Thursday, July 24, 2014

St. Helena - The Future

Here is where I engage is some crystal-ball gazing, allow myself to snatch snippets of conversation that float aimlessly through the air, reinterpret other conversations and simply draw conclusions from my long, dull and probably erroneous history. In all, my comments may be considered flippant, may prove to be well off the mark, but there again, what else can one expect from a subjective report from a brief visit to St. Helena?

It is clear that the island community of St. Helena is neither going to be abandoned nor allowed to relentlessly decline. It is, after all, home to some 4,000 souls whose lives are dedicated to the island, and in combination with the British citizenship that allows some period of work in the United Kingdom, fosters an economy of sorts and an identity that is strong.

It is, however, in need of significant realignment.

Potentially, there is a major problem from a housing imbalance driven by the economic growth; the local economy, and quite possibly the relative productivity that reinforces salaries of only £4,000 per annum, will not be able to stand up to an onslaught of incomers’ and expatriate’s salaries in the competition for housing.

Quite simply, and this pressure already starting, the likelihood is that two parallel economies will evolve, and it is the responsibility of the local council and DFID to put in place structures that will allow these two groups to co-exist. Without protection, relative prosperity will diverge fast and the delicate social and economic balance so vital for the success of an island community will break down.

There is, of course, a very obvious example, and that isfrom Guernsey; this island of global-bankers living side by side with local tradespeople works in significant part because they have a system of property ownership divided into “local” and “open”; This system allows property to be available in both the global market and for local residents. St. Helena must surely be looking at this issue, and the sooner that structures are put in place the easier the transition to an “airport economy” will be.

I really can’t believe that anybody really thinks that the UK government is spending hundreds of millions of pounds in order to foster visitor numbers. While it is abundantly clear that air service will allow the increase of tourism to a significant degree, the project has to be underpinned by knowledge of or and expectation of military involvement. Remote regions throughout the world have relied on military budgets, the only really massive streams of money that are spent on irrational infrastructure (see Adak), and I don’t see St. Helena being any different.

As Ascension appears to come further under the spell of the American’s, or one or two of their more esoteric departments, and head closer to the isolation now enjoyed by Diego Garcia, it is plausible that the UK government is looking to St. Helena to be a base for the GCHQ interests in the South Atlantic. They would at least bring a really zippy internet connection.

It would, in my opinion, be an interesting future. With a number of well-paying jobs focused on eavesdropping, an airbase from which Britain’s, and most likely Europe’s interests in the mineral and strategic virtues of the South Atlantic may be pursued, St. Helena may be reliably well-placed for the future.

With such a base in place, and air service assured, a tourist industry can well develop. Military operations are considerably more discreet than in the past, and it is likely that a small and highly technical group will create no blight on the landscape of this indescribably beautiful island.

Tourists will love St. Helena; my previous posts have indicated a few of the highlights that I see, but with air access, the number of visitors will increase substantially. The local industry will keep working to synchronise their operational and marketing plans, new opportunities will be identified and filled, the accommodation sector will be rationalised and expanded and other businesses that live symbiotically with tourism will emerge.

At the same time, an air route’s opportunity to export fresh produce will surely be the catalyst required to develop a series of “St. Helena Branded” speciality cheeses, soaps, fragrances, fruits, flowers and many other products that require speedy and reliable access to market.

These are frothy times, indeed.

Life will change, but with planning and local input life will evolve; the two groups involved in the island’s future will need to come to some agreements fast on protecting the dual-income nature of St. Helena, at least for a period of twenty-five to thirty years to allow local residents to catch up, and prevent the spoils of a five-hundred year cultural evolution being sold to the highest bidder.

