Ascension by Sea
Excluding being a passenger on a cruise ship (see separate tip - Arriving on a Cruise Liner) or yacht there are two ways of getting to or from Ascension Island - air or by sea. What makes life easy (if not cheap!) is that there is only one option for each - different and interesting though they are. See my separate tip, Ascension by Air, for arrival by air.
There is only one option in terms for ship and in terms of where you must catch that ship if you wish to get to Ascension Island by sea.
The ship is the RMS St Helena (picture one) and you catch it in St Helena which by definition, because you can only get to St Helena by the RMS St Helena from Cape Town, means you must board in Cape Town.
I will go into more details of the leg from Cape Town to St Helena when I write up my visit to St Helena.
Suffice to say at this point the passage from Cape Town to Jamestown, St Helena takes 6 days (5 nights). On arrival in Jamestown you must go ashore where you will stay for 2 nights before returning to the ship for the remaining 2 nights trip to Georgetown, Ascension Island.
Upfront, I will say that the very thought of going on a cruise does not appeal to me and it would certainly not be my first choice of holiday. That said I absolutely loved the trip aboard the RMS St Helena and simply cannot recommend it highly enough for anyone. It is, of course part, of your trip and not a means of merely getting to Ascension or St Helena. My one and only negative comment on it is that unless you want to spend a month or so on St Helena you are limited to 2 nights there which equates to only 2.5 days sightseeing there. While I used my time to the maximum there and saw most things a couple of extra days would have been great.
You need to study the ships timetable carefully as routings and time in port do vary from trip to trip. You have a little bit more flexibility re time on Ascension given that flights out – your only option unless you limit your trip to less than a day – leaving on same voyage -or want to stay more than a month awaiting the ships return - are twice weekly.
I spent two nights on St Helena and four nights on Ascension. You can see everything on Ascension in 4 nights (equating to five full days) and there is no need to stay longer unless visiting friends or wishing to engage in extensive walking - see my Letterbox Walks tip.
Again I will do a separate review on the ship and passage (on a St Helena page) so will just provide a few brief details here. The ship is one of the last operating Royal Mail Ships in the world – which makes it something special in itself. It is a combined passenger / cargo ship and being the only mode of transport to and from St Helena it is the lifeblood of that Island (an airport is currently under construction on St Helena – expected to open in 2015). A large number of Saints (as the St Helenians are referred to) work on Ascension Island and the Falklands. Given these factors it will come as no surprise that the majority of passengers on the ship are Saints going about their business and external business people coming to the islands on business. Tourists comprised a very small minority of passengers on both legs of my trip to Ascension Island. On my trip there were around 100 passengers to St Helena and 80 to Ascension with around 60 crew. A most wonderful mix of people – and you get to know them all – the stories they have to tell. The maximum capacity of the ship is around 150 passengers.
Accommodation on board the ship varies from more basic internal cabins to luxury suites. Food on board (the same for everyone irrespective of accommodation choice) is abundant and of fantastic quality. On board entertainment is a credit to the small crew – ranging from movies, talks (including from passengers), quizzes, bingo, deck cricket, etc. There is no pressure to take part in any activity whatsoever. For those who eat too much there is a gym - though a sense of guilt afflicts very few - so no queues here. There is also small swimming pool, a shop and a free self serve laundry (byo powder) in addition to the ships paid laundry service.
There are two bars offering an excellent range of drinks at incredibly reasonable prices. The ship, while small compared to your average cruise ship, is fully equipped with stabilisers for a smoother passage so if you are staggering up and down the ship it is more likely to have been as a result of your visit to the bar than the effect of rough seas.
I am not going to detail all accommodation options/prices here nor am I going to go into the ships schedule as both are well long and documented on the ships website - http://rms-st-helena.com/. The website also contains a lot of other very interesting detail. Bookings are made via Andrew Weir Shipping in London or Cape Town (but you do everything online – though they do like to send via mail your tickets in a cute folder which contains baggage tags, etc). The service provided by Andrew Weir from start to finish was absolutely fantastic.
To give you an idea of cabin quality and cost. We booked a T2H cabin (picture four) with lower and fold away upper berths, large window, two wardrobe units, one armchair and dressing table with over-lighted mirror. En suite toilet, shower and wash basin. This was very satisfactory though a twin – as in two lower berths would have been better but I am not sure it would have been worth the additional cost. Cost per person (incl all food) Cape Town to St Helena – GBP1,103 and from St Helena to Ascension Island GBP623.
