Royal Mail Ship service
The RMS ‘St Helena’ is one of only a handful of actively operating Royal Mail Ships in the world, and unless you come in on a private boat (feeling lucky!) it’s the only way on/off the island for now. The ship stops in about every 17 days on a loop from Cape Town, including four days run from St Helena to Ascension and back. It came into James Bay during our first days here, and caused a mad flurry of activity in the port and in town as visitors arrived and goods were disgorged. Cruisers walk right through the wharf where containers are being unloaded and moved. Not something that would happen in any other port in the world I can think of – civilian activities normally kept very much apart!
Surprisingly considering the size of the population (approx. 4,200), they mint their own currency! There’s a long history here (first notes issued in the 1700s). It’s held at 1:1 with the British pound, and apparently, can be used on Ascension island (Tristan de Cunha, too, but we’re not going there…yet). There’s only one bank, the government-owned Bank of St Helena, and not a single ATM. Possibly that will change when the airport increases tourist volume…until then, we can use a Visa card at the bank for cash advances, for which the bank charges a 5% fee. That’s the most expensive “ATM” ever! Still can’t resist tucking a couple of coins and notes away as souvenirs.
Perhaps it’s the result of sharing a small space, perhaps it’s the centuries of being a crossroads in the middle of an ocean, but St Helena is one of the most welcoming and sociable places we’ve experienced. Pass someone on the street, and they’ll great you with a smile. Two cars passing on the roadside wave to each other. Every. Time. It’s the kind of place where people probably don’t bother to lock their doors; I’ve seen keys in the ignition in parked cars. We’ve experienced it in a dozen small ways: looking for general reception at the hospital (don’t worry Mum – I was looking to donate blood, nobody was hurt or sick), I could have been given very simple directions by the first person I asked, but I was personally escorted by a visitor in the waiting room instead. Ty needed a document notarized, but the person who would normally process payment at the court offices wasn’t in. No problem! Notary job complete, he was told he could “just come back sometime before you leave” to pay for the service.
We’ve been the beneficiaries in bigger ways, too. A couple we met our first day on the island has taken us under their wing: answering all our questions, making sure we have had a chance to truly explore the range of experiences in their island home: leading us to some great hiking, taking us to a fort that’s a little far to walk, and hard to reach by bus. We had a Sunday lunch at their house, after a brutal hike… they providerd showers, laundry, and an incredible meal! Fellow travelers, reminding us to pay it forward in our lives too.
Thanks to philatelic friends we knew that local stamps are desirable among collectors. I put a call out on our Facebook page, offering to send postcards or stamps, and later sent a couple of dozen with the Royal Mail Ship when it departed—to destinations as far flung as San Francisco and St Petersburg.
St Helenian specialties that have evolved through time and the diverse origins of people who live here. Unsurprisingly, fish is a staple (gorgeous fresh yellowfin is $2-3/lb). But preparations are more uniquely St Helenian: fishcakes, with generous patties made from chopped fresh tuna, mashed potato, herbs and a chili kick. I’m told we should try Plo – a local style pilaf – and I’m keen to find Stuffed Pokes, if I can, a specialty made from a large fish stomach stuffed with potatoes, onion, bacon, and seasoning. Darrin & Sharon brought fixings to make “Bread and Dance” sandwiches on an outing together, another Saint classic. It’s a homemade spread from tomatoes, onions, garlic, and spices spread on bread or rolls. Why “dance”? It was served at celebrations, where people were dancing. LOVE it.
This…fruit? vegetable?… is another. Chow chow, it’s called, grows wild on vines in the island and looks a lot like a christophene except that it’s pure white. We picked a few, roadside, boiled them and fried them up. The flavor is reminiscent of a watery turnip, so spice it up!
The windless forecast offers yet another reason to linger in St Helena, and I can’t wait to see what else we can experience.