I haven’t been to St. Helena, and I’m unlikely to get there anytime soon.
That would be true even if I packed up and left today. A volcanic tropical island stranded in the south Atlantic — 1,200 miles west of Africa, 1,800 miles east of Brazil — St. Helena is one of the world’s most remote places. It’s a designation all the more impressive when you consider St. Helena is part of the United Kingdom and air travel is closing in on its second century.
But you can’t book a flight to this particular outpost of the empire. After years of planning, the island of 4,000 finally got an airport last year. Commercial flights have been put on hold indefinitely, however — something to do with unsafe wind shears, and an embarrassment for the long-awaited coming-out of Britain’s overseas paradise.
For now, the only practical way to reach St. Helena is the way Saul Solomon did more than 200 years ago: by boat. Solomon, the patriarch of a prominent Jewish merchant family with British, St. Helenan and South African roots, is among the island’s most influential figures; another is Napoleon, who died here in 1821 during a final exile.
While Napoleon was wasting away in a drafty farmhouse, gnashing his teeth over lost French territory, Solomon was building an entirely different kind of empire — one founded on trade with the hundreds of ships that dropped anchor on St. Helena during the golden age of seafaring. The island’s very remoteness made it an attractive way station for sailors, though it probably didn’t seem so attractive when British-born Solomon was stranded, deathly ill, en route to India.
The young adventurer recovered his health and built a business portfolio that included much of St. Helena’s early infrastructure: the island’s first boarding house, general store, newspaper, insurance agency and funeral home. Solomon’s extended family settled there as well, establishing not only a prosperous British outpost, but also a wealthy and connected Jewish community. (A St. Helena-born nephew, also called Saul Solomon, became a noted South African politician and business titan nicknamed the “Cape Disraeli.”)
St. Helena’s Jewish community is no more, though Solomon remained in control of numerous business and administrative functions until well into the 20th century. The family legacy remains evident in place names and plaques around St. Helena, as well as in the currency; St. Helena still uses its own pound, a legacy of the original coins issued by Solomon nearly 200 years ago.
St. Helena also still uses the last Royal Mail ship in operation — the R.M.S. St. Helena — to ferry passengers back and forth from Cape Town. For those without a seafaring yacht or a private jet, this remains the only way to visit St. Helena: Fly to Cape Town, book passage on the ship and settle in for the five-day voyage.
Saints, as the locals call themselves, are accustomed to the hardships of life many time zones away from the nearest airport. They’re acutely aware of what they don’t have (abundant potable water; universities; major industry) and what they’re lucky to have (the Southern Hemisphere’s oldest public library; Napoleon’s final homestead; the world’s oldest living animal, a 180-year-old tortoise named Jonathan who lives in the governor’s mansion).
Like the similarly volcanic Azores, St. Helena was uninhabited before the Portuguese discovered it in 1502. And like the other Atlantic outposts of Europe, St. Helena offers the peculiar juxtaposition of colonial towns with landscapes more reminiscent of Brazil or Africa: 1,000-foot-high cliffs, sweeping deserts, wild pastures and green valleys filled with exotic species.
Most visitors land in Jamestown, the capital, where Solomon’s name is ubiquitous. Those feeling the need for exercise after a week at sea can take on the 699-step challenge of Jacob’s ladder, a mountainside staircase and onetime cargo apparatus that rewards the physically fit with sweeping views. At its base is the Museum of St. Helena, which opened in 2002 on the 500th anniversary of European discovery.
Fans of Napoleon — among them many who appreciate the French Emperor’s vigorous emancipation, and inclusion, of French Jews — will want to make a pilgrimage to his grave and his final domicile, Longwood House. A sprawling farmhouse on a flower-dotted, windswept plain, Longwood doesn’t look so bad in pictures today. But it was surely a comedown for a guy used to being at the center of the action.
Plenty of people today desire exactly what Napoleon so loathed: an exile from contemporary politics and society. While St. Helena didn’t prove too healthful for him, those with abundant cash, spare time and adventurous spirits may find the isle to be just what the doctor ordered.