Interestingly, on a mile by mile basis the RMS St Helena costs significantly more than a trip of the Queen Mary 2 (in comparable class) – but the QM2 is not the RMS and it does not go to Ascension Island! Our departure from Cape Town coincided with the arrival of the QM2, an amazing ship – picture three attached.
A additional point worth noting for those prone to sea sickness the south-north passage is much better than the north-south passage. The only discomfort I encountered was on leaving Cape Town but outside that the sea was calm to perfectly still for the whole voyage.
My last picture – not aimed at putting you off – is Ascension Island’s official point of entry for all arriving by sea.
Of course prior to making any bookings to Ascension Island you need to be aware of Ascension Island Entry Requirements and those of St Helena – I will include details on my St Helena page in due course.
Ascension by Cruise Ship (or Not)
I wasn't sure whether to put this tip under warning/dangers or transportation. I settled for transportation as it will be the valid option for some visitors - those lacking in time or having a more passing interest in visiting.
If you are want to be sure that you will get to Ascension Island (or St Helena) and have more than a few hours visit you will have to arrive by the RAF flight from the UK or by the RMS St Helena from Cape Town via Jamestown, St Helena. See separate tips for these options.
An alternative way of getting to the Ascension or St Helena is to join a cruise which stops at either or both these islands.
If you do this you will have around 4-6hrs on each Island assuming you get to land and therein lies the problem.
While 4-6hrs will only giving you a cursory appreciation of either place it is all some may want or have time for and, of course, it is better than nothing.
The problem I refer to is that it is very common for cruise ships to arrive at both islands and for passengers not to be permitted to disembark – the reason given is typically safety concerns. Neither island have piers at which any boat can dock so all ships anchor at sea and passengers are transferred in by tender. Unloading and reloading 1000-2000 passengers in daylight hours is a challenge even in perfectly calm seas – it becomes dangerous even with a slight swell. You can understand a captains concern in getting 2000 people up and down the steps in the attached picture in 6-7 hrs – and also permit them time for a quick tour. While my picture is a night shot arrivals only take place during the day.
Remember that cruise ships do not have to stop here as they do not refuel here or take on provisions. Accordingly if the captain has any concerns re safety, passengers will not be let disembark – also if the ship has lost time elsewhere not stopping here lets it make up lost time.
While we were on St Helena another large cruise ship visited and passengers were let off. The previously scheduled arrival was cancelled. The same ship pulled into Ascension but did not let anyone off due to safety concerns – the sea appeared dead calm to me.
Bottom line – arriving by cruise ship is hit and miss so if you must visit either place I recommend you use the RAF flight or RMS St Helena as appropriate. The RMS St Helena, given the nature of the ship, always stops and passengers get off.
Another factor worth mentioning is that, quite frankly, neither island can properly cope with up to 2000 people popping in – facilities are limited.
Ascension by Air
Excluding being a passenger on a cruise ship or yacht there are two ways of getting to or from Ascension Island - by air or by sea. What makes life easy (if not cheap!) is that there is only one option for each - different and interesting though they are. See my separate tip, Ascension by Sea, for arrival by sea.
There are no commercial flights to Ascension Island and the only flight you can get is a Royal Air Force (RAF) flight from Brize Norton in Oxford, England or from the Falkland Islands – it’s the same flight. The RAF flight is a twice weekly flight from Brize Norton to the Falkland Islands via Ascension Island which then returns to Brize Norton via Ascension.
Don’t worry you will not be sitting on a hard bench in a Hercules. The plane is leased from and operated by Portuguese company Hi-Fly. It is a commercial Airbus A340. Leg room is more generous than normal and when I flew (and I understand this is normal) the plane was less than half full. As such, do not be upset if on check in you are not seated beside your traveling companion(s) – it means they are giving you a few seats. You can move seats once airborne. Food is reasonable and standard airline fare but all brought from the UK so if your returning to the UK from Ascension it has been on the plane a couple of days.
Flight Departure/Arrival times:
The duration of each flight is approximately 9hrs. Times are in Local Time. Ascension Island is on GMT all year round.
