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  • Writer's picturePeter Antonucci

St. Helena (British Overseas Territory) Island Tour

Thursday | April 2, 2015

Today was a very busy day. On this small island of St. Helena, British Overseas Territory, there really aren’t many sights to see. At first, I thought this was no more than a makeshift stopping point to substitute for West Africa (cancelled due to Ebola), but we have learned that St. Helena is an important island in the nautical history of the Atlantic Ocean.

Early in the morning, right around sunrise, we ascended to the 12th deck to watch the sail into St. Helena.


There were only 40 residents aboard our majestic vessel, so even though the moment was grand, attendance was sparse.  


We enjoyed coffee and croissant while taking photographs and speculating about what Napoleon thought as he approached the island in October 1815. When greeted by the heavily garrisoned walls, numerous cannons and British warships circling the island, the ex-emperor could not have held out much hope the French would ever come to rescue him from exile.


Jamestown is a small town located by the bay, and climbing up the cliff. It appears to be mostly a venue for commercial purposes – small shops, banking, and the like. But as one’s eye follows the mountains, one can see colonies of homes in the sky.


After returning to the apartment for breakfast and getting ready for the day, I headed out to the island- highlights tour, as we so often do when we visit a new city or country.

As our tender drew closer to the island, we could see the abandoned fortresses that ensconced the hilltops, making a challenge virtually impossible. Moreover, as soon as one lands, one is confronted with what used to be a 10-foot-deep moat that rings all of Jamestown.


Because of the small roads and lack of regular tourist traffic, there are no buses. Instead, we were hustled into small vehicles in which we were ferried around the island. Our guide was a local “Saint” who drove a 1995 Ford Sierra.

(The local people who reside on St. Helena are called Saints.) Our car was an old one with few electronic gadgets. For example, we enjoyed the chance to crank the handles to open the windows.

We drove up and up the mountain on a single lane road lined by walls of 3-foot-tall stones that had been placed there many centuries ago. Indeed, the island was a mix of homes from the 1600s right through this year. Once we got high above the foothills, we were treated to spectacular views of the valleys, the sailboats moored offshore, and our own floating home.


From that vantage point, we were able to see Briars Pavilion, the house that was home to Napoleon for the first six months he was on the island.


Several of us were transported in an open-air Chevrolet from 1908. This vehicle has been in constant use since that time.

At the top of one of the peaks was High Knoll Fort, built in 1874 for the island population in the event of an invasion..


At the top of the mountain, we visited the St. Helena distillery, located in the forest. The owner and his wife were hospitable, allowing us to sample several different home-brewed spirits.


Tequila is also made from the prickly pear plants, but this prickly pear drink is made only from the fruit, discarding the leaves that also go into the making of tequila.

There facility included huge copper and also stainless steel tanks, allowing the brewing of such spirits as gin and spiced rum, which were purchased by several of the other residents.

Immediately outside the distillery, we identified a banana tree. I did not realize that bananas grew up, not down. A long protrusion from the bunch of bananas would soon form a new branch from which other bananas would grow.


Along the way, we saw fascinating flora and fauna. Look, for example, at what appears to be an upside down growing pine tree. I have no idea what it is, but it was quite interesting.


Our next stop was the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte.

We walked down a long grass path to find the tomb. Napoleon does not lie in that tomb many longer, and the sentry post is long deserted. His remains were picked up by the French 25 years after his arrival on the island and returned to Paris where he is buried in a massive vault. The tomb itself bears no inscription but is French property and is maintained by the French government.


The British governor at the time of Napoleon’s death despised Napoleon. He proposed an inscription for the tomb that would have simply read, Napoleon Bonaparte with the years of his life and death. The French governor objected saying that they only wanted the word Napoleon to be on the tomb. As a result, nothing was ever inscribed on the tomb.

While traversing back from Napoleon’s tomb, we came upon even more colorful wild flowers.


We also encountered small white birds, which lay an egg on a branch, without the use of a nest.


Also on our walk, we encountered the infamous New Zealand flax that has been so important to the island’s economy in the middle of the last century, but was discontinued from production in 1966.


And, we saw a herd of cattle of many colors, huddled under a tree.


Beautiful red cardinals stood guard outside the area where Napoleon had been buried.


Our next stop was Longwood House, the house in which Napoleon was imprisoned for the majority of his time on St. Helena. It also is the property of the French government, as depicted by the famous red white and blue flag.


Among the things present was Napoleon’s war cot, which was carried to all his battles, and which he had transported to St. Helena.


We heard one story of an uncomfortable exchange between Napoleon and the Governor General of the island. The Governor General said to Napoleon: “Sir, I don’t think I know you well.” Napoleon responded, “I don’t know you either – I never saw you on the battlefield” pointing out the General’s lack of military experience.


Our next stop was the Boer Cemetery which is the eternal home to the Boer prisoners who were imprisoned on St. Helena and died between 1900-1902 during the Anglo Boer war in South Africa.


Our next stop was Plantation House, the residents of the island’s governor, as well as that of Jonathan, the world’s oldest living animal – a giant tortoise who is 183 years old.


In addition to Jonathan, there are several other old (46 to 60 year old) tortoises that grace the grounds including, David. While the Plantation House may be the residence of the governor, I have to believe that someone who is appointed to be the governor of this island must feel something akin to Napoleon and the exile he experienced.

We stopped at the top of Jacob’s ladder, which was built in 1829 as an inclined plane and used to haul manure up from the town and to send goods down.


The ladder, or staircase, is 600 feet tall and contains 699 steps. When one completes a climb of the ladder, one can purchase a souvenir certificate from the museum.

When we got back into town, we walked up and down several streets looking for something interesting to buy. We found one general store where I purchased two beautiful 9 foot deep sea fishing rods and reels.


Back on the ship, we watched a few lectures before preparing for dinner.  At 6:30, I went back to town to Castle Gardens and a local eatery called Annie’s place.

There were eight members of the crew seated at another table, including the golf pro and his wife who is the director of human resources on the ship as well as some members of our expedition team. After sending them half a dozen beers, I decided to pick up the dinner check for the entire table. They were excited about that!

On the way down to the tender dock ashore, there were hundreds of locals sitting and standing, as if the arrival of our boat was some giant carnival. We waved and smiled at them all as we waited for, and boarded, our tender back to the ship. Not until the next day did we learn the true reason they were there. Because Thursday was Maundy Thursday, it is a tradition that the male townspeople take to the sea in boats to fish that day and night. When their boats or nets are full, they return to shore, whereupon the families retreat into the hills for a picnic – type event to commemorate Good Friday.


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