IMAGINE IF, AT THE END OF WORLD WAR II, instead of killing himself, Hitler was captured. But the world’s leaders, fearing an uprising around the dictator, decided that instead of putting him on trial, they’d send him to one of the most remote islands int he world, where he’d live out the rest of his days imprisoned and isolated.
This is what happened in 1815 when Napoleon was finally defeated. The first time the powers of Europe defeated Napoleon, they sent him to the island of Elba, just off the coast of Italy. But Napoleon returned and led another rebellion. So when he was defeated a second time, he was sent somewhere more remote: the barren volcanic island of Saint Helena, twelve hundred miles west of the Namibian coast, and twenty-five hundred miles east of Rio. Napoleon would die there at the age of 51 in 1821.
Saint Helena’s remoteness meant that it was never inhabited until it was discovered in 1502, and after that, was mostly used as a stopover point for expeditions crossing the South Atlantic and as a prison island for dangerous political prisoners. For the 514 years it has been known to the world, it has only been accessible by boat, making this famous island one of the most isolated places in the world.
Until now. Starting in April, commercial flights have been arriving in Saint Helena. The island had long resisted building an airport, but young residents were having trouble finding employment, so the island (which is technically a British overseas territory) decided to open itself up to tourism.
The island’s culture is, as a result, very unique and very sedate. In terms of attractions, other than Napoleon’s old estate, it’s home to a tortoise believed to be 187 years old — he was hatched 11 years after Napoleon’s death — and a stone that sounds like a bell when struck. It’s home to a famous observatory, and the world’s largest population of whale sharks.
As travelers in the US start traveling to “untouched” Cuba as the embargo slowly lifts, they are likely to find an island that is, in many ways, modern. But Saint Helena is a truly “untouched” island in 21st century terms, which is to say that it didn’t have cell phone service until a few years ago. If you want the full Napoleon experience, go there by boat. But that’s no longer your only option.