Not being passengers on a cruise ship (see my separate blog entry – St Helena by Cruise Ship (or not)) or having our own yacht we only had one option when it came to getting to St Helena and that was via the RMS St Helena, either from Cape Town or Ascension Island. There was no airport on St Helena. One was being constructed, funded by the wonderfully benevolent British taxpayer, and was expected to open in 2015. As of January 2017 its opening has been delayed indefinitely, due to wind shear issues (something which Charles Darwin had identified during his visit to the Island in 1836!).
The upside of this is that you still have a chance to visit before the airport opens and to travel on the magnificent RMS St Helena which is scheduled for decommissioning when the airport does open, assuming it hasn’t rusted away in the meantime. There is no doubt that St Helena will change when the airport eventually does open so if you do consider going go before the airport opens.
You will need to carefully read shipping and flight schedules to work out what is the best routing for you given your time availability and how long you want to spend on St Helena or each island if coming in or leaving via Ascension Island. This research is especially important if you wish to visit St Helena and Ascension Island in one trip, as I recommend you do – they are very different.
I will admit that the very thought of going on a ‘cruise’ has always repulsed me but I absolutely loved the trip aboard the RMS St Helena and simply cannot recommend it enough. It was very much part of our trip and not just a means of merely getting to St Helena or Ascension Island.
From Cape Town to St Helena
We travelled to St Helena from Cape Town and left via Ascension Island.
The sea passage from Cape Town to Jamestown, St Helena took us 6 days (5 nights). When we travelled, early in 2013, the ship’s timetable was very static and you basically got 8 days on St Helena, if returning to Cape Town, or 2.5 days if going on the Ascension Island. Check current schedules to see what combinations are being offered new – I had 2.5 days on St Helena and would have preferred a few more.
Departing from Cape Town we left from The Mission to Seafarers, 660 Duncan Road, Port of Cape Town. Facilities there were basic and there was no tax refund service for the RMS St Helena, not that I needed it.
From Ascension Island to St Helena
If you chose to come via Ascension Island, unless you are returning from a trip up from St Helena on the RMS St Helena, you will need to get to Ascension Island first. You have no choice here which makes life easy. You must take a Royal Air Force (RAF) flight from Brize Norton in England. I will cover the RAF flight and Ascension Island’s entry requirements in separate Ascension Island blog entries. Suffice to say here that you will (should!) want to – or it will almost certainly be necessary to – spend some time on Ascension Island before you continue your journey to St Helena on-board the RMS St Helena, a voyage time of three nights.
On-board the RMS St Helena
The RMS St Helena is one of, if not, the last operating Royal Mail Ships in the world – which, for me, makes it something special in itself. It is a combined passenger / cargo ship and, being the only mode of transport to and from St Helena, it is the lifeblood of the island. A large number of Saints (as the ‘St Helenians’ are referred to) work on Ascension Island and the Falklands (which they access via Ascension Island).
Given the above factors it came as no surprise that the majority of passengers on the ship were Saints going about their business and external business people travelling to the islands on their business. Tourists comprised a very small minority of passengers on both legs of my trip, to St Helena and then on to Ascension Island. On our trip there were around 100 passengers to St Helena and 80 to Ascension with a crew of around 60 on each leg. A most wonderful mix of people – and you get to know them all. Ah, the stories they had to tell as we chugged our way up the mid-Atlantic. The ship’s maximum capacity is around 150 passengers.
Accommodation on the ship varies from more basic internal cabins to luxury suites. Food on board (the same for everyone irrespective of accommodation choice) was abundant and of fantastic quality. On board entertainment was a credit to the small crew and included movies, talks (including from passengers), quizzes, bingo, deck cricket, etc.
There was no pressure to take part in any activity whatsoever. For those who eat too much there is a gym – though a sense of guilt afflicted very few on our trip – so I saw no queues at the gym. There is also a small swimming pool, a shop and a free self serve laundry (bring your own or buy washing powder on board) in addition to the ship’s paid laundry service.
There are two bars offering an excellent range of drinks at incredibly reasonable prices. The ship, while small compared to your average cruise ship, is fully equipped with stabilisers for a smoother passage so if you are staggering up and down the ship it is more likely to have been as a result of your visit to the bar than the effect of rough seas.
The ship (as do Brize Norton and Ascension Island airports) offers a duty free service but be warned that Her Majesty’s Customs on both St Helena and Ascension Island strictly enforce duty free allowances and excise payable for excess items is high.
RMS St Helena accommodation options and costs
I am not going to detail all accommodation options/prices here nor am I going to go into the ships schedule as both are long and documented on the ships website – http://rms-st-helena.com/. The website also contains a lot of other very interesting detail. Bookings are made via Andrew Weir Shipping in London or Cape Town (but you do everything online – though they did send, via mail, our tickets in a cute folder which also contained baggage tags, etc). The service provided by Andrew Weir from start to finish was absolutely fantastic.
To give you an idea of cabin quality and cost. We booked a T2H cabin with a lower and fold away upper berth, large window, two wardrobe units, one armchair and a dressing table with mirror. Also in the cabin was an en suite toilet, shower and wash basin.
This was very satisfactory though a twin – as in two lower berths would have been better but I am not sure it would have been worth the additional cost. Cost per person (incl all food) Cape Town to St Helena or vice versa – GBP1,103 and from St Helena to Ascension Island or vice versa GBP623.
Interestingly, on a mile by mile basis the RMS St Helena costs significantly more than a trip of the Queen Mary 2 (in comparable class) – but the QM2 does not go to St Helena or Ascension Island! Our departure from Cape Town coincided with the arrival of the QM2, an amazing ship.
An additional point (and I am near the end of this entry!) worth noting for those prone to sea sickness is that the south-north passage is invariably much better than the north-south passage. The only discomfort I encountered was on leaving Cape Town but outside that the sea was calm to perfectly still for the whole voyage. I think you will find that the schedules departing Cape Town are better in any case.
My last picture below – not aimed at putting you off – is Ascension Island’s official point of entry for all arriving or departing by sea. The landing at Jamestown, St Helena is only marginally better.
In both places the ship anchors off-shore and you are transferred ashore by smaller boat. This process should not worry you and is perfectly safe. You also land and depart in daylight hours – not as scary looking then.
This blog entry is one of group (loop) of entries which will take you on a virtual tour of St Helena as experienced by The Rambling Wombat. Do continue with me on this tour via my next entry St Helena by Cruise Ship (or Not). If necessary, go to my St Helena Introduction entry to read this loop from the beginning.