St Helena Island | Overview & Travel Guide
Welcome to my St Helena Island travel guide based on my first-hand experience of visiting to help you plan your trip to this beautiful island.
St Helena Island Overview
St Helena is a tiny sub-tropical island with a lush green hilly interior circled by a stunning volcanic scenery coastline. Famous as the place Napoleon was exiled, it’s a must see for any history buff, walker or the more the discerning traveller who is looking to visit somewhere culturally interesting but largely untouched by tourism.
Where: A remote island situated in the South Atlantic Ocean 1200 miles from the South-West coast of Africa and 1800 miles from the coast of Brazil.
Remoteness: 8 / 10
Background: St Helena Island is part of a British Overseas territory that includes Ascension Island to the north and Tristan Da Cunha to the south. At a little over ten miles long, the island has a population of just over 4,500 inhabitants known as the Saints, some of the most friendly people on earth. Since 2017 the island has been connected by a new airport which has direct flights to South Africa with more destinations planned in the future.
St Helena Island Map
Reasons to Visit
St Helena Island is by far one of my top remote places to visit and somewhere I would highly recommend to a traveller seeking an authentic experience. Everything from the warmth of the people, the laid-back way of life and the absence of mass tourism allows you to become part of this special place during your visit.
The island has a rugged volcanic coastline which is great for exploring. Minutes later you can be driving along winding country roads that lead past misty green fields and secluded churches reminiscent of the English countryside. There are 21 postbox walks on the island with varying levels of intensity making the island a perfect destination for walkers.
The volcanic coastline at Lot’s Wife’s Ponds.
It’s impossible to escape the timeless feel which encircles the island. It starts as you walk through the capital Jamestown with it’s Georgian architecture and distinct colonial feel. The Union Jack flies above The Castle, the main government building dating back to 1659. Nearby is St James Church, the oldest Anglican church in the southern hemisphere. Sat at the coffee shop by the waterfront it’s easily possible to picture the scene in the days of the empire.
History beckons visitors to the island. Napoleon was exiled here from 1815 until his death in 1821. Today it’s possible to visit Longwood house, his main residence on the island, which is now a museum maintained by the French. Take a gentle walk through the peaceful Sane valley to see the place where Napoleons tomb rested before it was taken back to France in 1840.
The crystal clear waters around the island are home to rich marine life including humpback whales, whale sharks and dolphins. Sheltered waters on the north of the island create the perfect diving conditions throughout the year. Vertical rock walls of the island rise up from the deep making interesting places to explore the underwater nature. There are wreck dives around the island including the Papanui which is visible in Jamestown bay at low tide. Saint Helena is fast becoming known in the diving community as a special place.
What to do on Saint Helena
- Take a Hike. Saint Helena is a perfect place for walking. The hike to the highest point on the island, Diana’s Peak which stands 823 meters above sea level, is straightforward thanks to a series of boardwalks which lead across a ridge offering fantastic views across the entire island. For the more adventurous hiker follow the path from Sandy Bay Beach across the steep volcanic landscape to the tidal pools at Lot’s Wife’s Ponds. I recommend picking up a copy of the post box walks book from the museum in Jamestown.
- Snorkel with Whale Sharks. These gentle giants of the ocean frequent the warm coastal waters of Saint Helena between November and March. What’s even more perfect is that you won’t be surrounded by hoards of other tourists. Strict measures are in place to ensure Whale Sharks are not disturbed by any viewing activity so you can be assured your trip won’t have a negative impact on these beautiful creatures.
- Get off the beaten track with a 4×4 day tour of the island. Aaron’s Adventure Tour is a great way to get an overview of Saint Helena and will give you lots of ideas for places to explore in more depth during your stay.
Get the Guide
- Take a tour of Plantation House which dates back to 1791 and is today the residence of the current governor of Saint Helena. Afterwards meet Saint Helena’s oldest inhabitant Jonathan the giant tortoise who lives in the garden. He is thought to be the oldest living reptile in the world at 186 years of age.
- Go Diving. There are a number of diving boats based in Jamestown that offer diving trips with all equipment included. There are numerous dive sites along the coast of the island including wrecks and rock walls. It’s also possible to learn to dive in Jamestown and PADI courses are available.
- Visit the Napoleonic sites including Longwood House where Napoleon lived and died, the Briars Pavilion and the Sane Valley where his tomb was laid to rest. If you would prefer to take a guided tour Island Images run a day tour of the sites.
- Do a walking tour of Jamestown with ardent local Basil George. Learn about the origin of the town and see the place where Napoleon first stepped ashore.
- Visit the remotest distillery in the world and sample some of the alcoholic delights including the locally produced Tunghi and Midnight Mist. Hint – it’s in a garage but well worth the visit.
Sample the gorgeous Saint Helenian coffee at the coffee shop by the wharf where you can also buy a bag to take home. Afterwards take a tour of the coffee plantation.
How to get to Saint Helena
SA airlink offer a direct weekly flight on Saturdays from Johannesburg in South Africa where it is possible to connect to other international destinations. It is hoped as tourism develops flights to other destinations including the UK will become available. Check the best price online with Skyscanner.
By Cruise Ship
It’s possible to visit Saint Helena as a part of a cruise crossing the South Atlantic. Fred Olsen offer Saint Helena as a point of call.
On Your Own Boat
For the really adventurous it’s possible to sail your own yacht to Saint Helena. For information on arrivals, moorings and fuel please visit this page.
