The Saints go sailing home

Genuinely off the beaten track, Suzanne Holiday discovers the epic isolation of St Helena

“1,200 nautical miles to St Helena”. ETA – Monday at 0800”, announced the Captain’s familiar voice from the Ship’s Bridge for the daily ‘navigational points of interest’ update. Today was only Thursday! The announcement seemed ironic, given that I was en route to one of the world’s most remote inhabited islands, St Helena, a mere dot in the South Atlantic. Looking out across the horizon, there was absolutely nothing as far as the eye could see.

I was travelling aboard the RMS St Helena – one of the last working Mail Ships in the world to carry the venerable Royal title. And it was dawning on me just how remote my final destination of this far-flung British outpost was – around 1,500 miles from the nearest point on the African mainland.

Captain’s cocktails on my first night on board introduced me to the intriguing blend of people who would be my fellow shipmates for the next five nights. At first glance what looked like a bunch of ‘ordinary’ people, comprised a Polish philosopher, retired neurologists, translators, doctors, geologists, Saints (as the St Helenians affectionately call themselves) and some very well-travelled tourists from all corners of the globe who were keen to see the Island of St Helena before it reached the masses. Not that St Helena is in any immediate danger of this. Although an airport is on the cards, the RMS is currently the only regular means to get to and from the Island.

Whatever their background, everyone had their own reason for being on board. And it was an emotional journey for many, returning to the Island after 20, 30 or even 40 years away.

As well as carrying up to 128 passengers, the handsome RMS is also a cargo ship and a lifeline for the island, carrying the majority of necessary supplies. It delivers everything from fruit and veg to cars, and from homewares to clothes. You name it, it’s on board. Apparently it’s even transported a crocodile in the past!

Initially daunted by the very idea of five nights at sea, I needn’t have worried. Every morning the Ship’s daily paper – the Ocean Mail – floated under my cabin door packed full of entertainment for the day ahead.

The RMS is a world away from the glitz and glamour of the larger liners that cruise the high seas. Good old-fashioned conversation and charming, homegrown entertainment replaced casinos, affording the nostalgic kind of travel that’s now almost extinct. Everyone soon slipped into a leisurely routine of days filled with deck quoits, bagatelle and cricket (passengers verses the officers, with some very suspect scoring from the crew), while the nights were packed full of quizzes, film shows, barbecues, charades and frog racing!

Having spotted only one other vessel on the South Atlantic during the voyage, catching my first glimpse of St Helena looming, menacingly ahead was an emotional moment. This was exactly the way Napoleon would have arrived when he was exiled, almost 200 years earlier. There was a great air of anticipation on board as Saints peered eagerly over the side for a first sighting of loved ones and travellers gazed at the volcanic cliffs that towered on the horizon.

Enchanted Island

Fairyland, Half Tree Hollow and Sharks Valley – the island’s enchanting place names sounded like they were straight out of an Enid Blyton book.

For a tiny Island, St Helena certainly packs it in. It feels much bigger than its 47 square miles and astonishingly diverse terrain greets the eye in every direction – think Jurassic Park meets Mars.

The best way to take in the stunning scenery, which varies from volcanic vistas to cloudy forests and peaks, is on foot. Eager modern day explorers should tackle one of the island’s 21 Post Box Walks which vary in length and difficultly. You’ll be rewarded with amazing views and a stamp for your book on completion of the walk. Some of the walks are definitely not for the faint-hearted. Diana’s Peak is the highest point on the island and boasts the most extraordinary plant life, including many endemic species such as the He and She Cabbages and giant tree ferns.

The more energetic visitors will want to conquer Jacob’s Ladder and its 699 steps cut into the cliffs that serve the Old Garrison on Ladder Hill. For more great views, the recently re-opened High Knoll Fort is a must. Other notable highlights include Plantation House (the Governor’s residence), cannons and old fortresses at Sandy Bay and the SHAPE arts and crafts centre. An island tour is by far the best way to take in the key sites.

Napoleon is probably St Helena’s most famous resident (besides the ancient giant tortoise, Jonathan, who resides in the grounds of Plantation House). A treasure trove of Napoleonic memorabilia can be viewed at his residences Briars Pavilion and Longwood House. Lovingly preserved, Longwood is rumoured to have one of the world’s best collections of Napoleon’s artefacts on display which include his billiard table, his original bath, his general’s clothing and his will. Visitors can take a guided tour and stroll round the gardens, as Napoleon used to, but without the watchful gaze of his guards. Although empty, his Tomb in the tranquil Geranium Valley is worth a visit. You can see why the great man selected this spot as his final resting place.

With its epic isolation and less than 4,000 inhabitants, the distinct culture of St. Helena is inevitable. The friendly Saints wave to passing cars, stop in the street for conversations, build their houses to face the sea, speak their own dialect and have their own dishes. It struck me that Saints are incredibly resourceful, living in such a remote location, they have to be. Ford cars are patched up to the end of their life, the local flax is used to make bags and placemats and glass is recycled to make furniture. There’s something wonderfully appealing about their way of life. With no mobile communication and half-day closing on Wednesdays, it really is like stepping back to the England of a bygone era.

This remote speck of Empire is one of the most fascinating places you can visit by ship. but don’t leave it too long. Go now before St. Helena embraces the changes that will inevitably arrive with the advent of the 21st Century.

Set Sail: A 22-day Explorer Tour to St Helena costs from £2,521 per person based on two sharing a T2H cabin. This price includes two nights’ accommodation in Cape Town, all food onboard the RMS and accommodation on St Helena. It excludes international flights from the UK to Cape Town.

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