Saint of heart
Saint Helena, an enchanted little island of 4,500 in the South Atlantic, has wondrous things: a giant, ancient tortoise; a bell boulder; a retirement home for donkeys. But its best quality is its sweetly bizarre nature
I don't recall the instant I fell in love with St. Helena. If I had to pin it down, I'd say it happened on a walk with Dominic the rescue donkey, somewhere on the road between Fairy Land and High Peak, where the views stretch over impossibly green pasture land past granite spires studded with cannons and out to the place where blue sky and blue sea merge.
My family and I had been on the island of 4,500 for a week. Each day we'd encountered a new wonder: a 185-year-old giant tortoise called Jonathan who likes his thighs tickled; a boulder that rings out like a bell when struck; a historic shipwreck in warm, clear water; and the rarest single-origin coffee in the world were just a few highlights. But when Dominic stopped for some juicy grass and I looked out over that singular landscape, St. Helena struck me as enchanted.
It felt as if it was a moment from a fairy tale. Remote and uninhabited, the South Atlantic island first appeared to a Portuguese ship on May 23, 1502. St. Helena then went on to become a major mid-ocean provisioning stop between South Africa and Brazil (or Europe) and was populated by British, Malay, Indian, African and Chinese settlers and slaves as well some of the greatest figures in seafaring history. Captains Cook, Dampier and Bligh as well as Napoleon, Darwin and Edmond Halley all left their marks here. But then the era of exploration ended and the island faded into obscurity.
Yet here I was, wandering around with a donkey in a place where the locals are called "saints." I was captivated.
For more than 500 years, the only way to reach the 120-square-kilometre British overseas territory has been by sea. Before the Suez Canal opened, some thousand ships a year called at the East India Co. pier in Jamestown. In the more recent past, the island's visitors have come from Cape Town on the supply ship RMS St Helena, by cruise ship or on board a handful of intrepid yachts.
The end of St. Helena's isolation was meant to come in May, 2016, when the island's first airport opened. But like all good fairy tales, the island's curse (or charm) of isolation wasn't so easily broken. Unexpected wind sheer delayed the airport's launch. So the island set out on a quest to find an air-service provider that could make a steeper landing on a shortened runway – while still carrying a full load of passengers. But now the airline bids are in, and 515 years after its discovery, St. Helena will end its isolated slumber.
Rising like a rugged castle from the middle of the sea, the island is a place of improbable beauty: both welcoming and imposing. The capital of Jamestown, with its candy-coloured buildings, defines picturesque.
With buildings that date back to 1700, it could be mistaken for a historic film set, complete with friendly saints who stop to chat about the weather, your day's plans or the hard-to-find bananas and lettuce that are just now available in the Queen Anne ("Hurry!").
Meandering out from the town centre is a collection of single-lane roads best suited to donkeys (which is how they were used until not so long ago). Winding through forests and hills of overgrown flax, the roads pass sites which include Halley's Observatory (where he catalogued the southern sky), Napoleon's prison home and tomb as well as Plantation House, the Governor's mansion, where giant tortoises roam the front yard.
Around the island's perimeter, stone batteries cut into red-hued cliffs protected the bucolic interior from long-ago Dutch and French invaders. But now the defences just make impressive hiking viewpoints, overlooking the vibrant tropical sea.
History feels tangible on St. Helena – as though the island is caught between an idealized past and a time that's not quite today. And perhaps only here is it possible to have a favourite fortification.
Mine was a toss-up.
There was the magnificent High Knoll Fort built in 1790 as a redoubt to hold the island's entire population, should it be invaded. The fort was restored using traditional techniques and reopened in 2015. Exploring the High Knoll put us in the dreamlike state that becomes so familiar on St. Helena. Our daughter claimed there should be dragons flying overhead. And when we passed through a wall she waved her imaginary sword and yelled, "For the love of Camelot!" before running into the fort's depths.
Lemon Valley's fortifications edged ahead as my favourite during our second visit to the spot. It's hard to deny the rugged beauty of Half Moon Battery on its perch above a sparkling blue-water bay, which comes complete with a tidy defensive wall and historic whitewashed quarantine building. But add a barbecue site at the mouth of a mysterious cave and excellent snorkelling and you have a popular picnic spot.
It was here we first sampled plo. If there's a dish that represents the rich heritage of the saints, it's this one-pot curried rice dish. Calling to mind a pilau or paella, fresh tuna, as well as whatever meats and vegetables are currently available, make up the dish.
What makes it distinct is that while no version is the same, each one is declared the best. This good-natured debate occurs in the local, near-incomprehensible dialect – a linguistic mash-up that adds and subtracts syllables and letters, and speeds by at a dizzying rate.
The first time I actually followed this argument (realizing I grasped what was being said), I appreciated that St. Helena had cast her spell so surely I became weepy at the thought of leaving.
With our deepening affection for the island, my family grew protective. We wondered how the saints would manage when their isolation ends. While we knew there are positives – new businesses have energized the island and brought the return of younger saints who had gone away for work – we were fearful that outsiders wouldn't love the island the way we did. Or even worse, that they'd make fun of it.
For all its beauty, St. Helena is, as my daughter put it, a sweetly bizarre place. A few weeks in, the oddities had begun to add up. The island is more British than Great Britain and each home sports at least one picture of a monarch. While Queen Elizabeth is a popular choice, King George VI or even Queen Victoria are viable options.
The island also has a retirement home for donkeys that have been replaced by cars, just got mobile phone service in the past couple of years and has a tiny bit of France (literally) in its fertile interior.
It was while visiting this lush bit of France that the tourism director congratulated us on graduating from typical tourist activities to "the weirder stuff": a memorial service for Napoleon Bonaparte. Despite the fact Napoleon's tomb is empty (his remains were returned to France in 1840), islanders hold an annual service for their most famous prisoner.
The Bug-eyed Tuners and Brass Monkeys provided music and sang the English and French anthems as the Girl Guides, Boy Scouts and English and French dignitaries looked on.
While we stood shoulder to shoulder with the saints in that shady grove, I couldn't help but send up a silent appeal for the enchanted little island. My wish was that its remoteness, which made St. Helena so wondrous, gives way gently to change. And I hoped that the magical castle in the middle of the sea never fully finds its way into the modern world.
If you go
The RMS St. Helena will retire after the airport is fully operational, but for those wanting to go by sea, bookings are still being accepted through the end of the year: Rates from Cape Town are £860 ($1,425) return.
Passenger air service to the island from South Africa is expected to be confirmed April or May, 2017.
Several new lodging options are open or are opening on the island including the historic Bertrand's Cottage and the Mantis St Helena Hotel.