St Helena: a seductively strange holiday

St Helena © Alamy
St Helena: wind-buffeted, yet welcoming

“You have written a new will, haven’t you?” a fellow passenger – and amateur pilot – asked Julia Buckley on a flight to St Helena. “We were somewhere over the Atlantic,” Buckley recounts in The Independent, “the Namibian coast nipping at our heels.” The tiny British island territory sits in the middle of the South Atlantic, where it is often buffeted by gale-force winds. Until recently the only way to get there was via a five to six-day boat crossing from Cape Town in South Africa. Then in 2015 the island’s new airport opened – five years late and at a cost of £285m, funded by the British taxpayer. There was just one small problem: owing to severe winds, planes weren’t able to land.

When the first passenger jet – a Boeing 737-800 – flew in for a trial run in April 2016, it took three attempts to land, says Buckley. The passengers were screaming, and the pilot had to sit in a room by himself with coffee and cigarettes for an hour after landing. Scheduled flights were put on hold and the old boat from South Africa came back into service. The new facility was dubbed the “world’s most useless airport”. Then in October flights resumed – but only for smaller, lighter planes, such as the 99-seat Embraers, operated by Airlink from Johannesburg. Even then, only 76 of the seats can be safely filled if the aircraft is to be light enough to stay on the runway.

Refreshingly weird

“I’ve never had a standing ovation before, let alone a standing ovation from complete strangers simply for walking through airport arrivals,” says Jeremy Lazell in The Sunday Times. The tourist board promised that the 4,500 islanders, known as “Saints”, were warm and friendly. “They weren’t kidding.” But it’s that “refreshing whiff of weird that wins you over” to the island’s charms. Jamestown, St Helena’s capital (and only town) looks “seductively strange”. Built largely by the East India Company, beginning in 1657, it is “an impossibly narrow squish of faded Georgian townhouses, hemmed in by 500ft walls of menacing rock that screech and swirl with the chatter of fairy terns”. Jacob’s Ladder, a staircase hewn into the rock in 1829 (originally built as a funicular), rises at “near-sheer gradients” to the village above.

Then there is the language. “Saints” is the oldest English dialect in the southern hemisphere. “Who you longs to?” (which family are you from) an old man asks Lazell. “The dialect is a gloriously bonkers Lloyd-Grossman-attempts-South-African-but-lapses-into-Jamaican-via-Dorset.” That’s what happens when you stick Indian slaves, Chinese labourers and British navvies on an island and come back 400 years later.

St Helena’s most famous resident today is probably Jonathan, a 186-year-old Seychelles giant tortoise, who lives at the governor’s house. But the island was once home to an emperor: following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was imprisoned there until his death in 1821. By all accounts, he hated every minute of it – yet that hasn’t stopped a whole industry growing up around his memory, producing tat such as soap modelled on the emperor’s death mask. Longwood House, Napoleon’s hilltop residence, remains “hauntingly evocative”, says Lazell.

The Galapagos of the Atlantic

Aside from keeping conquerors in check, St Helena’s isolation has other benefits. Billed as the “Galapagos of the Atlantic”, the island’s “fern-clad forests, volcanic plains and rocky shores are home to 2,932 species, of which 502 are endemic”, says The Daily Telegraph. The mottled St Helena plover – known locally as the “wirebird” – is the star of the show. But it’s the world beneath the waves – much of which is unmapped – where the majority of St Helena’s species thrive. The island is a “new frontier” for experienced divers and competent snorkellers.

Visitors can see the St Helena wrasse, parrotfish, dolphins, devil rays, green and hawksbill turtles, as well as the migrating humpback whales that drop in between June and December. Then it’s the turn of the whale sharks until March – “the undisputed highlight of a trip to St Helena”.  So, is the experience worth the few seconds of “abject terror” of coming into the airport? Absolutely, says Buckley. So long as “the winds are right and you land from the south, you’ll be fine”. “Though next time I’ll make a will.” 

• For more information on how to get to the island, see StHelenaTourism.com.