The island is wonderful; I want to return and spend at least a month learning more about St. Helena, and perhaps filling some minor role in assisting the evolution of the tourism industry. One way or another, I hope to be a part of this magical island’s exciting future.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

St. Helena: the Deep Dark Interior

Creeping through the thick cloud-forest, wishing that I had brought a machete, wiping the rain from my eyes and the perspiration from my face, I was wondering how I had got into this mess. The flora was lush, the tree canopies high and with multiple shades of green; the birds noisy, and wind blowing through the myriad of leaves completing the overwhelming presence of the forest. We were deep into a jungle, periodic glimpses through the vegetation showed hills covered by flax, a thick and useless crop now that the ecologically-inclined planet has moved to plastic. It was getting dark, and only the cynical laughter of the mynah birds penetrated the encroaching darkness.

The St. Helenian Cloud Forest on its side

Of course, by simply turning round and walking a hundred yards back down the riverbank, we reached a bridge and our 4WD Toyota ready to drive us back along the road to town, a town that was on the coast, and about 2 kilometres as the crow (or a mynah bird) would fly. But this is the extraordinary contradiction of St. Helena.

It is an island with a diameter of approximately eight kilometres and the widest point. Cutting across the island, one moves from arid desert to lush pastoral land to heavier flora to cloud forest and back along this same spectrum until one reaches the arid coastline once more.

The Arid Coast and the Lake District
The Gentle Inland

I have absolutely no idea how this happens, but can only surmise that it is a function of the island’s  volcanic heritage, its consequential rugged (and unutterably gorgeous) topography and the mystical powers of wind/sun/rain on this isolated piece of land. Whatever the cause, St. Helena offers a wider variety of landscapes within a small region than one could dream possible.

A Malay Rubber Plant; try putting this next to the one 
in your house to encourage it a little.

One drives through Arizona, and turns a corner into the English Lake District, complete with period houses that would make Jane Austen sigh contentedly.  Continue around the next corner and pass quickly through the Rwandan highlands to Southern France, and finally, on the last kilometre drive down a Faroese Valley to the Arizona coastline. At least, it would be how an Arizonan coast might look if it were not landlocked.

The island is really a paradise for walkers, and there are about twenty different, well-mapped and adequately signed walking paths; from “difficult” challenges, walking along the spine of land linking two major peaks with one foot on each slope, to “easy” walks through the gentle, pastoral countryside there are outings to suit all.

A weird and wonderful grove of hardwood trees

It is a strange countryside in many ways because although there are animals, and the normal atmosphere of the “countryside”, there is little activity. Although there are cows, all milk is imported; there are goats, and have been since the Portuguese introduced them in the 1500s, but not an ounce of chevre; there are fields, but limited vegetables. This lack of agricultural activity is changing slowly, and new efforts are evident. The lack of production is variously explained by “EU regulations”, “UK Government disinterest”, “difficult land to work” and so on; there will be, as always, a grain of truth in each of these problems, but one would think that a remote, apparently fertile and hungry land would have come up with more activity; hopefully they will.

One would, at an amateur glance, feel that there is opportunity to rework some of the flax fields and find a suitable eco-market for the twine produced, and that some cottage industries producing local cheeses and fruit would be successful. The coffee from the island, a direct descendant of the Yemeni beans introduced in 1715, and utterly delicious, should command high prices from the world’s coffee aficionados. There must be more to the tale, but one would imagine that in addition to the tourists that the new airport will accommodate, there is room for exporting some high-value products from St. Helena, and the development of a strong brand to represent St. Helenian products.

An embryonic dairy industry

It is an exciting destination in many ways, and the potential for cottage industry evolution is wonderful to see. One can look to the Orkney Islands to see how a remote community can build a global identity for their locally produced jewelry to see a path from now to then; opportunities are there, and the great positive is that they are available to all without heavy investment requirements.

Building the brand of St. Helena for tourism development is important; by simultaneously developing the brand to accommodate the products that will now find a market from this unique and mysterious destination is even more important.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Visiting St. Helena - An Astonishing Island

Travelling for eight days for a four-day business trip, and then spending eight days wending my way home does seem peculiar in this day and age; as I write this, ensconced in a comfortable seat on a Lufthansa flight from Munich to Montreal connected to the world by wi-fi, I marvel that I started my journey home on Friday last week, and it is once again Friday. It is the sort of journey that one thought was consigned to the mists of time, but here it is. And travel in this manner is simply wonderful.

