This is a blog post written by Erik Brown who visited St Helena as a representative of Halcyon Collections, a bespoke travel company.
I look at St Helena every day. It’s the screensaver on my Apple Mac – a shot I took as we were sailing away from the island after a too short four-day visit. St Helena is hazy in the photograph, but I can still make out Lot’s Wife and Sandy Bay. The sky is cloudy, but there’s plenty of blue around the clouds and the ocean is a deep indigo.
I don’t know about you, but it often takes me a while to work out what I think about a place. There are trips I’ve been on – and quite expensive trips, at that – that I still have no real opinion about: Thailand, for instance. We spent three weeks driving across the country from temple to temple until we were exhausted. But I still don’t really know whether it was a good holiday.
St Helena, on the other hand, left me wanting more. It’s getting on for a month since we left, and I’m still having flashbacks: of three of us sitting, drinking coffee, in a café by the moat watching a Fairy Tern preen itself in a tree; of me snaffling some of Marlene Yon’s superb cake left for us under a little cloche in Susan’s Town House; of four of us drinking Stephen Biggs’s excellent coffee on the veranda of Farm Lodge; and of all of us hanging on while Aaron Legg drove his Mitsubishi people carrier into places that even the most adventurous donkey might have shied away from.
There had been four of us in our party: me – representing Halcyon Collections; Clive Stacey, founder of Discover the World; Max Johnson, founder of The Great Canadian Travel Company; and Janet Shankland, who represents St Helena Tourism in the UK. I was incredibly lucky with my travelling companions. Within a few hours we chaps had become “Janet’s boys”, and the practical jokes had begun.
I’ve written elsewhere that travelling to St Helena was like going home. And I don’t just mean going home to my geographical birthplace in the North Riding of Yorkshire. I mean it was like going back to my childhood in the 1950s and 60s.
The comparison is entirely positive. I found the Saints friendly, warm and willing to stop and chat on the street, just as people had been in my home town all of those years ago. It’s something I miss in the driven chaos of London.
The journey on the RMS St Helena had a nostalgic feel too. The last time I played a game that involved racing plywood animals threaded with string across a floor was probably at Butlin’s in Filey on the North Yorkshire coast in the 1960s. And the RMS has rekindled a forgotten taste for beef tea, which I now have at least once a day – with a dash or two of Tabasco.
The RMS was a vital part of the journey. I’ve been to countries all over the world, and I’ve usually descended from the skies after an uncomfortable journey in the belly of a plane. The sense of arrival has always been enfeebled as a result.
Catching sight of St Helena as a smudge on the horizon after five days at sea was genuinely exciting. The sea journey made the arrival special in a way that arriving at an airport can never be. And even our passage through immigration was a pleasure, with smiling officials laughing and joking as they checked our documents.
I was mortified to hear that the plucky little RMS could be sold for scrap. (And if anybody wants to launch a Save the RMS campaign, consider me a signatory to the petition.)
And so to business. What do I make of St Helena as a tourist destination? Well, I think there are two answers to that question, and they are time tied.
Before the airport opens in 2016, I think the journey to this most remote of islands is one of the last Great Adventures in the world. And that is how we are marketing it at Halcyon.
Curiously, our group of travellers was bang on for the current target market. We chaps were aged between 58 and 63. All three of us had founded companies. Two of us had sold them. We were still fit – in an act of sheer chutzpah, Clive actually got to the top of Jacob’s Ladder – and we were curious enough to want to know about pansubtropical dolphins, Tungi and Napoleon’s bathtub.
After the airport opens, I guess there’ll be a steady increase in the flow of tourists from Europe, albeit from a low base. The age of the target market could drop significantly: big game fishing, scuba diving and hiking should exert a strong pull on a younger market. But whatever the age the ideal, I believe, would be a lower volume of higher-spending travellers.
Yesterday, somebody asked me what the highlight of the trip was, and for once I was completely lost for words. Then I realised, it was all highlight: I honestly loved every minute of it.