How to travel around St Helena Island
Hire a car
The best option for freedom and flexibility. Hire car prices are relatively inexpensive on the island, usually around £15-£20 per day. The driving can be quite challenging with some narrow, windy roads so driving slowly and taking care is essential. In St Helena cars drive on the left like in the UK with a speed limit of 30mph which feels fast on most roads. Due to the limited amount of vehicles available it is essential to book your hire car in advance from one of the following places:
Brendan’s Motors email@example.com
Fox’s Motors firstname.lastname@example.org
R K Yon email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
P N Clade Rentals and Tours email@example.com
V2 Taxi’s and Tours firstname.lastname@example.org
Also make sure you check the hours of the two filling stations on the island and fill up your tank before you leave town. Driving the steep roads can use more fuel than you think and the opening times of the fuel stations are more limited than in other countries.
Take a guided tour
A great way to see Saint Helena is to take one of the tours offered by the locals on the island. Aarons adventures, Magma Way and Island Images all offer a high standard of service.
Saint Helena has a limited bus service which runs around 3 times per day and the timetables can be found here.
A list of up to date taxi operators can be found on the tourism departments page here.
Where to stay on St Helena Island
St Helena offers a variety of accommodation options from a hi-end hotel experience in Jamestown through to peaceful self-catering options in the countryside.
The Mantis is Saint Helena’s first luxury hotel with plush rooms and a nice courtyard terrace which is perfect for evening cocktails.
The Consulate Hotel is located in an 18th-century colonial-style building in Jamestown.
Harkate is a peaceful self-catering bungalow located at Gorden’s post. It’s the ideal place to escape and unwind. A hire car is advisable.
Island Images offer bed and breakfast at a family home with the option to experience Saint Helenian cuisine.
The Blue Lantern offers comfortable rooms in Jamestown but without the elegance of the Mantis.
Harris Guest House in Jamestown offers a more budget option.
St Helena Tourism offers a full list of places to stay on the island which you can find here.
My top travel tips for visiting St Helena Island
Book ahead. St Helena is a small island with limited capacity. It is essential to book flights, accommodation, car hire, diving and tours well in advance.
Take Cash with you. The St Helena pound is the currency on St Helena but pounds Sterling is accepted. There are no ATM’s currently on the island. The only option for getting cash is to visit the bank at the airport or in Jamestown where you can draw money out over the counter using a debit card during opening hours. It’s much easier to take cash with you.
Dress for the weather. Take necessary protection from the sun including sunscreen, sunglasses and a sun hat. It is also worth taking a waterproof jacket for visiting the higher parts of the island which are cooler than the coast.
It is a requirement to carry travel insurance cover which includes medical evacuation. You will be asked to prove this on arrival at the airport. Ensure you carry a printed out copy of your insurance to speed up the process. You will be asked to present this on your arrival at the airport.
If you hire a car make sure you keep the tank topped up before you leave Jamestown as there are very limited places to refuel. The roads are very steep and narrow in places. A slow speed is essential. Beep your horn as you approach blind corners in the road. Locals will do the same helping you prevent collision.
Consider staying in different accommodation throughout your stay to get the widest possible experience of the island. It’s also worth taking a couple of different tours with different tour operators to get a more in-depth feel for the island.
Due to the remote location of the island, the flight can easily be delayed by more than a day. Plan ahead when booking connecting flights and allow plenty of time between travel connections. Make sure you have comprehensive travel insurance that covers delayed departures.
When to Visit St Helena Island
St Helena Island is a great destination to visit all year round with an average temperature of 20 – 27 celsius. The island is cooled by the trade winds preventing it from becoming too sticky during the summer. The warmest season, and also the busiest, is November until March when days tend to be sunny and hot. This is the best time for seeing whale sharks in the waters around the island with January being the peak month. Whale sharks have usually left by May.
The winter months between July and October are cooler and with more rain. Humpback whales visit the island between July and December each year.
Hi, I’m Andy, a professional filmmaker and photographer travelling to the remotest places on earth.
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Nice review Andy of a unique Island. Shame you haven’t mentioned the very unique Consulate hotel in the centre of Jamestown. The Consulate is worth a visit to St Helena in its own right for its historical artefacts and antiques and the fantastic hospitality offered by the hotel’s owner and main host Hazel Wilmot!
Why is the wonderful Consulate Hotel not mentioned? The Mantis could be anywhere. It is the same as all the other hotels of that standard. There is no view.
The Consulate is authentic, comfortable and the proprietor Hazel Wilmot knows everything about the island and managed to get us a hire car when even the tourist office said there were none. There is nothing nicer than sitting on the open air balcony watching the sunset with a gin and tonic or glass of cold white wine. An added bonus is that The Consulate gets fresh fruit and vegetables from Hazel’s partner’ farm.
The Market is a great place to have lunch, the fresh tuna is to die for.
Thanks Gill. I have included the Consulate in the latest update.
As a Travel Guide, it would be nice if you also covered bicycling.
In particular, a map indicating which roads are allowed to be used by bicyclists, and which are not, would be very helpful.
Thanks for your comments. I personally didn’t cycle on St Helena. The roads are very steep and narrow in places. If you are interested in cycling on the island my suggestion would be to contact a local company that offers cycling tours and bike hire. I understand that Tenka Tours offers this service http://sthelenatourism.com/tenka-tours/
I hope that helps. Thanks. Andy
Hi Andy – great blog – very helpful. If your readers are looking for a countryside island idyll then I would recommend Farm Lodge Country House Hotel. You’ll see why when you check out their web page – https://www.sthelenahotelbookings.sh/farm-lodge. The hotel has been described by guests as “the perfect blend of posh and friendly, wonderful meals, company and hosts…” Best regards, Stewart
Thanks for your suggestion Stewart