Dinner on board - a tough life; and cabin A 26

It’s funny really; stepping back into some mythical time in the past doesn't feel that odd when one does it. St. Helena has been described as living in the 1950s, and to a point that is true, it also lives in the 1850s and when the mood strikes, the island lives firmly in the 21st century. Much the same can be said, of course, about many remote villages throughout the world, but the really odd thing about St. Helena is the absence of an airport.

It is an absence that is changing as the engineers and constructors from the able South African firm Basil Read construct an airstrip on the island. It is, one of their engineers marvelled, a project unlike any other. They had to start by building a wharf to bring their equipment in, they needed to build a road, import absolutely everything, scrape the top of a hill and use the aggregate to fill in a massive ravine, and then put down an airport. It will be open in 2016, and assuming that an airline actually wants to start scheduled service, and this is by no means a certainty, tourists will start to flood in; that, at least, is the concept.

To attract visitors, the island needs to get tour operators on side, as the world of travel is a highly competitive one, and this was the underlying reason for my presence on the island together with Erik Brown of Halcyon Travel and my old friend Clive Stacey from the London-based travel company, Discover the World. We travelled with Janet Shankland, the St. Helena tourist representative in the UK, and visited every nook and cranny, many guesthouses and hotels, and were left with the main question of why this jewel has been left undisturbed by tourists for so long.

The Famous Four - Erik, Janet, Max and Clive

No good comes from dwelling on the past, but suffice it to say that we all are enthusiastic about the possibilities of travel to the island, and in particular before the airport arrives. The boat trip, which can be truncated on occasion by flying to Ascension Island and shaving a couple of days sailing time from the Cape Town run, is utterly marvellous, and a perfect introduction to this quirky destination.

St. Helena is the ideal destination for generalists; it has history, architecture, Wyre Birds, hiking programs, flora to astonish, SCUBA diving or snorkelling, deep sea fishing and a plentiful supply of souvenirs and South African wine. It offers accommodation to satisfy every taste from delightful guesthouses, such as the Town House where we stayed, to accommodation in perfectly restored 18th century properties. Food is a bit of an issue, but there are restaurants, if one books, and predictably a Chinese that is open regularly. As more tourists arrive, however, this will most certainly change. Self-catering accommodation is also possible, an option that includes the delights of joining the locals for shopping on Vegetable Thursdays.

Passing the time is not an issue at all; the main centre, Jamestown, is a delightful Georgian village, stretched out along a two-mile valley. The harbour dominates one end, of course, along with the major public buildings, The Castle where Important Work is done, the court and library, the police office and HM’s Prison.

The Court House - appropriately defended

 It is also the starting point for those who want to climb the 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder.

Jacobs Ladder on its side (no idea how to turn images around)

This feature of the islands is interesting; built to allow soldiers garrisoned at the top of the hill, guarding the harbour, access to the fleshpots of Jamestown, the stairs (a solid 11’ each one) are a challenge to many. Clive among them, of course, who whizzed up them upon arrival and complained about his leg muscles for the next few days; I, realising that the nearest hospital was in Cape Town, refrained from showing off, and will try and learn Photoshop instead.

Continuing up Main Street, one is struck by the marvellous patina that the buildings exhibited; Georgian, lovely, solid and aged, they live in the continuum of life that stretches back to the days when 1300 ships each year called by for provisions. Jamestown has worn well, and its pubs (both a touch seedy, and I mean that in the most respectful way), and both entertaining function well, there are restaurants, grocery stores and all of the shops that a real High Street should have but few do. There are no chains, no clutch of estate agencies and no pretension; it is a lovely place.

The Market - 1860

The island does support, or at least maintain, a remarkable number of churches. Fortuitously connected to the incumbent Bishop, a cleric who curiously had known and rather liked my deeply un-clerical father and uncles for some thirty years, we were invited to dinner. Richard Fenwick, and his delightful wife Jane, are exactly what one would imagine of the Bishop of St. Helena and Ascension; a remote and really only geographically connected part of the Synod of South Africa, the parish counts over fourteen churches on the island, a couple more in Ascension and cares for the welfare of a people facing extreme change, and looks to the church for a degree of stability.

