When the British exiled Napoléon Bonaparte to St. Helena in 1815, it took the conquered emperor a full 10 weeks to reach the island. Two centuries later, it’s still a five-day trip by mail boat – assuming you happen to be starting from somewhere as close as Cape Town, South Africa.
But on October 14, the tiny British overseas territory will get its first-ever scheduled flights. Two weeks later, St. Helena’s first luxury hotel, a 30-room property in a trio of Georgian buildings, will open its doors.
Located about 1,200 miles off the western coast of Africa, St. Helena is best known (for those who know it at all) as the place where Napoleon was banished after being defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. The house where he lived – complete with the original furnishings – is one of the island’s main tourist attractions.
But it’s not the only draw. The 47-square-mile tropical island offers mountain biking, sportfishing, and scuba diving in waters where visibility is up to 100 feet. St. Helena is one of a handful of places in the world where humans can swim with massive (and passive) whale sharks. It’s home to a 185-year-old tortoise named Jonathan, the world’s longest straight staircase, and a double-hole golf course that players go around twice, trying not to hit any goats along the way.
Then there’s St. Helena distillery, said to be the world’s most remote. Its speciality is Tungi (TOON-jee), a white spirit made from prickly pear and bottled in a bevelled glass flask shaped to evoke the island’s famous (-ish) staircase.
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Because of the limited transportation options, only a couple of thousand tourists make it to the island each year. The Royal Mail Ship St. Helena, a combination cargo-passenger ship, makes the trip just a few times a month. And until now, the airport was able to accept only private flights.
“The world’s most useless airport,” as some have called it, cost 285 million British pounds [more than US$400 million] and was meant to push St. Helena toward economic self-sufficiency. A month before it opened in 2016, test flights revealed dangerous wind conditions, and commercial flights were put on hold. The airport has been taking only private and medical evacuation flights.
But now, South African airline Airlink will run weekly from Johannesburg to Windhoek, Namibia, and on to St. Helena.
The Independent reported that Airlink won’t fill its Embraer jets to capacity. To keep the plane light enough to use less of the runway and avoid the spots with most dangerous winds, it will fill only 76 of the 99 seats. It’s hoping to bump that up to 87 in 2018.
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Meanwhile, the new hotel by resort developer Mantis, which owns five-star safari lodges in Africa, Explora resorts in Chile, and other high-end properties, promises to be a game-changer. St. Helena’s official tourism website lists just two B&Bs and a half-dozen hotels and guest houses, most of which have no websites.
“St Helena’s draw card to tourists is without doubt its isolation,” Matt Joshua, general manager of the Mantis St. Helena, told Bloomberg. That also made it extremely challenging to create the hotel. “Following construction, everything needed to get the hotel operational – from carpets to computers, teaspoons to televisions, beds to bath mats – has all come on the RMS.”
Mantis’s stone buildings date back to 1774; they were originally officer’s barracks for the East India Company, which then ran St. Helena.
As relatively speedy as the flights may be, this might actually be the perfect time to reserve a berth to St. Helena. Not only is the island on its way to changes, but the mail ship will eventually be decommissioned. Book now, or permanently miss the boat.