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Last Updated on October 24, 2020 by Amy
Like so many places we’ve had the privilege to go to, Saint Helena is not a place many people have visited, or even know of. It’s incredibly remote, but a beautiful and unique place that we got to visit while sailing across the South Atlantic Ocean on our boat, Starry Horizons.
Saint Helena has a surprising amount of history and we were able to see most of it in just a few days. One of the most famous aspects of Saint Helena’s history is that Napoleon was exiled here, and this is where he died.
Nowadays, the residents are called Saints and the island is a part of the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. I expected the island to be pretty British – like how New Caledonia is full of French people – but the Saints are descended from British settlers and slaves brought Africa.
Understandably, there’s not much to keep Saints in Saint Helena. Job opportunities and having a British passport means Saints commonly move to the UK.
Tourism is not big here, which makes it a hidden gem for travelers!
The most obvious landmark of Jamestown is Jacob’s Ladder, originally an inclined plane railway that was built in 1828 to lift supplied up to the Ladder Hill Fort. Now the railway is a staircase rising 602 feet above sea level with 699 steps.
At the base is a Museum of St Helena and street art with a set of wings.
At the top is Ladder Hill Fort, which you can walk through to get a view of the ocean, but the better view is overlooking Jamestown. There is an informative plaque talking about the history of Saint Helena and some of the landmarks that can be viewed from the lookout.
Day Tour with History on Wheels
We booked a tour with History on Wheels through the Consulate Hotel. Robert picked us up for a day trip around the island. You can customize the trip to see what you want on the island, but Robert also has several example itineraries.
We started at the harbor where Robert told us about the two big wrecks that are in the bay. The SS Papanui caught fire in 1911 and came into Saint Helena and sunk, and the RFA Darkdale was sunk in 1941 by a German submarine.
Then Robert drove us up the street on the northern side of Jamestown, getting us a nice view looking down, where he talked about some of the most notable buildings.
When Napoleon died in 1821, he was first buried here in Saint Helena in an area called Briars. His body remained here for 19 years and was exhumed in 1840 and moved to France. Robert parked at the trailhead and we took the 10-minute walk down to the site.
It’s a lovely place, and when we visited it was cool and misty, giving the site an ethereal quality.
Napoleon’s Longwood House
When Napoleon first came to Saint Helena in 1815, he stayed for a few months in Jamestown. But in December he was moved into Longwood House, a pretty remote location way up in the hills of Saint Helena. That house is now a museum, and for 10 GBP a person, you can tour the home. The docents were very knowledgeable and there is an audio tour available. Many of the furniture is original, and the museum houses quite a collection of Napoleon artifacts.
A drive out the airport gave us a different view of the island: drier, with low vegetation. The airport is kind of a big deal since it only opened in 2017, and everyone on the island knows the flight schedule and it influences the day’s activities.
There’s a lot of drama around the “world’s most useless airport”, and every Saint is happy to share the story. That a runway was built on such a rocky and rough terrain is pretty amazing.
Lunch at Reggie’s Takeaway
We stopped in for a quick lunch at Reggie’s Takeaway, which serves basic foods like fried chicken or sausages with french fries (the chicken was better!).
The astronomer Edmond Halley came to Saint Helena in 1677 to study the stars of the southern hemisphere. He was here for 18 months and listed 341 stars. His rustic observatory was excavated in the 1960s and now gives a lovely view of the island, including the airport.
Agriculture in Saint Helena
There were many points on the tour where Robert stopped to show us old buildings and fields that were part of Saint Helena’s agricultural history. Flax mills were huge here, and in the early 1900s that was most of the island’s income. I had no idea what flax was or looked like so Robert showed us the plants and also the finished flax fibers. Robert himself had worked in a flax mill.
Coffee is also grown here in Saint Helena, and is some of the most expensive coffee in the world. We aren’t coffee drinkers, so we didn’t try any.
We also drove through the interior of the island, and while the coast is dry and brown, the interior is GORGEOUS! It looks like it could be Ireland, it’s so green and vibrant. Cows are plentiful, and their pastures are steep and studded with rocks.
The Plantation House and Jonathan the Tortoise
Our last stop of the day was the Plantation House, where the governor of Saint Helena lives. Its more famous resident is Jonathan the tortoise, and his four tortoise friends that live there. Jonathan is thought to be the oldest living land animal and was estimated to have been born around 1832. He and his friends are giant tortoises from Seychelles, and Jonathan has lived here since 1882. Of course, this was not like Curieuse Island in Seychelles where the tortoises roam free, but Jonathon’s pen was pretty big.
There are private tours of the Plantation House available.