From Brize Norton (UK) to Ascension Island
Departs Brize Norton at approximately 2300hrs each Sunday
Departs Brize Norton at approximately 2300hrs each Wednesday
From Ascension Island to Brize Norton (UK)
Departs Ascension Island at approximately 2300hrs each Tuesday
Departs Ascension Island at approximately 2300hrs each Friday
Standard Class (Economy) around GBP510 one-way and GBP960 return
Premium Class (Premium economy) around GBP620 one-way and GBP1190 return
Fares do not vary (except perhaps up) - there are no specials, discounts, etc so don't hang out looking for them.
Some important things to remember/ comments:
1. Only 10 seats are sold to civilians on each flight – book early
2. Flight timings are confirmed about six months out. A wait-list is maintained for flights not yet confirmed – get on it
3. Even after you have booked/paid the fare can change (you will be liable for any increase)
4. As these flights are under the control of the RAF it cannot be guaranteed that seats will always be available despite a seat confirmation, and you may not be embarked or may be offloaded if the required military payload (military personnel of freight) on that flight precludes a full compliment of civilian passengers being carried. In practice, no one recalls this ever happening and the last time it happened was probably during the Falklands Conflict
5. You booking must (except in emergency) be finalised 14 days prior to flight time
6. You cannot finalise your flight until you have been issued an Entry Permit - see my separate tip - Entry Permit
7. Bookings can only be made by the Ascension Island Travel Agency in Georgetown, Ascension. The staff there (a couple of them) are fantastic and the whole process is easy and efficient - contact them via www.ascension-flights.com. This site contains all the details you need to know to book a flight
8. Being a RAF flight, security is strict
9. Both airports are very efficient and have adequate terminal facilities (more limited on Ascension)
10. Fairly standard commercial rules apply re check-in times and luggage
Access to airports (military)
Ascension – Obsidian Hotel Transit is the best option (relatively cheap). Contrary to what is written elsewhere they (Obsidian) don’t let you pick up / drop of rental cars at the airport
Brize Norton – Civilians are not permitted to use RAF transport and only a limited number of taxi company’s are permitted onto the air-base. The taxi fare to Oxford train station is around a steep GBP40 – just grin and treat it as a component of your fare. Other options, apart from car hire which is relatively easy, are messy. For further details, including list of permitted taxi company’s, see the RAF Brize Norton website (http://www.raf.mod.uk/rafbrizenorton/) taking care to ensure that what you are reading applies to civilian as well as military personnel.
The attached photo’s are all from Ascension Island from which I flew to Brize Norton. I arrived on Ascension by sea.
Entry Requirements for Tourists
Not really a transport tip but something you need to organise before arrival
Ascension Island, while a part of the British Overseas Territory of St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, has its own immigration rules. Unless you hold an exemption – basically military or government personnel you must have an entry permit to enter. The entry permit, akin to a visa, except that it is not in your passport and they don’t need your passport to issue it, is advance permission from the Island's Administrator to visit the Island. It will be emailed to you.
The entry permit is obtained by completing the application form which you can download from http://www.ascension-island.gov.ac/visiting-the-island/. You can also now apply online.
The pre-requisites for gaining entry to the island are that you have pre-arranged accommodation (at the Obsidian Hotel as there is no-where else unless you’re visiting friends) and you must have a valid health/ travel insurance which must cover the costs of a medical evacuation should that be required.
The application form asks for the specific name of the person who is arranging your accommodation and your intended entry and exit mode. All of these details can be very easily checked – indeed some of them in the same office that issues your permit – don’t spoof here – just organise things in the required sequence – the cost of the flight or the ship in and the hotel are all high and fixed – no cheap seasons , no bargaining, no specials so no need to wait for anything – in fact prices are only likely to rise. See my separate tip on arriving by air and sea and on the Obsidian Hotel.
It is important to take a copy of your health/travel insurance with you for inspection on arrival. A credit card will not suffice. That said they did not inspect mine – perhaps because it had already been inspected on St Helena (by the same police force – yes police are also immigration officers on both islands) from which I came directly via the RMS St Helena.
The tourist permit costs GBP 20. It generally takes just a few days to process. Formerly fees could be paid prior to arrival or on arrival ( 5 GBP extra on arrival). Guidelines for entry permit applications have not yet been updated online for fee changes in April 2013 - which do not refer to fees being payable on arrival. Be guided by the extremely helpful AI Government staff in this and all other regards.
