A tiny volcanic island located right in the middle of the South Atlantic, St. Helena is without a doubt one of the world’s hardest-to-reach places.
In fact, its inaccessibility led the British to choose it as a prison island for Napoleon Bonaparte, who was exiled here in 1815.
Napoleon never lived to make it off the island, but a new air service from New York is about to make this remote British possession that much easier for international tourists to visit — and to leave.
United Airlines has introduced a new nonstop flight service from New York/Newark to Cape Town, beginning December 15, 2019, which will be able to connect to new seasonal flights from Cape Town to St Helena operated by regional South African airline Airlink.
Airlink will operate flights every Tuesday from Cape Town to St Helena from December 3, 2019 to February 25, 2020 (excluding Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve).
That’s in addition to Airlink’s existing Johannesburg to St Helena flights, which operate every Saturday.
Sounds infrequent? Well, until 2017, St Helena didn’t have a commercial flight service at all.
Wild seas and high winds
Until a few years ago, the island’s only regular link to the outside world was RMS St. Helena, the mail ship that, every three weeks, covered the five-and-a-half day journey from Cape Town, South Africa.
In 2016, with much fanfare, St. Helena prepared to inaugurate its first ever airport — but then an unexpected obstacle got in the way: the South Atlantic winds.
South African airline Comair, a British Airways franchise, planned to start flights to the island in May 2016 using a Boeing 737-800 aircraft. However, a serious wind shear issue was detected as soon as the airliner attempted to land.
The wind shear only affects aircraft when landing from the north, but if the aircraft approaches from the south, there’s a problem with tailwinds. Prevailing tailwinds mean that aircraft need a longer runway to land with a full load.
Smaller aircraft can still land, but size and weight limitations mean the route’s uneconomic for most airlines.
Atlantic Star Airlines, a start-up founded by former British Airways pilots with the purpose of linking St. Helena to the UK, advocated the use of Avro RJ100 aircraft, a now-aging model that nevertheless has the capability to land on very short runways.
Although it executed a successful stopover in 2016, the Avro option fell to the wayside.
Then Embraer, the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer, flew one of its Embraer E190 jets from Fortaleza, Brazil direct to St. Helena. As well as demonstrating the capabilities of this aircraft type and its suitability for operations in the island, the Brazilian firm’s publicity stunt left us with stunning footage of St.Helena’s natural beauty.
When Airlink finally stepped in to launch its St. Helena to Johannesburg in 2017, it was an Embraer E190 which finally connected St. Helena to the outside world by air.
The plane carried a a maximum of 76 passengers, instead of the usual 99, in order to comply with operational restrictions imposed by the tailwinds.
A unique island
St. Helena has a population of about 4,500 and, with a tourism industry still in its infancy, it’s a sort of lost paradise.
It boasts an unspoiled natural environment with ecosystems ranging from rainforest to desert. Its waters also present numerous opportunities for whale- and dolphin-watching.
It has a picturesque capital, Jamestown, and several historical sites, some connected to the island’s past role as a Royal Navy anti-slavery base.
And the unpolluted skies over St Helena are perfectly suited for stargazing — in fact it was while on St. Helena that astronomer Edmond Halley worked on the first star catalog ever compiled with the aid of a telescope.
One of the most promising tourist markets, though, is that of Napoleon-era enthusiasts.
St. Helena welcomes a small but regular stream of French visitors who come to see the sites linked to their country’s former emperor, who died in exile on the island.
These include Longwood House, where Napoleon was living at the time of his death in 1821, as well as The Briars, his first residence in the island. The Valley of the Tomb is where he was buried before his remains were repatriated.
The Napoleonic Estates also have a peculiarity that adds to St. Helena’s uniqueness: they’re under direct French administration and enjoy extraterritorial status, making them French enclaves within British territory.
The French flag flies over them and the French Republic maintains a consul on the island that takes care of their preservation.
Rise and fall of a tiny island
When looking at St. Helena’s tiny dot on the map it’s easy to forget it played host to the likes of Napoleon, Darwin and Halley and was once right in the middle of one of the most important trade routes in the world.
What geography gave, geography took away and the ocean that once linked it to the epicenters of culture and commerce became, in later times, a formidable barrier.
However, as the island prepares to open itself further to the world, St. Helena might still emerge as a destination of choice for the world’s most discerning tourists.
A hidden treasure waiting to be rediscovered.