Introducing St Helena
Jamestown, St Helena © Mejuto
A picturesque volcanic island rising out of the South Atlantic Ocean, the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena is one of the most isolated islands in the world, located 1,200 miles (nearly 2,000km) from the west coast of Africa. Ascension Island, 703 miles (1,131km) away, is its nearest landmass, and forms part of the same British territory along with the island of Tristan da Cunha.
Despite its small size and extremely remote location, St Helena has been described as a 'beautiful emerald set in bronze', with its lush subtropical forests and rolling hills almost entirely enclosed by sheer volcanic cliffs. Instead of bright lights, sandy beaches and shopping, the island offers tranquil beauty and 300 years of colonial history. Only about 4,500 people permanently inhabit the island; the Saints, as the islanders are called, are friendly and charming, a mixture of descendants from British settlers, African slaves and contracted workers from Asia.
St Helena was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502, and was quickly established as a strategic and valuable stopover for ships travelling between Europe, South Africa and Asia, providing fresh water supplies and much-needed fruit to crews on long voyages between continents. It became a British dependency in 1834 and for many years was used as a place of exile, most famously for Napoleon after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon lived on the island, in Longwood House, for six years until his death in 1821, and the residence is now a museum owned by the French government. St Helena was also a prison during the South Africa War (formerly known as the Anglo-Boer War), and King Dinuzulu and about 5,000 Boer prisoners were held there from 1900 to 1904. The Boer Cemetery, located at Knollcombes, is a popular tourist attraction from this period.
St Helena's capital and only town is the Georgian seaport of Jamestown, nestled between towering cliffs and protected from the sea by 18th-century fortifications. The town's most prominent feature is Jacob's Ladder, 699 steps embedded into the near vertical cliffs that connects the valley floor to the top of Ladder Hill. It is popular with energetic tourists, as well as runners who come from around the world to compete in a race up the steps every year. Other attractions in St Helena include the Heart-Shaped Waterfall, the castle and its gardens, Sandy Bay, and the Central Peaks.
St Helena can currently only be reached by ship, which is a big part of the appeal for adventurous travellers. A commercial airport has recently been built, with the first large passenger jet landing in April 2016. The airport is not yet fully operational due to concerns over high winds, but the aim is to introduce frequent commercial flights between St Helena, South Africa and the UK.