Applications for entry permits should be made well in advance, preferably at least 28 days before your intended travel, except in case of genuine emergency. Note that if you are flying in from Brize Norton, Oxford, England (one of only two ways to get there) you must confirm your flight at least 14 days before the flight date. You cannot confirm your flight without having a valid entry permit.
One generally does not think of writing a tip about a fuel station and particularly a fairy grotty two pump job with an attached pre-fab convenience store with little on offer.
However if you are hiring a car on Ascension Island you need to know about this fuel station and its opening hours or lack there-of as it will be your only source of fuel on the Island.
Birdies Refuelling Station & Convenience Store is located about 3 mile out of Georgetown at One Boat (near the Junction for English Bay).
Like everywhere else on the Island it keeps rather peculiar hours (I guess you can open /close when you like if you are the only supplier of a product everyone needs) In April 2013 the opening hours were as detailed below. I suggest you check actual opening hours when you arrive on Ascension and certainly before you need fuel.
Monday,Wednesday and Friday 8am -12 noon
Tuesday and Thursday 2.30pm - 6.30pm
Saturday 8am to 2pm
What is very surprising is the cost of fuel. Especially, if you are coming from the UK you will consider it a bargain - Diesel 92 pence per litre and petrol around GBP 1. I imagine the relatively low price is due to a lack of excise duties or subsidies from the Motherland (that's Britain and not St Helena!).
Getting around – car hire
There is no public transport on Ascension Island so the only way to get around is by private vehicle.
I highly recommend you rent a car (or befriend someone with one) for the full length of your stay – in fact I’ll state that without a car you will not be able to see or do anything (including eat!).
There are two places to rent cars on the island – the Obsidian Hotel and Birdies. Birdies also operates the Islands only fuel station – see my separate review on that. I recommend that you book vehicles in advance of your arrival as numbers are limited. I can’t find any contact details for Birdies so if you want to check them out seek contact details from the Ascension Island Government which you will be dealing with to get your entry permit and arrange flights (unless arriving and departing by sea).
The Obsidian Hotel seems to have more vehicles available and they seem to be of slightly higher quality and as such slightly more expensive.
Daily rental costs range between GBP 15 and GBP 25 depending on quality – the higher cost ones have air-conditioning which I highly recommend due to heat and dust. Cars tend to be manual.
A very limited number of 4wds are available but, honestly, you don’t need one. If you do, for some reason, need one hire it for a day or two and stick with a standard car for remainder of your time.
To rent a car you will need to present your driving license (any license in English is acceptable).
You drive on the left hand side of the road (roads are of surprisingly high quality though the one up to Green Mountain is steep and winding – be careful on it) and the wearing of seat-belts is compulsory.
The speed limit is 20 mph in Georgetown and Two Boats Village, and when passing the US Base and either 30 or 40 mph elsewhere. Watch out for wild sheep and donkeys on the road.
If you have read this far you might be wondering at my choice of photo accompanying this tip. Hardly a great recommendation for car rental on the island.
Yes, this is my rental car – the only photo seem to have of it. It was actually an excellent car hired from the Obsidian but I ended up with a flat battery and even pushing couldn’t get it going. I’m told that this is a not uncommon problem on the island as the short distances cars are driven mean that batteries often don’t have sufficient time to recharge themselves. I ended up having to call the police (no mobiles on Ascension ) using an emergency services phone located at English Bay beach. The Police happily popped over to the Obsidian ( 50 metres walk) which organized my rescue most efficiently.
What you need to know to get Ascension Island
If you want to visit than I recommend you call the Island first for details at Tel +247 6246; Fax +247 6356. You are welcome but have to have permission from the Island administrator who well explain all the things you need to know
FLIGHTS FROM BRIZE NORTON (OXFORD England ) about 6 times a month TO ASCENSION ISLAND & THE FALKLAND ISLANDS. This is by RAF planes but they will carry up to 20 non military.
To come by ship on the St Helena, contact Andrew Weir Shipping on telephone +44 (0)20 7816 4803; fax +44 (0)20 7816 4802 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org should you require any information concerning availability and booking.
But remember to check first.