The Bishop - Richard Fenwick in fine form, and Janet, Richard and I after dinner

Dinner was wonderful; their house a lovely 18th century property, properly decorated with pictures, books and music, and redolent with conversation. Richard himself is a fine organist, and played for us as we enjoyed his cathedral; Jane is a very talented harpist, and an enduring memory of the trip will be sitting with Richard after dinner discussing the ways of the world, my ancestors’ drinking habits, London in the 1970s, and listening to Jane giving Clive his first harp lesson in the living room. Simply delightful, and a quintessential reflection of island life

But Jamestown is simply one small part of the island of St. Helena, and we left in the morning to explore more of this remote and unknown land.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The RMS St. Helena: Nautical, but Nice;

"The RMS" as she is fondly known,  is an odd ship; built in 1990, it was probably old fashioned before she was launched, and she remains the lifeline for the remote and rather wonderful island of St. Helena, with periodic service to the island of Ascension that lies some 700 miles to the north.

The voyage to the island from Cape Town takes six days, and far from being monotonous, she offers a wide variety of activities ranging from people watching to the gymnasium to the movie offerings and of course the food.

The people are the most interesting; built to accommodate a maximum of 155 passengers in three basic categories of cabins, with twin, four and six-berth units available, she rarely carries more than about one hundred. There are Saints heading home for a vacation, business travellers heading out to work on one element of the island’s infrastructure or another, government officials and some tourists. The ship is fairly small, at 6.500 tons, but sufficient to weather the unpredictable seas of the South Atlantic, and deliver her passengers and the 3,000 tons of freight she carries reliably and safely.

The ship is redolent of a time-gone-by. Of course, this is mostly because nobody travels on a five-day journey by ship anymore to reach a destination; we fly, although this is currently an impossibility for St. Helena as they have no airport. One is being built at the moment, and it is planned to be ready in 2016, and many hopes and fears are riding on the inevitable changes that it will bring to the islands economy and social fabric.

The ship offers deck quoits, shuffleboard, domino tournaments, beef tea and frog racing; there are bridge games and visits to the bridge, there are movies, a library and the simple pleasure of watching the water for whales and the occasional massive sea turtle. Conversations are started and drift off into the afternoon, to be picked up once more over an evening sundowner; all very civilised.

There is a wi-fi service, although of such a miserable balance between cost and speed, it is barely worth acknowledging; however, there is much to be said for a week without Facebook and email.

Time ticks along; our cabins are small and simple, almost monastic. The public areas are pleasant and not over-crenellated, the decks hint of summer jollity in the winter shadows, and the water spills amusingly out of the swimming pool as we bump our way south to Cape Town. It is a strange community, currently of 75 passengers and 59 crew bobbing 4,500 metres above a plethora of googly-eyed sea-creatures and a thousand miles from land, yet dressing for dinner and a cocktail with the captain. It is really rather pleasant.

Passage on the ship is not inexpensive, but more than reasonable when one considers the route. A berth in a small two-berth cabin (with shared facilities) will start at about £475 each way. Larger cabins with en suite facilities will run about £1,000 and the largest cabins about £1,500. Considering that this brings passage to St. Helena, a delightful island of which more will be written later, and six days/five nights on board the RMS with fine food throughout, it is really a very good deal indeed.

It is the end of an era; the ship will be decommissioned after the airport starts operation, and for the island, its visitors and above all its residents, this change is a little frightening. One should travel to the island now, and enjoy the privilege of being one of the last people to travel to a remote country by ship.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The RMS St. Helena and arrival on The Island

Five days ago I boarded the RMS St. Helena at a distant and apparently little-used dock in Cape Town, and today I am sitting in a guesthouse in Jamestown, the Georgian capital of the remote island of St. Helena.

One could tell that the dock was little used by its casual approach to security imposed by a number of cold looking chaps huddled round looking like discarded chess pieces. However, we set sail with no worry, and gradually pulled away from the Cape toward the remote rock in the Atlantic Ocean called St. Helena.


