Well, what can I say? After such a fabulous visit to St Helena mid-October 2013, I really don't know where to start, or how to begin to describe our impressions of the Island and the Saints.
Having read so much about the history and environment of this unique British territory, when the opportunity arose to visit on behalf of Atlantic Star Airlines I couldn’t wait to get going.
I travelled with my French girlfriend Nathalie, who is not renowned for her sea legs and was tentative at the least to embark upon a 6-day voyage on the RMS across the South Atlantic. However, from the moment we were welcomed aboard in sunny Cape Town harbour she was able to dismiss her fears and settle in to what truly is a unique adventure. We enjoyed the deck games, the bar quiz and other varied entertainment, and made the most of seemingly never-ending sumptuous food. The ship being full, we met many tourists, visitors, island employees and particularly Saints. It's easy to see how so many travellers place such a high value on the RMS experience, and might be a little despondent to see it come to an end.
Upon arrival and disembarkation in Jamestown's beautiful harbour, we headed to our hotel, the Wellington House, under the great care of proprietor Ivy Robinson. She runs a very comfortable place and we settled in immediately. It took a while to take in the fact that were now in one of the remotest places on earth, yet it felt so welcoming it was easy to feel at home.
After collecting our hire car from the sea-front, (keys left inside, 'fill in the paper-work when you get a chance') we headed to the hills, and our first experience of driving the narrow winding roads. In the few hours available we got a good feel for the layout of the road network, the location of the major sites of interest, and mastered the knack of acknowledging every single other road user with a friendly wave whilst remaining safely on the road.
The next day for me was down to business, leaving Nathalie to explore Jamestown whilst I attended successive meetings. These included His Excellency Governor Capes, the island's Legislative Council, senior representatives of St Helena Government as well as the Bank of St Helena. A hectic day that culminated, via a beer or two at Denny's seafront bar, in a delicious feast at Plantation House, hosted by Gov. Capes and his most charming wife, Tamara.
Thankfully, we then had the weekend free to explore, and were able to visit Sandy Bay, walk to Lot's Wife's Ponds (on the way to which we were lucky to spot a whale frolicking in the sea), climb Dana's Peak, explore High Knoll Fort, drink real St Helenian coffee at Farm Lodge, visit Blue Hill and Broad Bottom, sample local Tungi spirit and much else.
Monday and Tuesday were back to work, opening each day with brief slots on Saint FM and SAMS radio to introduce myself to the wider Saint community and explain briefly how we think the Atlantic Star model will best serve the needs of all Saints as well as generate the tourist traffic vital for future prosperity. I had most productive meetings with many stakeholders, including Enterprise St Helena, the National Trust, the Post Office, Solomons, Michel the highly cultured and knowledgeable French consul, the Air Access Project team and the Chamber of Commerce. We also undertook a comprehensive visit to the airport construction site. The project manager, Deon de Jaeger, kindly took the time to show us around, and explained how an area that currently bears no remote resemblance to an airport will, in just two years, be capable of accepting the first Atlantic Star Airlines landing. Standing amongst the rubble, peering into the half-filled Dry Gut, surrounded by enormous earth movers and cranes, trying to visualise the approach path, the point of landing and the taxi route to the terminal was an exercise in pure imagination. Yet Deon and his team know the project is on schedule and everything will be in place before the end of 2015.
Wednesday morning was well spent on a whale and dolphin-watching boat trip around the bay. We were excited to see a hump-backed whale with her calf, and dozens of dolphins, eager to show off their jumps and spins to the transfixed audience. No trip to St Helena would be complete without a visit to Napoleon's prison at Longwood House, the Boer graves and Napoleon's tomb.
On Thursday morning we took over the Business Centre above the tourist office for an 'open house' where absolutely anyone was welcome to come and enjoy a chat, ask questions, or just eat the biscuits. We were pleased that so many Saints and local businesspeople did drop in to ask how we felt the opening up of the island by air would affect their way of life. We were able to re-assure that with sensible management the opportunity exists for everyone to benefit. The afternoon was spent at Argos Fisheris in Ruperts Bay, learning about the current difficulties facing local fisherman, and exploring what fish, and in what quantity, could be exported by air.
Back in Jamestown, there was one activity I had postponed as long as I could, but now there was no escaping it - climbing Jacob’s Ladder. 700 steep steps to the site of the old fort, and no option but just to get on with it. It was hugely rewarding to reach the top and gaze across the City and the valley below. Mind you, it was several days before my legs forgave me the arduous climb, and descent.
Unbelievably, we’d been in St Helena a week and already it was time to leave. We’d seen and enjoyed so much, yet knew there was plenty more we’d missed too. It seems almost the entire island comes to bid the boat farewell, and we were surprised not just at how sad we were to leave, but how many familiar faces were there to wave us off.
I hope these few words have given you a flavour of how our time was spent on St Helena. But no words can truly convey our endearment to the island, and those who live there. From the varied scenery, the beautiful views, the history and the climate, to the delightful charm of Jamestown and the unceasingly kind and welcoming nature of all the Saints we met, it truly is a place like no other, and somewhere we're sure other discerning travellers will want to experience in future.
I'd like to pay particular thanks to Ivy for looking after us so well, to Basil George for sharing his comprehensive and insightful knowledge of the island and its history, and to all the staff on the RMS for their genuine warmth and hospitality.
Honestly, we can't wait to get back again. St Helena - thanks!