Imagine a place almost entirely cut off from the outside world. Is it heaven or hell? It’s a Marmite question for most people. There is, however, no better or now easier place to try out the experience than the lovely, lonely volcanic outpost of empire that is the island of St Helena.
It is set entirely on its own, practically mid-point in the South Atlantic, 1,200 miles from Africa and 1,800 miles from South America. This is surely remote enough for the most ardent isolationist.
I happen to be both a Marmite and St Helena lover. Are the two tastes connected? I made my first trip there 13 years ago on the sole remaining Royal Mail ship, RMS St Helena, because it was the only way to get there.
Cut off from the world: The wild interior of the volcanic island, which sits in the South Atlantic 1,200 miles from Africa
My mission then was to explore the place that was the home and prison for exiled Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, the island where he died, aged just 51, in 1821.
What historic relics and structures remain to remind us of this iconic, charismatic super-hero (or tyrant, depending on your viewpoint)? The only way to find out was to make the long sea passage and take a gander.
After leaving Cape Town, the old mail ship meandered (because of an engine problem) for seven days before discharging me and seven other tourists (a typical number of visitors per month then) on to the island.
Exile: Longwood House (above), was home to Napoleon until his death in 1821
The ship then headed 800 miles north to Ascension Island to deliver mail and supplies, before coming back a week later to collect us for the return trip to Cape Town.
The total travel time was 14 days to spend seven days on the island. Was it worth it? Yes.
I found the place bewitching and that is why I have been back and forth a couple of times in the intervening years, peeling away more layers of history, and enjoying the scenic delights and ever-improving services for visitors.
In October 2017, a new airport, funded by the UK to the tune of £250million, was opened – an event that has transformed St Helena as a travel destination.
Tim Wonnacott meets ‘Napoleon’ on the Island
Not that the long sea passage wasn’t fun – actually it was – but it was dreadfully inefficient and a real deterrent for islanders returning or any of the 4,000-odd residents seeking emergency care.
Now, after a flight from the UK to Johannesburg, it’s a simple four-hour transfer via Windhoek in Namibia to reach St Helena – a twinkle in comparison to the past.
From the air, as you approach the island the fluffy clouds part to reveal a tropical jewel (actually an ancient, extinct volcano about half the size of the Isle of Wight) sitting entirely alone in a vast ocean. St Helena is cooled by constant trade winds and refreshed often by warm rains, keeping the forests at its peaks lush and green.
Temperatures in the summer range between 20C and 30C, although it is 5C cooler in the hills. In winter, temperatures vary from 10C to 20C; nothing taxing for Napoleon on the weather front.
The new airport is an exciting experience, a marvel of modern engineering and logistics, bearing in mind that all the materials for it had to be imported by sea from Cape Town.
St Helena will never be a mass-market travel destination as the weekly flight takes only 70 passengers and a fair few of those will be locals, so there is no chance of the island ever being spoiled or overdeveloped.
In the old days, landing from the mail ship in the capital Jamestown was by launch and you had to leap to dry land as there was no proper harbour. That was how Napoleon arrived after ten weeks at sea on October 15, 1815, and was still the case for every other visitor until last year.
You can walk from the wharf into the town and see where Napoleon spent his first night in a guesthouse, now appropriately named Wellington House.
Much of the 18th and 19th Century East India Company architecture remains in the town, which Napoleon would have seen when taken the next day up steep roads to Longwood House, which was being prepared for him and his retinue.
Landing point: Tim found Jamestown (above) ‘fascinating’. Relax and enjoy a local gin or rum on the veranda of the Consulate Hotel on Main Street
He spotted a little villa above Jamestown called The Briars and asked if he could stay there for the two months pending the completion of the Longwood building works, and he was allowed to do so.
By all accounts he enjoyed his time there – I am not surprised, as it is a beautiful spot.
For visitors today, St Helena offers accommodation options ranging from rental cottages and guesthouses to a country house hotel called Farm Lodge and the boutique Mantis Hotel in Jamestown. The 40-bedroom Mantis was completed only last year and offers the height of luxury.
I found Jamestown fascinating. Relax and enjoy a local gin or rum on the veranda of the Consulate Hotel on Main Street while watching the world go by, visit the lovely museum enthusiastically run by volunteers, or take a refreshing dip in an open-air pool, which looks like a 1950s lido.
Visit St James’ Church, the oldest Anglican church in the southern hemisphere, and the governor’s residence Plantation House, where a 185-year-old tortoise lives in the grounds.
Go to the wharf for boats to take you to look at the enormous pods of pantropical dolphins just offshore, or go fishing for marlin and tuna.
For those who like to snorkel and scuba-dive, the waters are warm and gin-clear, so observing the multitudes beneath the surface is another thrill. Try finding five-fingered pipefish, scorpionfish or enormous devil rays.
In season, both male and female whale sharks can be found off the shores of St Helena – an event that happens nowhere else in the world. It is even possible to swim among them.
If it is onshore exercise that appeals, why not confront the challenging 699-step ‘Jacob’s Ladder’. Built in 1829 to link Jamestown with Ladder Hill fort 600ft above the town, it was originally intended to help move supplies quickly from sea level to the interior of the island.
A wonderful way to explore is to follow the 20-odd ‘Postbox’ walks and trails in and around the most dramatically beautiful parts of the island. I tried the one to Diana’s Peak, and was rewarded by the finest panoramic views and the opportunity to look at vegetation and wildlife found nowhere else on Earth.
You can visit a coffee plantation that grows the same arabica bean Napoleon enjoyed, or take a trip to the distillery where Tungi (distilled cactus) or ‘sipping’ gin and rum are made.
Long stay: This 185-year-old tortoise lives in the grounds of Plantation House
For many, though, the enduring fascination of St Helena revolves around the mystery and romance associated with Napoleon’s imprisonment there between 1815 and his death in 1821.
The British built massive fortifications, installed thousands of troops and kept a couple of frigates permanently on patrol to keep any rescuers at bay. Longwood House, The Briars and Napoleon’s tomb are all now the property of the French state and have been renovated. All are open to the public and it is incredibly moving to mooch freely about the apartments where he had lived and died, and the grounds which he enthusiastically gardened, all the while absorbing the vibes.
Did Napoleon have a tough time? Was he badly treated? In my view, no. But one thing is for certain, whatever you may have read or heard about the intriguing island of St Helena. Nothing will prepare you for the real, unvarnished truth.
Get on a plane and fly there and be amazed.
South African Airways (flysaa.com) offers return flights from Heathrow to St Helena via Johannesburg from £1,755. Explore (explore.co.uk, 01252 884 723) offers a ten-day group trip to St Helena from £4,575pp, including flights, transfers, B&B accommodation with some lunches, all activities and excursions, and an Explore guide. For further information visit sthelenatourism.com.