It was journey back in time, and one remembers the delights of deck games, quizzes, tombola, frog races, beef tea, convivial bars and well stocked libraries, all punctuated by regular and rather pleasant meals.

Certainly, the feeling yet again of clambering through a looking glass into a parallel universe was reinforced by our activities. It was curious to imagine the peculiarity of 100 passengers (minus the chap who was travelling in the hospital) and 50 crews dressing up for the Captain’s Cocktail party while floating on the ocean surface some five kilometres above the bottom in a 6,000 ton boat.  The entire journey was redolent of an era when everyone travelled by sea, and indeed there were sufficient government “officials” off to St. Helena to administer, audit and generally keep order to keep this image at front of mind.

It was a marvellous journey; the ship is not a cruise vessel, it is a passenger ship. It is comfortable, cosy, friendly and well able to accommodate travellers seeking a rather different experience. The sea was mild, with only one bouncy evening, the sky endless, the water infinite and the expectations as we drew toward this remote island were palpable.

Best known, if known at all, St. Helena was the destination that the English decided to send Napoleon to die. He had caused the English no end of trouble, and had form as an escapee from exile having managed to squirrel his way from Elba. Believing that his new exile would be in North America, one can only imagine his surprise at disembarking in Jamestown, an island that is reputed to be the most isolated inhabited land on earth.

Jamestown, St. Helena
Approaching the St. Helenian coast

To prevent his further escape, 2,500 soldiers were despatched to guard him, and four warships continuously circled the 50 mile circumference of the island, two in each direction. Guards were posted in a circle around Longwood, his rather dreary house, at 50 metres, but at night they were drawn in to stand at the house itself to prevent an Empirical Departure.

They were successful, Napoleon duly died and was buried in the manner of a Russian doll inside five layered coffins; they were of  mahogany, lead, more mahogany, tin and finally an inner protective wrap of a more mundane wood. Designed carefully to prevent movement, in 1840 by order of the French government, he was exhumed with difficulty and removed to Paris where he has lain in state ever since.

There are other interesting things to do; it is an island that has a rather lovely Georgian fa├žade, and a genuine feel of life decades ago. It is an ecological delight, with rare birds, wildlife, fauna all among some quite extraordinary scenery. It is a place of wonders, least of all why on earth it is still here, and how it will actually adjust to tourism on a greater scale once the airport opens in 2016.

The only way off
Jamestown, St. Helena


The journey to St. Helena has just begun.

Friday, July 4, 2014

On board the RMS St. Helena

It is very odd to be here, on a working ship, miles out into the South Atlantic, with an expensive and intermittent wireless access' of course, having any access at all is pretty unusual, but these are unusual times.

There are 100 passengers on board the RMS St. Helena, including one gentleman who is lying in the hospital bed attached to a drip. We are a curious group, comprising Afrikaans workers heading (presumably) to work in the tuna processing plant, or in construction perhaps, “Saints” heading home after a visit to the mainland, officials dispatched from London to ensure an orderly existence on the islands, a few tourists and us; “us” being a motley group of four heading to St. Helena to seek our fortunes in the travel industry.
That is not entirely accurate.

We, Clive Stacey from Discover the World Travel and Erik Brown from Halcyon Collections, both London-based, and I are the guests of the St. Helena government. We are travelling with the most able and delightful Janet Shankland, the UK representative of the St. Helena tourist board to look at the possibility of developing some more activity in this sector. The question has become more relevant now that an airport is being built and by 2016, there will be air service to this most remote island. Currently only accessible by ship, and this a five-day, 1,400 mile voyage each way from Cape Town, the island’s visitors are a determined bunch.

The ship is rather fun; she was built in Aberdeen, apparently the 1,000th vessel to have passed through the shipyards of A & P Appledore (Aberdeen) Ltd, and launched in October 1989. She carries a crew of 59, including a doctor, and up to 155 passengers in addition to a few hundred tons of freight, snugly plied up on a forward deck.

