ST HELENA | TOPSIDE
There’s a lot to do for such a small island – plenty to fill the rest of the day after diving. The stunning natural beauty of the island is an absolute must to be explored, and there are a number of options to find your way around.
There is a great deal of ‘up’ on St Helena, and also a lot of ‘down’. Therefore a car is often one of the best ways to get around.
There is an excellent taxi service on the island, but you should book in advance to ensure availability. Some of the operators also take guided tours of St Helena. There is a local bus service but the schedule revolves around the local working day and services vary from three a day to three a week on some less busy routes.
If you’re dead set on independence or planning a longer stay on the island, cars can be rented from around £15 a day, but you need to be a competent driver. There are narrow roads, steep-sided slopes and extremely tight hairpins. However, other road users are faced with the same predicaments and are (mostly) courteous. Fuel is priced similarly to the UK.
One of the best ways of enjoying St Helena is by foot. The St Helena Nature Conservation Group (SHNGC) has created 21 ‘postbox’ walks which – if you were to complete them all – would cover most of the island. They vary in difficulty and many paths are for experienced walkers only. Solid footwear is required for all of them, dedicated walking gear preferable for most, and essential for the more taxing hikes. Nevertheless, there is no stretch of coastline that is not imposing, and the green interior is lush with growth, some of it endemic to the island. There’s a postbox at the end of each walk where you can collect a stamp, and guided walks are available through the tourist office in Jamestown.
The trip to Diana’s Peak, the highest point on the island, is actually quite easy, with some of the more laborious climbs aided by the addition of wooden stairs and platforms provided by the National Trust.
The 699 steps of Jacobs Ladder connect Ladder Hill Fort at the top of the cliff to Jamestown at its foot. The ladder was originally cut by the military (1839) to transport supplies to the fort, since when it has been used by the islanders as the shortest route to Half Tree Hollow. Cars and public transport mean it is less used these days, but it is still one of the essential experiences for visitors. It’s a challenging climb and the views over James Bay are magnificent – on a calm day you can clearly see the wreck of the Papanui in the shallow water. Take plenty of water and sun screen if it’s a warm day.
The journey to the Millenium Forest is as much part of the adventure as the forest itself, passing through spectacularly coloured terrain along the way. Taking an off-road 4x4 adventure tour is well worth it, but not if you’re easily travel-sick. The forest was started in 2000 as a project to restore the native gumwood tree, and visitors can support the campaign by donating a small sum and planting their own tree, joining the roll of honour among the island’s schoolchildren of the last 17 years. A stroll through the ‘forest’ is pleasant and informative, and the view of the airport in the background may be controversial, but it is nonetheless quite jaw-dropping. A brief stop on Deadwood Plain allows visitors to meet the wirebird – a species endemic to St Helena and also one of its national emblems.
There’s a lot of history crammed onto this tiny island, and much of it is still visible. One of St Helena’s most famous historical figures was Napoleon Bonaparte, exiled to St Helena after his defeat by Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. A few hours will take in the Briars, his main place of residence at Longwood House, and his empty tomb. Be sure to also stop by at Plantation House to meet the island’s most famous resident, Jonathan the tortoise, one of the oldest living land animals on the planet believed to be at least 184 years old
Other historical areas of note can also be covered, including visiting some of the old battlements, both on land and via sea, as there is a dedicated nautical tour of the island's fortifications.
There are plenty of excellent places to eat, from local street vendors to haute cuisine, an excellent Chinese restaurant and a cheap-n-cheerful outdoor bar and café. Anne’s place is a friendly stop where you can be fed and watered for £5 or less, and places such as Bertrand's Cottage, where you can eat in style in the dining room of Napoleon’s second-in-command, and, therefore, where the General himself must also have stopped by for dinner, although it’s probably better food now than back then. A sumptuous three-course meal will set you back under £20 (not including the excellent choice of wine). The Restaurant at the Blue Lantern Hotel is excellent, as is the Orange Tree Chinese, but you will need to book in advance at some of the restaurants. Make sure you try the local ‘plo’, a deliciously spicy rice-plus-whatever’s-available dish, and the St Helena fish-cakes.
This is not a non-stop party island! What night-life there is, during the week at least, is a quiet and communal affair. There are a couple of pubs and a club but you will not find the centre of Jamestown thronged with activity during the evening. Except, that is, until Friday Night, when the island lets off steam with a party that starts at the sea front ‘Mule Yard’, and … continues. There is a nightclub (Donny’s) which opens for the night, a late night pizza-place and snack joints, and a thoroughly positive vibe.
When the whale sharks are visiting, there are tours available to swim with them, following certain local regulations regarding the number of boats and people that can be in the water with them at any given time, along with strict rules about interactions with the sharks. They are harmless but magnificent, and on every visitor’s must-do list during the season. Out of season, if the weather is fine then there are also sheltered lagoons and snorkelling trips with a packed lunch (or plo) can be arranged. The basic facilities at Lemon Valley can be rented for a BBQ where nobody else in the world can reach you.
When you've got to fly several thousand miles to get to wherever you're going, a conveniently situated island in the middle of an otherwise featureless blue ocean is a welcome respite. St Helena is on the migration path of a number of avian species, providing shelter and habitat for mating and nesting. Red-footed, brown and masked boobies are found around the rocks of the shoreline, along with the beautiful fairy tern (Gygis alba, pictured above). The St Helena plover, also known as the wirebird, is unique and endemic to St Helena, one of the island's national treasures, and one of their national symbols.
Sir Edmond Halley - discoverer of the famous comet that bears his name - visited St Helena in 1676, where he spent two years at his observatory in Longwood cataloguing the stars of the southern hemisphere, observing transits of both Mercury and Venus that would allow him to determine the size of the solar system. His work was eventually published in his Catalogus Stellarum Australium, and a small observatory has been constructed on the island in his honour. There is no pollution on St Helena from either smoke or light, and hence viewing the night sky from one of the high peaks on the island is an astronomer's dream.