There are a few ways of getting around and seeing St Helena.
It is indeed feasible (if rather impractical) to walk but clearly this is only applicable to a select few who have both the time and the requisite fitness to do it.
This is my preferred option where traveling but at times its not a viable option. There is a public bus service on St Helena but this is geared to transporting commuters into Jamestown in the morning and out again in the afternoon so in the main it runs in the opposite direction that most tourists wish to go for most of the day. If you are very determined you can use the bus but it will take up a lot of time and you will have to walk quite some distance to and from many of the tourist sites.
This is a very feasible approach for anyone and has the added advantage that if you are on a tour sites will be open when you get there. Given the limited number of tourists on St Helena the majority of sites outside Jamestown only open on appointment – something you need to plan in advance if you are not on a tour. There are numerous organisations and individuals offering tours – check with the tourist office and indeed consider pre-booking on the RMS St Helena as you steam towards the Island. Tour costs vary depending on length, sites covered and they number of people on the tour. There are a few taxis around. These operate in much the same manner as a tour
As this is not my preferred way of seeing things I did not do any tours so cant comment there-on any further.
Hire a car
My view is that this is by far the best way of getting to see St Helena and particularly so if you just have a few days on the Island as you are en route to Ascension Island. If you choose to stay outside Jamestown a car almost becomes essential. As noted under the Tours section above it is important to arrange, with the Tourist Office, for sites to be open prior to leaving Jamestown and schedule your travelling accordingly.
I must admit that I was rather lucky in this regard in that I was able to time my visits to restricted opening sites to coincide with the day a large cruise liner was in town. As everything was open for it, I had to organize nothing. The trick was to ensure that I started out before the cruise ship bus tours hit the road and then stay ahead of them during the day. I actually managed this very well and only got caught behind a load of buses once.
Anyway, as with everything else on the island, car hire is an informal setup. There are no AVIS’s or Budget’s. Many of the cars available for hire are people’s private vehicles. There are probably a dozen or so places you can get a car from so the easiest way to secure a car is to email the tourist office in advance and let them do the legwork for you. Advance booking is strongly recommended.
Cars are basic but operable and cost about GBP10 per day. All you need do is add petrol and drop it off as you arrange before you leave. Fuel on St Helena is expensive but given that there are only about 60 miles of road and you will be stopping to see the sights, presumably, the fuel cost becomes rather less of a concern. I used about GBP20 in the two and a half days I was there. All up, transport cost around GBP40 for 2.5days. A half-day tour for two will probably cost similar to this though of course it comes with a guide, which many people like.
You do need to be careful driving on the Island as roads are, in the main, single lane and winding with steep gradients and hairpin bends common. Take special care if you are going to Sandy Bay, which I recommend you do. I will include further details in a Sandy Bay tip.
Driving is on the left hand side of the road and local etiquette (unless, it seems, you are Basil Read employee/contractor working on the airport - in which case road manners are optional!) requires that you give way to traffic coming up a hill. The speed limit is 20mph in Jamestown and 30mph elsewhere unless otherwise indicated. Everyone including Basil Read people seem to adhere to this.
Another requirement for drivers is that you register with the Police prior to hitting the road. This is a fairly simple process where they record you license details (the only requirement here is that the license is in English). This requirement seems more geared to giving the police something to do (and someone to have a chat with) than any other reason.
Petrol is available in Jamestown, Ladder Hill, Half Tree Hollow and at Longwood.
This tip is almost identical to a tip I have posted on by Ascension Island page – apologies for the duplication but it is equally relevant to both Islands.
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 St Helena (or Ascension Island) and have more than a few hours visit you will have to arrive by the RMS St Helena from Cape Town or Ascension Island.
An alternative way of getting to St Helena or Ascension Island 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.
4-6hrs will only give you a cursory appreciation of either place and 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. The landing area on St Helena is only marginally better then this one.
Remember that cruise ships do not have to stop at either island 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. On the previously scheduled arrival a couple of weeks earlier passengers were not allowed to disembark. The ship I saw on St Helena later 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.
This tip is based on my tip on getting to Ascension Island by sea – so upfront apologies if it appears repetitive in parts – it is!
