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Cruise Ship Days

An unusual hive of activity

With so many spectacular destinations to explore, no two days will be the same{c}

When a cruise ship arrives, St Helena becomes an unusual hive of activity

In a situation where the inhabitants, during the greatest part of their time, are cut off from all intercourse with the world, and left to look upon the naked expanse of the ocean, it will easily be imagined, what lively interest is excited by the appearance of any ship.{d}

Let’s be honest - on a normal day in St Helena not much happens. That’s why Our Newspapers are only published weekly. But when a cruise ship is in the harbour St Helena, and particularly Jamestown, comes to life, as if woken from hibernation. Town is at its busiest, the extra activity focussed on meeting the visitors and making sure they go away with the best possible impression of our island.


As the passengers disembark they are usually whisked away on tours, covering the usual places of interest: Jacob’s Ladder, Longwood House and Napoleon’s Tomb, Jonathan at Plantation House and some of the more scenic view of St Helena. Nobody can hope to really understand St Helena after such a quick tour, but if you only have a few hours on the island, as most cruise ship passengers do, these provide a useful introduction to this extraordinary place.

Some tours are run by larger companies, using buses seating twenty or thirty passengers. But for those who prefer the personal touch there are also smaller vehicles, equipped to carry up to ten people (often in the back of a flat bed truck!) - here you get the driver’s own experience of living on St Helena, many of them for all of their lives.

Here are some tours we recommend{1}. For more about tours see our page Visitor Information.

Note that only the tours listed above are recommended. If you can personally recommend a tour we have not listed please contact us.

At the end of the tour passengers are normally left in Jamestown; it’s only a short walk back to The Wharf and this gives time to explore the shops, buy souvenirs, and participate in the many activities that will have been laid on especially for the visitors, including school choirs, arts and crafts displays and a ‘Market’.

An interesting approach…

When the MV Amadea called they did not book any pre-arranged tours. All 600 passengers were delivered to Jamestown, where they either made their own arrangements with local taxi drivers, or just wandered around Jamestown. It has been suggested that this might be the best way to see St Helena. Large-bus tours operate to a tight schedule and lead to the criticism that If it’s 2pm this must be Napoleon’s house.

A suggestion

Cruise Ship Markets

For all but the smallest ships, the Tourist Information Office arranges a street market in Jamestown for the benefit of the visitors. Stalls will display a variety of local crafts and other produce, most of it for sale. Most things on display at the market are also available in the local shops but it’s convenient to have them arranged all in one place. Market size varies according to the capacity of the ship - for smaller ships it may be as few as half a dozen stalls; for the Queen Mary II, which visited in March 2010 (photos, below), the whole of Grand Parade was filled with around 30 stalls.

Interestingly, locals who are not directly involved in cruise ship activities also come out to shop in the markets, turning them into a social occasion. But then the people of St Helena will take any excuse to meet somebody new or chat with friends and exchange gossip!

In 2018 the chap on the vocals in the right-most picture was appointed Bishop of St Helena.

Visitors’ Comments

Here are some quotes from cruise ship visitors:

Visitors on Jacob’s Ladder
Visitors on Jacob’s Ladder

We’ve had a wonderful morning thus far. We’ve had a bit of a strenuous walk up Jacob’s Ladder. We took it slowly. It was good because it wasn’t so hot here; looked around and took photographs and then made the walk back down which was a lot easier. I think the island is beautiful, very peaceful, and definitely something very different to what we’ve experienced before.
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It was what I expected but a little bit more. Very peaceful, very relaxing. Everybody seems to go about their business and let the tourists do their own thing. Very interesting.
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I’ve taken the walk up Jacobs’ Ladder and then met loads of people actually in their homes finding out how long they’ve been here. Most definitely would love to come back.
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The people are so friendly. Thoroughly enjoyed our day.
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I expected it to be more ‘backwater’ but it’s not. I think it’s wonderful.
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It’s really nice. My first time for being here. Really tiny but amazing. The weather is amazing. I’m just sad that we cannot spend more time - we are just here for a few hours.
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I’ve waited 17 years to get to St Helena and I wish we were here longer. I think 3 days is far too short.
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I’ve been to so many beautiful places but this is extraordinary. I didn’t kind of know what to expect. I thought it would be much more arid; much less developed. I didn’t expect to see beautiful grown yards, homes, avocadoes growing and pomegranates and roses and all kinds of flowers.
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There’s just so much to see with the natural history, with the archaeology, geology and marine life and I just feel that I have to come back.

Returning to the town, I bade our kind friends farewell, with unfeigned sadness of heart, and soon after, repairing to our ship, we spread our canvass to the breeze, and sailed away from St Helena. Long and sorrowfully did I sit on the quarter-deck, and gaze on its outline, becoming every moment less distinct, while intensely interesting scenes and associations, and its newly-formed friendships, are pencilled upon my memory and graven in my heart in lines which nothing can efface. The sun has gone down; the pale moon peers mournfully through the clouds; the land has disappeared; and here we are once more a floating speck, with only the firmament above, and this wide, wide world of waters all around.{e}
Cruise Ships calling49178106
Persons arriving by Cruise Ship1,9203,3356,4442,2576812,160

Failure to land - what to do

Alighting on St Helena

Landing on St Helena from a cruise ship involves being ferried to the shore in a small boat (‘tender’) and then stepping onto the shore at The Wharf (see picture, right, and you can also see a picture of HRH Prince Andrew doing just this).

