A faint speck of green on the giant blue canvas of the South Atlantic Ocean, St Helena is one of the planet’s magnificently untouched lands. And that’s despite its claims to fame – Charles Darwin visited in 1836 and Napoleon Bonaparte spent his last days here in exile. Today’s visitors maroon themselves on the island deliberately to tackle its wild walking trails. And with 500 endemic species and a coastline rich with marine life, including dolphins and whale sharks, it’s quite understandable that St Helena is dubbed the “Galápagos of the South Atlantic”.
The capital of St Helena stands strong alongside the Atlantic and was discovered in 1659 by English colonists. It was named after James II when he was the Duke of York and boasts several historic sites along with handsome Georgian constructions. St James’ Church – across the moat and below the castle fort – would not look out of place in rural England.
The town’s museum contains old artefacts and displays depicting the island’s long history, including the wooden crates that contained Napoleon’s belongings when he arrived here into exile.
Scale the crags
Pull on your hiking boots, ready to enjoy some stunning natural scenery and tropical birds as you ascend Jacob’s Ladder, a trail which leads from Jamestown. Soon you will find yourself in Half Tree Hollow, St Helena’s largest town. Whether you climb the steps or take a car or minibus there, the vistas over the precipitous cliffs across the cobalt waters of the South Atlantic are outstanding. Rising above Half Tree Hollow are the long walls of High Knoll Fort, built in 1798 as protection against invasions.
Opposite Half Tree Hollow is a trail which climbs the rock face diagonally to Rupert’s Bay, passing Munden’s Battery and several century-old cannon emplacements built into the cliffs. The rugged cliffs plunge vertically down to the Atlantic, while the dramatic black mass of St Helena’s Sugar Loaf looms ahead, with its huge square-shaped hump crowning its summit.
Meet the world’s oldest tortoise
A couple of miles from Jamestown you will find Plantation House, a Georgian mansion house which is the official residence of the Governor of Saint Helena. Arguably its most distinguished resident is not the governor, but Jonathan who, at over 180 years old, is the world’s oldest tortoise. When he’s not snoozing, he moves very slowly across the lawn in search of a meal. Luckily for him, allotments dot the nearby slopes. A small path from the mansion leads you through thick woods to the graves of slaves dating back to the mid-18th century.
Take a look at Napoleon’s final house
Longwood House, Napoleon’s final house, stands in the uplands of the island. The green-shuttered villa offers epic views of Flagstaff (a green conical hill) and The Barn (a massive oblong crag). The eleven rooms, each painted green, contain several original pieces of Napoleon’s furniture, as well busts of him and his wives. Don’t miss the two holes in the shutters from where he’s believed to have spied on his guards with a telescope.
Not far from Longwood, down a sloping tunnel of trees, you will find Geranium Valley, a peaceful flowery place overlooking the Devil’s Punch Bowl ravine. This is where Napoleon was buried in 1821 but 19 years later, his body was eventually repatriated to Paris for a state funeral.
Tackle the Post Box walks
The island’s stunning terrain and small size – just 16 kilometres long and 9.5 kilometres wide – make it ideal for hiking. 20 ‘Post Box’ walks to suit all levels of fitness dot the island and are so named because of the posts at the paths, each with an ink stamp and a visitors’ book.
A favourite walk near Jamestown leads to the majestic Heart Shaped Waterfall. Others, like Diana’s Peak, lead you on to remote, lofty summits which cannot even be reached by 4×4 while the starkly beautiful, treacherous slopes leading to Sandy Bay Beach are also a popular challenge.
Take to the road
With the landscape changing at every turn, St Helena is a road tripper’s dream. Wildflowers, coffee plantations, waterfalls, and pine and eucalyptus forests make for a kaleidoscopic scene. And flying above it, yellow canaries and red cardinals add flashes of colour along the way.
To the southeast, the road twists steeply above Sandy Bay village. At Sandy Bay Beach, the landscape turns very barren, with the blue ocean crashing and spraying against the dark black volcanic rocks. The Gates of Chaos provides more jaw-dropping sights with its massive crags perched on the razor sharp ridge above.