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St Helena

Exploring St Helena

A South Atlantic jewel

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9 May 2019 by Alison Nicolle

Far out in the warm waters of the South Atlantic, St Helena is an off-the-beaten-track gem host to incredible wildlife, fascinating Napoleonic heritage and activities that range from superb hiking to diving and stargazing, Wexas specialist Alison Nicolle explores the highlights of this emerging destination.

Location & how to get there

Situated 2,500 miles east of Rio de Janeiro and a little over 1,200 miles west of the Cunene River, which marks the border of Namibia and Angola, St Helena is truly remote. But, since the launch of the first commercial flight to the island in October 2017 – a weekly Saturday service from Johannesburg – this far-flung idyll is now accessible to all, making it the ideal addition to a trip to Southern Africa or, indeed, as a holiday in its own right.

Flight arrival into St Helena – amazing island views
Arriving into St Helena

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St Helena's nature and wildlife

Covering an area of just 47 square miles, St Helena is breathtakingly beautiful, its diverse and spectacular scenery formed by a series of volcanic eruptions, dating back between 10- and 14-million years. Today, the volcano is silent – and has been for some seven million years – but its legacy lives on in a dramatic landscape of multi-hued rock, which sweeps down from the verdant slopes of the 823-metre-high Diana Peak. As it reaches the sea, this volcanic rock cracks and splinters into a series of steep valleys, water-cut gorges and jagged coastal cliffs, which in turn tower up to 700 metres above the South Atlantic swells.

Layers of volcanic rock, St Helena

But, it’s what this landscape supports, which is particularly impressive. Nicknamed the Galápagos of the South Atlantic, the island is home to a vast array of native, endemic and endangered species, including at least 45 types of plant not found anywhere else on Earth. Look out for the likes of black cabbage, dogwood, dwarf Jellico and the wonderfully monikered bastard gumwood and gobblegheer.

The coast, too, is a treasure trove of natural wonders, home to everything from dolphins to whale sharks. And, back on land, let’s not forget the island’s oldest inhabitant – Jonathan the giant tortoise. At a staggering 187 years old, he’s been a staple of island life since shortly after the death of famed exile Napoleon Bonaparte in 1821.

Jonathan the Giant Tortoise
Jonathan the giant tortoise

And, that’s not all. St Helena is also blessed with a truly breathtaking night sky – one so dark that it qualifies for ‘gold tier’ status under the International Dark Sky Association’s strict guidelines. Indeed, with no light pollution to speak of, St Helena’s star-gazing potential was first recognised centuries ago by the great astronomer Edmond Halley – he of comet fame – who visited the island between 1676 and 1677.

History & heritage on St Helena

It’s not only St Helena’s natural world that demands attention. Its history, too, is rich with intrigue. Discovered by Spanish explorer João da Nova in 1502, the island soon became a staging post for ships sailing between Europe and the East Indies. After occupation by the Dutch, the island fell into the hands of the East India Company, whose forts and batteries still dot the coastline, and eventually the British Crown, who exiled Napoleon, among others, to St Helena’s distant shores. Indeed, it’s possible to chart Napoleon’s time on the island, from his arrival in 1815 to his death six years later, with a visit to the houses of Briars Pavilion and Longwood, where he spent his final days.

Longwood House, St Helena - Napoleon Bonaparte's home in exile
Longwood House, St Helena

Further historical treasures can be found at Plantation House – the home of St Helena’s governor, and the aforementioned Jonathan the giant tortoise – as well as at the Cenotaph war memorial in the capital, Jamestown; The Archives, which hold the records of the East India Company; and the 18th-century St James Church – the oldest Anglican church in the Southern Hemisphere.

St James Church on St Helena
St James Church, Jamestown

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Activities on St Helena

But how best to explore these myriad attractions? Among the best ways to take in St Helena’s beauty is on foot, and there’s a whole network of hiking trails taking in all corners of the island. Perhaps the most famous of these are the ‘Post Box Walks’. Run by the St Helena Conservation Group, this series of strolls – 21 in total – bring visitors out among the island’s majestic landscapes. They’re also graded on a difficulty scale of one to 10, so there’s something for all abilities. Choose between shorter jaunts, such as the walk to Blue Point, which reveals stunning views across the coastal cliffs, to longer routes such as the popular Lot’s Wife’s Ponds walk, which traces the coast between Sandy Bay and the rock-spire formation of Lot’s Wife and offers the chance of a cooling dip in a secluded pool. No matter which you choose, at the end of each walk you’ll be greeted by a ‘post box’, where you’ll find a visitor’s book and a stamp to commemorate your achievement.

Hiking on St Helena with amazing sea views
Hiking on St Helena

Other favourite activities include birding, cycling, guided history tours, nature cruises and off-road adventures to the island’s remotest corners. And then there’s the diving. St Helena’s clear, warm waters are teeming with marine life, hidden between the surrounding reefs, wrecks and caves. Indeed, this one of the world’s best spots for underwater encounters. Dive sites are easily reached from the wharf in Jamestown, but for those that prefer not to venture too far, there are also numerous snorkelling opportunities closer to the coast

Diving with whale sharks

Inspired? Find out how to explore St Helena for yourself with our tailor-made itinerary. 

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St Helena

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Get away to one of the most remote places on Earth, taking in its unique colonial history and spectacular natural world on a full range of included excursions. To make the most out of your journey, we’ve also included some time in South Africa’s city great.

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