So you want to go to St Helena.
Why? Maybe you want bragging rights about the notorious flight in. Maybe you’re a hiker, keen to walk the island’s daredevil mountain trails. Maybe you’re a Napoleon nut, desperate to pay your respects to Monsieur Bonaparte at the house in which he died.
Or maybe you’ve always been fascinated by a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean – 1,200 miles west of Angola, and 2,500 east of Rio de Janeiro – where you’ll find a picture of the Queen in many a room you walk into, where the most famous resident is a 185-year-old giant tortoise, and where life seems to go on quite happily without big-name shops, any kind of rat race, or a selfie culture (the internet only arrived in 2015 and it still costs a bomb).
“Hikers and old people” are your typical tourists on St Helena – at least, they were before the airport opened, according to one official I spoke to. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing for anyone else to do; it’s more a reflection of life before the airport. To get to St Helena – a British Overseas Territory – from Britain, you needed to fly to Cape Town (which often means flying via Johannesburg), then get a boat, the RMS St Helena, to the island. The journey across the Atlantic took five-to-six days, and because of the weather, it was advisable to leave a couple of days either side, in case of delays. That meant eating up two weeks of annual leave just to get there. No wonder most people who visited were retired – or hikers so hardcore that they were prepared to throw all their holiday allowance at it.
But hikers and OAPs do not a burgeoning tourist industry make, and tourism is just what St Helena needs – not just to shrug off the UK government funding that currently props it up, but also to allow the islanders (4,370 of them, called Saints) to start new businesses. The average annual income here is £7,100 (making the new flights – which start at £804 return to Johannesburg – completely unattainable for many residents). If tourism takes off, it could change lives.
So is it worth making the trip if you’re not a hardcore walker or history buff, and are merely intrigued by the idea of this 47-square-mile island plopped in the middle of the 41 million-square-mile Atlantic?
Having spent a week there, I can say, absolutely. Here’s what’s on…