SUNDAY TIMES - So long, slow boat to Saint Helena
Sunday Times Travel By Oliver Smith, 2015-02-26 23:22:01.0

So long, slow boat to Saint Helena

The RMS Saint Helena arrives in Jamestown, St Helena
Image: AFP

Intrepid travellers have one year left to book their berth on the Royal Mail ship that travels from Cape Town to a remote British outpost in the South Atlantic Ocean, writes Oliver Smith

Isolated in the South Atlantic, more than 1 900km from the nearest major landmass and about 1 300km from any other island, Saint Helena is one of Britain's oldest and most remote outposts.

Just getting there remains a tall order. Its only link with the outside world is a five-night ocean crossing on RMS Saint Helena, one of the last working Royal Mail ships in the world. The vessel departs from Cape Town once every three weeks, dropping passengers and vital supplies at St Helena before continuing north to Ascension Island, it nearest neighbour. Luxuries on board are minimal, and the ship's timetable means visitors must stay on St Helena for at least eight nights. It's certainly not for everyone, but remains a trip quite unlike any other in the world.

That is set to change a year from now when St Helena gets its first international airport, offering direct flights from South Africa and Britain, a development that will see the Royal Mail ship retired and which is likely to change the island forever. The government has estimated that up to 30 000 people a year could visit St Helena once air links are established.

For those wishing to arrive by sea, as every other visitor has since St Helena's discovery in 1502, and see an island untouched by tourism, there are just 12 months left.

As well as being the final chance to arrive on the 155-berth passenger ship, 2015 is doubly significant, marking 200 years since the Battle of Waterloo and the subsequent imprisonment of Napoleon on the island.

While the journey to St Helena - during which tourists can usually mingle with islanders - is half the appeal, the island (pictured below) is said to suit lovers of "unspoilt wilderness, nature and wildlife; walkers and history buffs".


The climate is mild for much of the year, with temperatures hovering between 20°C and 27°C, and while English is the main language, the island's cuisine has Malay and Chinese influences.

Gavin Bell visited back in 2011, on one of the RMS Saint Helena's final sailings from Britain, and described his experiences.

"While St Helena, with its historic buildings and friendly population, is well worth a visit, a voyage on the RMS is an experience in itself," he said, going on to describe an officers' performance of The Pirates of Penzance.

"Designed to carry cargo and 128 passengers in comfort and style, she is a rare vessel," he added. "The only other like her sails from Tahiti to remote French Polynesian islands. The Queen Mary 2 is the only other ship bearing the Royal Mail title.

"The two RMS ships could not be less alike. There are no dancing girls on the Saint Helena (unless you count deckhands in pantomime drag), no big bands and no late-night casinos. Entertainment is of the homegrown variety, from pub quizzes to quoits and cricket matches on the sun deck.

"But there is a sense of adventure that no big cruise liner can match, as she ploughs her way towards the lonely isle that was Napoleon's last place of exile. When I sailed on her, the passengers included the widow of an island bishop returning to see a church built in her husband's honour, and a South African eye surgeon with a ponytail who had been called to perform operations. There was also a retired pilot from Sussex keen to trace his ancestors, notably the fourth governor of the island, who was expelled by a Dutch invasion in 1672."

Just 16km long and with a population of 4 255 at the 2008 census, St Helena is the second-oldest remaining British Overseas Territory after Bermuda. It was discovered by the Portuguese in 1502 and was colonised by Britain in 1658 on the orders of Oliver Cromwell.

Napoleon died there in 1821, after six years in exile. His last residence, Longwood House, is now a museum.- ©The Telegraph

For info, go to To book on the RMS St Helena, call 021-425-1165.