Unprepossessing, and not unattractive, the RMS St. Helena is a working ship; the cabins are comfortable, the public areas convivial, the food plentiful and the bar well-stocked and inexpensive. The voyage is slow, and our stately progress of 15knots will put us into Jamestown in four-days’ time; we have sailed 280 miles so far, and have 1433 to go.

Time to go en explore yet again.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Joys and Sorrows of Wandering (not many sorrows really)

Even by my own rather peripatetic standards, 2014 has started off to be a year of much travel. It is the first of July, and in the first six months of the year I have covered 89,500 miles, and during those wanderings have been as far distant as North Korea, Adak in the Aleutian Islands and now to St. Helena in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean.

I travel only partly for personal pleasure; one of the joys of owning a travel company that specialises in travel to the more outlandish parts of the world is the requirement to get out and see for one’s self before marketing programs to our clientele. While this may seem to be a wondrous job, and indeed I get many notes asking if I need assistance with my bags, it is actually work.

The role of a travel company, once its boundaries and mission have been established, is to provide its clientele with travel experiences that will satisfy their interests, style and curiosity. There are many fine travel companies the world over, and it is with the global cooperation of a vast network of businesses and individuals that the travel industry can continuously refresh itself, and offer new destinations to the world’s wanderers. It is through this vast network that we are able to find and meet partners to help us bring ideas to vacations.

Of course, people globally do not travel to the same places at the same time. This gives the opportunity for destinations to grow, to become more sophisticated and to evolve as their market becomes more diversified and grows into a mainstream destination.

Of course, there are many who are not looking for that sophistication, or homogenisation. Increasing numbers of travellers are seeking a more “raw” experience. Not hard-core adventure, but at least the feeling that they have travelled to a foreign country, and not simply another “global brand” location. And so our quest for our clients takes us to new and exciting destinations, and more often now to exciting and unexplored parts of better-known lands.

I am often asked where my favourite destinations are, and where I think are the “new” locations for folks to look at as they plan their vacations, and I am happy to offer a few here, and in a couple of subsequent blogs. They are, of course, highly subjective, but do bear in mind that as I am a “professional” traveller, my living is made by being right, and if I am wrong, I stand to lose a lot of money and time!

Georgia the country and not the state is one of my favourite destinations in the world. It has evolved from the Rip Van Winkle era of Soviet depression fast, and the tourist industry is one economic sector that has seen investment, development and success. Based on the country’s inherent attractions, its landscape, culture and above all its people, Georgia has started to become a popular destination with regional and European tourists, and slowly but surely, it is making its mark with North Americans.

Montevideo, the quirky capital of Uruguay, is another favourite. Less brash than Buenos Aires, it sits on the far side of the River Plate welcoming all who visit (except, perhaps vegetarians; Uruguayans appear to consider a chicken as a sort of vegetable). It is a city in need, some would say, of a coat of paint, but frankly I love the patina that it has. Evocative of a time when South America was embracing immigrants from Europe, live was good, fun was everywhere, the candombe music of the region was and remains infectious and the city’s wonderful location on ocean and river was everything; truly fine place to spend a few days or a few weeks.

Les Isles du Salut in French Guyana are the most extraordinary day trip that I have ever taken; three islands, formerly part of the brutal French penitentiary system, they lie partly fading and partly alive. To feel the isolation, deprivation and sheer helplessness of life here is impossible to describer, but after a day’s visit, or perhaps longer as one island now houses an auberge, one can readily understand the anguish of their former residents.

The Great Barrier Reef, and in particular spending a day out with the catamarans of Passions of Paradise, is an astonishing way to understand this wonder of the world. They head to a quiet reef, the number of passengers is small and the attention is amazing; all too many tours in the world’s most iconic destinations are being ruined by volume. The Barrier Reef is in places, but not from Cairns with Passions!

And there are more favourites yet; The Faroe Islands, Lufthansa, Pyongyang, Kerala, the Languedoc and Newfoundland to name a few …. Let me know your favourites … I love to hear from you! And while we are at it, what are some of your worst destinations, or pet travel peeves?