Thursday, July 2, 2015

One of Those Places You Just Have to See to Believe...St. Helena

It's one of those places where dreams come from.  It's so far out in the South Atlantic that the only way there is a 5 day ride on the RMS St. Helena.  That's one of the last surviving Royal Mail Service ships.  Napoleon was finally effectively exiled there.  It's a rock in the ocean that just happens to have almost 4,000 people living on it.

St. Helena is a territory of Great Britain.  The queen actually went there once, before she was queen.  That tells you long it's been since any of the royal family has gone there.  But, it is British with a governor and all.  The locals speak English, although it may sound a little off since they have their own dialect on the island.  What is the actual ethnic group?  Well, between the British, Asian, other Europeans and African; it's hard to say.  They just call themselves "Saints".  That's what you are if you actually live on St. Helena.

Getting to St. Helena is tricky, and that's what makes the Adventure for Anyone.  Next year the island is planning to open it's first ever airport, making the 5 day cruise from Capetown, South Africa obsolete.  But, until then, you can take the old style way to get there.  The RMS St. Helena is actually a pretty nice ride.  They have activities, a pool, and some lovely parties and sit down dinners.  The ship carries a crew of 50 and can carry 150 passengers.  It only comes to the island every three weeks, so plan to stay a while if you go.  As a matter of fact, the whole trip would take a minimum of 6 weeks.  Not for the lightweight traveler.  The remoteness is most likely why they landed Napoleon there.  After Corsica, the British decided to put him somewhere that he wouldn't escape from.  And they were right.  Napoleon died on St. Helena.

So what is the story of Napoleon and St. Helena?  Well, after Waterloo, he was exiled there.  He spent his last days at Longfellow House in the country not far from the capital of Jamestown.  The British had sent an overload of soldiers to stay at High Knoll Fort above him to keep an eye on him and make sure he didn't go anywhere.  He didn't, and when he died, he was buried in the valley in the back of the house.  It was an unmarked tomb, because he wanted to have only his first name put on the tomb like a royal and the British said "no."  In the end, there was no name at all on it, and years later he was exhumed and moved to Paris.  But, he was St. Helena's most famous resident, and you can take a tour of the island that highlights all of the places that he went to.  If you play your cards right, you may get to meet the governor and see an actual photograph of the famous tyrant.

Another thing that you may run into at the governor's house is a giant tortoise.  There are a few that live on the grounds there.  Jonathan is the oldest at an estimated 180 years old.  Maybe it's the sea air, but that's old.  He may have been alive when Napoleon was there.

There is a lot of nature to enjoy on the island.  The Heart Shaped Waterfall is a hike, but it is beautiful.  It's seasonal, so make sure that if you go to look at it that it's actually running at that time.  It may not be.  Also, there is the Diana's Peak National Park.  This is the highest point on the island at almost 2500 feet.  There is a cloud forest there with a lot of plants that you can't find anywhere else on Earth.  Choose you hiking times wisely, because it's entirely possible that you could climb all the way up there and not see a thing through the clouds.  Make sure you pick a good viewing day.

There are some unusual things about St. Helena, aside from it's location.  One of those things is that there is no real harbor there.  The island is largely a volcanic rock, so there are cliffs and Jamestown sits at a low point along the shore.  When the RMS St Helena comes to town, the freight and the passengers have to be ferried off the boat.  It's a very rugged place.  Not that you can't enjoy it.  There are dolphin watches to go on, fishing excursions to take, sailing, and even wreck diving if you want.  You just can't park your cruise ship close to shore.

Jamestown is colonial looking.  It is still British technically.  The island is very independent, but it flies a British flag.  It's a true original.  They have local music, crafts, food, and clothing.  They have their own style, and no one can take that away from them.  It's not overly touristy there yet.  They're working on it.  That's why the airport.  You can stay in any variety of accommodations there and have a great time.  You can take a guided tour of the island.  You can take a tour based on Napoleon's time on the island.  You can do all kinds of things and still go out dancing at a disco at night.  They have WiFi, satellite TV, and tons of other things.  What they don't have is cell service.  You can buy a calling card and use a pay phone.  That's a blast from the past.

Did I mention the coffee?  St. Helena has hardly any export power and their biggest export is coffee.  St. Helena Coffee is some of the most expensive Arabaca Coffee in the world, because it's just that good.  There are only about four places on the whole island where you can have a cup, because they are shipping all the beans out.  The other thing that is sought after from St. Helena is stamps.  Rugged outposts that are hard to get to are always renowned for their stamps.  So, make sure you stop in the post office and get some.  They might be worth a lot of money someday.

Then there's the view.  If you want to get a really good view of Jamestown, just climb the 699 steps of Jacob's Ladder.  It goes to the top of the cliff, if you make it that far, and gives you a great view of the valley and the shore.

There are very few truly amazing places on Earth.  St. Helena is one of those amazing places that maybe you've heard of, but you don't really know where it is.  Then when you find out where it is, you can't believe where it is.  The idea that it takes 5 days to get there, minimum three weeks of stay there, and 5 days to get back is staggering.  The idea that you have to travel to and from South Africa to do that is outrageous.  It's one of the world's last remaining true adventures, and it's about to go away.  When the airport opens next year, they are retiring the RMS St Helena.  This is one of those places that hasn't changed in over 200 years, but it's about to.  See it as it should be before it's too late.  Walk the last miles of Napoleon, meet some super friendly people, see some dolphins, and enjoy a lifestyle that is about to vanish.  St. Helena is a last bastion of old world charm.

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