John Honeywell, aka Captain Greybeard, embarks on an intrepid cruise to the tiny island of St Helena

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St Helena

Nobody seems to be able to understand why I was so determined to visit St Helena, and I started to wonder myself, as I embarked on an epic journey involving 14 days of travel in order to spend eight days on the tiny speck of an island in the South Atlantic. For someone who spends a lot of time on cruises, however, it was an irresistible challenge.

Plying that journey year-round is the rugged working Royal Mail ship RMS St Helena, which carries 150 passengers and 2,000 tons of cargo.

The vessel, which also serves Ascension and the even remoter Tristan da Cunha, anchors in James Bay – St Helena has no breakwater. Containers are craned onto self-propelled pontoons and passengers make the brief journey to the wharf by tender.

Like the island itself, the ship is a journey back in time. Entertainment involves deck games and quizzes, or books from the library; beef tea is served each morning at 11am, and officers host dinner tables in the compact dining saloon. It has a homely feel, but the cabins – some of them shared by four – are as basic as those on a cross-Channel ferry. I spent my time on board reading, talking to fellow adventurers and islanders (known as Saints) and winning the quiz.

Even the extras in the modest B-deck suite that the island’s governor and his wife were using during my return to Cape Town are limited to a fridge and a bowl of fruit. No balcony, or even picture window, from which to survey the ocean; just a simple porthole within splashing distance of the swell.

The view forward from the ship’s main lounge is of containers on the cargo deck; the Sun Lounge looks out across a small swimming pool to a large area of open deck and the endless wake trailing behind the ship, the emptiness of the sky occasionally broken by an albatross or a pair of petrels. The journey provides a taste of St Helena even before we get there. Pictures of its spectacular scenery adorn the walls. Most of the crew are from the island, and many of the passengers are residents or government employees returning from leave.

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More than simply a vehicle for tourists, the RMS is a lifeline for the island’s inhabitants, their ambulance when they need to be
taken to Cape Town for medical treatment. It’s held in such affection that the mood of the whole island changes when it’s in James Bay, almost like it were bringing an enormous happy pill for everyone. When the RMS is at anchor, all must be right with the world.

After a cursory customs and immigration check, we pass through an archway at Jamestown’s Wharf, beneath the crest of The East India Company and into the Grand Parade, to enter what could be a film set.

If horses and carriages returned to replace the parked cars in Main Street, the Georgian houses – now a collection of shops, hotels, guest houses and the busy Post Office – could be straight out of a Jane Austen novel.

A British Overseas Territory, St Helena is due south of Cornwall and sets its clocks to Greenwich Mean Time. Ageing Ford Escorts, Austin and Rover cars drive on the left – at least where the tortuous roads are wide enough for two cars to pass.

The Governor’s imposing residence at Plantation House, and splendid homes such as Farm Lodge – that’s the boutique hotel where owner Steve grows and roasts his own coffee – could stand in for Gone With The Wind’s Tara. Longwood House, where Napoleon lived in exile from 1815 and died in 1821, is waiting to star in a bicentennial biopic, if any such project is planned.

Although the island is surrounded by the incredible blue waters of the South Atlantic, there’s no safe location for swimming or sunbathing. Sandy Bay Beach, backed by an arid landscape that could be the setting for a sci-fi fantasy, has a remarkable crescent of black sand but a vicious undertow.

Ready for a remake of Jurassic Park, the lush green slopes of Diana’s Peak – at 2,685 feet the island’s highest point and its first National Park – are draped with tree ferns, cabbage trees and other indigenous plants which shelter many of the unique species of wildlife unique to St Helena.

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Experts claim the proportion of endemic creatures is higher than on the Galapagos Islands, although the animals are mostly invertebrates and creepy-crawlies – there are 77 distinct species of weevil, for example – rather than the colourful finches that Charles Darwin found so fascinating.

My guide for a visit to the cloud forest was David Pryce (a conservation expert known as “The Bug Man”) and his joy at discovering two tiny creatures concealed in a cabbage tree stalk was unconfined. He could rattle off their Latin names, but sadly even he could not determine the lesser of the two weevils.

The wirebird is an island symbol – and its only endemic bird – that pretends to have a broken wing in order to distract attention away from its chicks, a tactic which has little effect when deployed against predators.

On another tour I witnessed work in progress on the island’s £250 million airport construction project. When it opens in two years’ time it will transform the island. Not every islander welcomes the development; while some are ready to embrace the opportunities it will bring, others are concerned about the changes to their lifestyle that will inevitably follow.

St Helena is not going to be dragged easily into the 21st Century. It will keep its air of mystery for a few years yet. If you’re looking for a unique travel experience, a cruise to somewhere your friends will definitely not have visited, this is it. It’s a long journey, but it’s one I’d like to make again.

GETTING THERE: A 19-day Hideaway Tour (with eight days on the island) departing Cape Town on 11 September 2014 will be accompanied by Prof. Colin Lewis (Rhodes University, South Africa), for presentations on the island’s natural environment, geology and history. Full board on RMS St Helena and B&B (with shared facilities) at Wellington House Hotel in Jamestown costs £2,745pp. International flights and overnight accommodation in Cape Town are not included in the package. For more info call +290 22158 or visit sthelenatourism.com.

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