Swim with Whale Sharks
Throughout the years, David and I have been trying to swim with whale sharks as often as we can. We’ve had such a variety of experiences (and some bad luck) but Saint Helena has been the obvious winner.
We booked our tour with Dive Saint Helena who runs daily scuba dive trips from the wharf. There were eight of us, and in our tender we motored up the coast a bit looking for a whale shark.
A call came from another boat out on a day trip that there was a whale shark hanging out. We circled back and found him. Our guide shut off the engines and we all carefully slipped into the water.
This whale shark was AMAZING. He was quite a bit bigger than the ones we swam with in Madagascar and he was very curious about us and the boat. He spent a lot of time directly underneath the boat, sometimes even nudging it or getting bonked when the boat rose and fell with the swell. He even chased me around!
We were the only boat there, and the operators are restricted to eight people in the water at a time and 45 minutes with the whale shark. We stayed in the water the whole time, and everyone was swimming around with him, posing, etc. It was such an amazing experience.
Hiking Blue Hill (Or Any Post Box Hike)
With Saint Helena’s rugged terrain, hiking is a great way to see the local fauna. There are 21 Post Box walks organized by the St Helena Nature Conservation Group. The Tourism Office has copies of the guide book, A Description of the Post Box Walks, for sale which gives information on the hikes around Saint Helena.
Through a mutual friend, we met Darrin and Sharon, two Saints who write the blog What the Saints Did Next. They offered to take us out for an afternoon hike, starting with a traditional Saint picnic lunch – “plo”, a local take on pilaf. We drove up to the highlands and used one of the many public and scenic picnic tables available for our lunch.
Then, Darrin and Sharon took us to hike Blue Hill. While the day was cloudy to start, that just meant it was nice and cool for our hike. Blue Hill winds out to a point on the coast, and we had lovely views in either direction. Darrin is very knowledgeable about the local fauna and he pointed out many varieties of plants along our route.
At the pinnacle of the post box walks is a small post box with a stamp. Collect all 21!
Darin and Sharon lead hiking and photography trips around Saint Helena; if you are coming to the island, consider booking a trip with them to learn more from a local’s perspective!
What Else to Do in Saint Helena
I would have loved to hike more of the Post Box Walks, especially Diana’s Peak, the highest point on Saint Helena.
I also would have loved to explore more of the local cuisine. Wrangham offers home-hosting dining on their small farm near Sandy Bay. I happened to meet Debbie at the Consulate and she’s really passionate about her food.
For advice on cooking your own Saint Helena cuisine, check out The Saint Cooks.
Inside Saint Helena
Download the Inside Saint Helena app for useful tourist information.
How to Get to Saint Helena
It’s so remote – 2000 miles to Cape Town, 2500 miles to Rio de Janeiro, and 800 miles to the neighboring island of Ascension – traveling to Saint Helena is not easy. There are flights into the small airport once a week from Johannesburg, and in the summer (December-February) a weekly flight from Cape Town is added.
Before the airport was opened in 2017, the only way to arrive to Saint Helena was via mail ship, a five-day trip from Cape Town.
Where to Stay in Saint Helena
There are a few main hotels in Jamestown. The Mantis Hotel is government-subsidized and is modern and clean, but also expensive. We ate several meals here.
The Consulate Hotel is a historic option, with reasonable rates. My Uncle Jim stayed here for a few nights after our arrival and the coffee bar on the first floor is a popular hangout for wifi. The staff is welcoming and very knowledgeable about the island – if you go, please tell Hazel hello!
Internet and Cell Phone Service
Buying a SIM card in Saint Helena is very expensive – about $100 a GB! Instead, you can buy time at many of the local restaurants at XX for two hours. The internet can be pretty slow at times, but if you aren’t doing anything ultra-heavy (like, say, uploading videos to YouTube) it’ll be fine.
Saint Helena does not have any ATMs. We exchanged some cash at a Western Union in Cape Town before our arrival, but you can also go to the bank in Jamestown and they can give you cash.
British pounds are accepted, but Saint Helena Island also mints its own money. Be sure to spend all your local currency before you leave, as it won’t be accepted anywhere else.
Where to Eat
Anne’s Place is one of the more popular eating establishments in Jamestown. We dined there several times, eating lamb chops, fried chicken, etc. The fries were always hot and fresh. Our friends Darrin & Sharron tell us it’s the best place to have the local delicacy of fish cakes, but they were always out when we popped in.
The Mantis Hotel is excellent for a nice night out. We had dinner there early in our visit, and David and Uncle Jim ate the stuffed chicken breast while I had vegetarian bobotie (a South African treat!). The dessert menu was pretty spectacular too, though the service wasn’t quite up to snuff for the white tablecloth treatment.