Travel review: St Helena - wild and exiled

Sandy Bay from High Peak, St Helena. PIC: PA/Paul Tyson

Sandy Bay from High Peak, St Helena. PIC: PA/Paul Tyson

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St Helena, where Napoleon met his Waterloo, will soon become more accessible with the opening of a new airport, says Nick McAvaney.

“We’s a gonna welcome lots from France,” a cheery Saint (the affectionate name given to island residents) declares in his colloquial local lingo. We’re discussing the impact the new airport will have on St Helena when the first flights arrive this year, hopefully at the end of May. I’ve already spent a few days on the remote island, a speck in the South Atlantic, and realise change happens slowly.

Mobile phones finally arrived last year, and there’s intermittent internet reception in some houses. But the local government hopes the pace will quicken when the first plane touches down. The plan is for tourism to fuel economic development and my new friend is referring to the cavalcade of Napoleon enthusiasts expected to make the pilgrimage here over the next six years, as the Saints commemorate two centuries since the self-declared French emperor lived and died there.

For years the island’s main lifeline has been the RMS St Helena. The last of the Royal Mail Ships transports not just people but cars, fridges, doors, food, pets and anything else Saints need on its monthly trip from Cape Town. Life on board is a throw-back to 1950s travel, with formal dress expected at dinners, games of quoits and skittles on the deck.

All of that will be replaced when the five-day sea journey makes way for a weekly four-hour flight from Johannesburg, denying passengers the chance to slow themselves to the way of life on St Helena. The airport will, however, open the island’s natural beauty to a greater number of visitors. Tourists expecting seaside resorts and glistening sandy beaches on this tropical island will be sorely disappointed, but I discover a surprisingly varied and seductive landscape during my 4x4 drive along the windy roads.

I join local walking enthusiast Valerie Joshua for the brisk hike up to the island’s highest point, Diana’s Peak, which climbs to 818m.

Valerie introduces me to tiny blushing snails, cabbage plants and other indigenous life. One third of endemic species in the UK and its territories are found on St Helena, but much of it is under threat. The island’s proximity made it a vital outpost on trade routes from the East for three centuries and in its heyday, more than 1,000 ships would dock at Jamestown, the capital, each year.

With them came cats and rats, which continue to decimate the island’s ground nesting “wirebird” population. There have been attempts to control the many introduced species, but eradication programmes are difficult to implement. As St Helena National Trust director Jeremy Harris explains: “If we get rid of the cats, then the rats boom.”

So for now, the island’s environment survives in a delicate balance. It’s hoped that small-scale sustainable tourism won’t have a detrimental impact.

The pleasantness of life on St Helena is most evident in Jamestown, a living replica of a 1950s Yorkshire market town. Everyone knows everyone.

For my last dinner on the island, I’m invited to Derek and Linda Richard’s house, where they teach me how to make the local delicacy, tuna fish cakes. During the day they run the Sandwich Shop close to the waterfront in Jamestown, and they hope to soon add accommodation to their house through a government grant, turning it into a culinary school bed and breakfast.

Over dinner we discuss new restaurants ideas, St Helena’s natural beauty, football and the local coffee, which is renowned as one of the purest strains in the world. But three bad seasons have seen stocks dwindle to barely a cup, meaning I’ve struggled to find any to take home as a souvenir.

Derek disappears into his kitchen and returns with a packet of the delicacy that would set me back £60 back home.

There’s only one thing I can really say. “Thank you very much,” I begin as we shake hands. “You’re a Saint.”

GETTING THERE

Halcyon Travel Collections (020 7193 2363, halcyon-collections.com) offers a seven-night Island Explorer package on St Helena from £890pp (two sharing) including seven nights’ B&B accommodation, five days’ car rental, full-day 4WD excursion, guided walking tour of Jamestown, Napoleonic tour and half-day wildlife cruise.

St Helena’s airport is scheduled to open on May 21. Flights from London to St Helena via Johannesburg with BA and Comair are expected to start from around £1,500pp.