Excluding being a passenger on a cruise ship (see separate tip - Arriving on a Cruise ship) or private yacht there is only one way of getting to St Helena and that is via the RMS St Helena, either from Cape Town or Ascension Island. There is no airport on St Helena. One is currently being constructed and is expected to open in 2015 or 2016. Do go before it opens – St Helena will change at that point and the wonderful RMS St Helena will be decommissioned.
You will need to carefully read shipping and flight schedules to work out what is the best routing for you given your time availability and how long you want to spend on St Helena or each island if coming in via Ascension Island. This research is especially important if you wish to visit St Helena and Ascension Island in one trip, as I recommend you do – they are very different.
Upfront I will say that the very thought of going on a cruise has never appealed 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 enough. It is of course part of your trip and not a means of merely getting to St Helena or Ascension Island.
From Ascension Island to St Helena
If you chose to come via Ascension Island, unless you are returning from a trip up to Ascension on the RMS St Helena, you will need to get to Ascension Island first. You have no choice here – you must take a Royal Air Force flight from Brize Norton in England. For details on this please refer to my Ascension Island tip – Ascension by Air. If you are coming this way you will want to – or it will almost certainly be necessary to – spend some time on Ascension Island and, as such, you will need to comply with Ascension Island's entry requirements – details here Ascension Island Entry Requirements.
Having arrived on Ascension Island you will continue your journey to St Helena on the RMS St Helena - a voyage time of three nights.
Refer to the relevant sections below – On-board the RMS St Helena and RMS St Helena accommodation options and costs – for details on these aspects of the journey as they equally apply to all passages on the RMS St Helena.
From Cape Town to St Helena
From Cape Town to Jamestown, St Helena takes 6 days (5 nights). Return time is similar.
Formerly and when I traveled earlier in 2013 the ship's timetable was very static and you basically had 8 days on St Helena, if returning to Cape Town, or 2.5 days if going on the Ascension Island. Looking at the schedule for the remainder of 2013 and 2014 there now seem to be new (and better) combinations available. I had 2.5 days on St Helena and would have preferred a few more.
Departing from Cape Town you will leave from The Mission to Seafarers, 660 Duncan Road, Port of Cape Town. Facilities there are basic and there is no tax refund service for the RMS St Helena.
On-board the RMS St Helena
I will do a separate review on the ship and passage 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. 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 St Helena and then on 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 or buy onboard 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.
The ship (as do Brize Norton and Ascension Island airports) offers a duty free service but be warned that Her Majesty’s Customs on both St Helena and Ascension Island strictly enforce duty free allowances and excise payable for excess items is high.
RMS St Helena accommodation options and costs
I am not going to detail all accommodation options/prices here nor am I going to go into the ships schedule as both are 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.
Just by way of note, as you peruse the timetable you will see a 14 November 2013 trip taking in Thristan da Cunha and St Helena. This would be a fantastic combination but I was told that it was booked out by March 2013 (but do ask the booking agents if interested).
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 or vice versa – GBP1,103 and from St Helena to Ascension Island or vice versa 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.
An additional point worth noting for those prone to sea sickness is that the south-north passage is invariably 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. I think you will find that the schedules departing Cape Town are better in any case.
My last picture – not aimed at putting you off – is Ascension Island’s official point of entry for all arriving or departing by sea. The landing at Jamestown, St Helena is only marginally better. In both places the ship anchors off-shore and you are transferred ashore by smaller boat. This process should not worry you and is perfectly safe. You also land and depart in daylight hours - not as scary looking then.
Please refer to my separate tip on immigration requirements for entry onto St Helena.
You can hire a motor car with a driver for a day. I would not recommend driving yourself. These roads are different from roads in the rest of the world. If you don't know at which bend to stop and hoot before continuing or at which bend to stop and reverse, you may land in the sea or down the bottom of a hill!
You could also hire a metered taxi to get from one place to another.
The only scheduled service to the island is with the RMS St. Helena departing from Cape Town and Southampton. It is the only remaining British mail ship.
Schedules and tariffs one can obtain from the web page address below.