Wednesday, 15 April 2009 12:00 AM
No one seems to quite know just how many people live on the British Overseas island of St Helena. From what I could average at, the population on this tiny isolated island is probably around 4,000; but no one's really quite sure.
St Helena - which lies in the south Atlantic, somewhere west of Cape Town and south of Ascension Island - is something of a traveller's secret. Despite being promised an airport this year, the Saints (locals) have been let down, and are continuing to rely on their twice annual imports from the last working, aptly named, St Helena Royal Mail Ship.
With trips aboard the RMS taking up to a month from Dorset to Cape Town, a holiday to St Helena is certainly for the more intrepid traveller, and not for one who has to worry about their annual leave allowance.
Those brave enough to make the trip must also be sure of strong sea legs, as the vessel sails non stop, sometimes for a week at a time, through some rather turbulent seas. this is no P&O so be under no illusions.
And in case you were wondering, no, there isn't another way to get to the island.
For the Saints, the RMS is a lifeline. When it makes its journey back to the island from Dorset it brings with it an array of pre-ordered items, including the weird and the wonderful. The captain told me cars, puppies and sheep are all regularly stocked onto the boat for the return journey, and the Saints will be queuing up outside the supermarkets when the boat finally gets in.
The small community relies quite heavily on tourism, which though sparse, is often drawn to the island by tales of Napoleon's exile there. For the eco-traveller the islands lack of major industrialisation or chain stores makes it an ideal spot, and teamed with its unspoilt countryside it provides something of a haven from the traditional package tour.
What does the future hold?
Still, the main problem for the island appears to be how it will be able to generate tourism in the years to come.
With the loss of the promised airport, many of the younger generation have left St Helena in search of work, landing mainly at Cape Town or making the long haul to the UK. Team this ageing population with the fact the RMS will be too 'past it' to sail in a few years time, and St Helena has a real long-term income problem.
And it's not just for the tourists and employment that so many of the Saints (over 70 per cent according to one poll) want to build the airport. One ex-resident told me how, despite the excellent medical facilities on the island, the hospital was unable to support major operations; and so her mother had passed away, unable to get off the island quickly enough for treatment.
Another resident told me about a couple who had to travel for three weeks to get to the island to bury their daughter, a problem which would have been quickly solved if an airport had been in place.
Escape from reality
Despite the lack of easy transport, the destination is enticing, if solely for its 'once in a lifetime' status. With an air of Robinson Crusoe about it, St Helena is the real deal for an escape from reality, just don't expect to have an action packed holiday (the tourist guide lists the post office as one of the attractions).
Aboard the ship, you'll find a basic standard of accommodation which is more than compensated for by the friendly Saints crew. Although a little twee, the ship is comfortable, and the traditional St Helenan fare is tasty and plentiful. We enjoyed beef medallions and Thai style tuna fishcakes, with the buffet breakfast providing everything from the full English to the freshly made Continental.
For anyone braving the long journey aboard the RMS the ship's bar is a lively room, with host Claude organising games and entertainment, and you can sample the Saint's traditional liqueurs, including the popular coffee flavoured Midnight Mist.
As the RMS is the only way of getting to the island from the UK (unless you pick up the boat from somewhere else), they have something of a monopoly on your holiday accommodation and travel. It would be lying to say the ship is designed for all ages, as one crew member told me 90 per cent of the customers are OAPs, but the crew have gone some way to attract a wider clientele, providing a children's room, small swimming pool and activities (including cricket!).
Again, the island is hardly likely to be the next Zante, so it is unlikely, without an airport, to attract the younger audience, as even the adventurous backpacker would be out budgeted by the cost of a trip to the island. But any visitor will tell you it was well worth the trip, as how many people can genuinely say they've been to such an isolated place?
Very few I would imagine.
The capital, Jamestown, is where most of the tourist activities will run from, with golf, snorkelling and hiking to name a few. Accommodation on the island is at one of the small hotels, or there are a small number of bed and breakfasts and self-catering accommodation.
The key attraction is certainly the Napoleon sites, such as his grave and home, with tours available through the tourist office.
As one of the most isolated locations in the world, located more than 2,000 km from the nearest major landmass, a trip to the island would be a unique experience.
Unfortunately for the residents though, it would appear that without an airport or a more efficient means of travel, the tourist industry will dry up after the RMS makes its final voyage.
For the hardcore, Robinson Crusoe types among them this will probably mean a return to nature, and a more basic way of life. But for those who have experienced more, and who struggle to find work, it may well mean farewell to St Helena for good.