The elderly and disabled manage this regularly, but how hard it actually is depends on sea conditions - if the sea has a significant swell, the tender can be moving up and down by a large amount, and often quite quickly too. Judging the moment to step ashore requires skill (which is why there are always experienced seafarers on hand to assist).

For some cruise ship captains, however, this is too much. Charged with the safety of their passengers, and doubtless with their company’s insurance premiums in mind, they sometimes decide the swell is too great and refuse to land passengers. This can be a big disappointment for those onboard, many of whom were particularly looking forward to seeing St Helena for themselves and are sadly relegated to looking it in the distance from the rail of their ship. As someone who was a passenger aboard one such ship told us: Imagine sailing all that way only to be told you cannot go ashore.

It’s a disappointment to the islanders too, who were looking forward to welcoming visitors and showing off the many wonders our island has to offer. Often the swell seems, to us, to be mild compared with that with which the RMS St Helena (1990-2018) passengers regularly used to cope.

Local paper headline

Ultimately, whether or not to land passengers must be the captain’s call. However, passengers can themselves influence that decision. In January 2013 the MS Sinfonia arrived. The captain reviewed sea conditions and declared that nobody would be put ashore. But the passengers did not accept his decision. After a stormy meeting onboard{3} the passengers persuaded the captain that he should land them after all. They arrived and enjoyed a great time on St Helena. A local newspaper lead with the headline ‘Mutiny on the Sinfonia’.

So we suggest that if you are scheduled to visit St Helena on a cruise ship, before arrival impress on the ship’s captain how much you are looking forward to seeing the island. Although he is charged with your safety, your happiness is also his concern. That way you are more likely to actually land rather than just seeing St Helena from across the bay.

Early cruise ship visitors

Below: Very first cruise shipViceroy of IndiaOther Notable Visitors

The very first cruise ship

City of New York
City of New York

The Records show that the very first true cruise ship arrived in Jamestown in 1930, identified as the ‘City of New York’. According to The Wikipedia City of New York (1930), a passenger-cargo vessel of American South African Line, sunk by submarine on 29 March 1942. The call seems to have been on the ship’s maiden voyage.

An earlier visit by an ‘American Luxury Liner’ is also noted, in May 1928, but no details are recorded of her visit - not even the name of the ship (If you can provide more details, please contact us.), though The ‘Blue Book’ for 1928 reports that The visit was most successful and as a result three tourist steamers are announced as visiting the island next year.

The Viceroy of India

One of the world’s first cruise ships, the RMS Viceroy of India was launched on the 15th September 1928 and entered service on 7th March 1929. She had capacity for 415 1st class and 258 2nd class passengers (total: 673), with 413 crew. Viceroy of India was Britain’s first large turbo-electric passenger ship. She made leisure cruises every year until the outbreak of World War 2 in September 1939.

She toured the South Atlantic in 1939, becoming the first ever cruise ship to call at Tristan da Cunha. She also visited St Helena, though we don’t know exactly when or details of any of the passengers who came ashore. And we only know where they visited from a collection of photographs held at the Museum of St Helena; it seems just Longwood House.

As can be seen by the transport provided, the facilities for tourists on St Helena in 1939 were not as developed as they are today{4}.

The Viceroy of India never returned to St Helena. When World War 2 broke out she was requisitioned as a troop-ship and was sunk on 11th November 1942 by U-Boat U-407 while off Algiers.

Other Notable Visitors

The biggest cruise liner ever to visit St Helena (to that time{5}) was the SS France which arrived on the morning of Saturday the 19th April 1969 and left at 6:30pm the following day, in the course of a cruise to commemorate the 200th anniversary Napoleon’s birth. The ship carried 1,354 passengers and a staff of 1,233. The ‘Blue Book’ for 1968/9 described the visit as a great success.

Another well-known ship, the SS Canberra, called on 18th January 1996, but was unable to land any passengers due to sea conditions. It had previously arrived on 28th March 1993 but had not been able to land any passengers then either.

Read More

Below: Article: The most surprising place we’ve been…Article: Looking back: Visit of the ocean liner ‘SS France’ in 1969

Article: The most surprising place we’ve been…

Published in The Independent 3rd February 2012{6}

Cruise ship in James Bay
Cruise ship market

This was just one of the comments made by visitors from the two cruise ships that visited last week. Visitors from the Seabourn Quest and Silver Whisper were most vocal in saying they enjoyed themselves during their stay, with many of the visitors from Silver Whisper stating they wished they had had a longer time ashore.

A visitor survey undertaken by St Helena Tourism showed that 99% of visitors questioned rated their visit Excellent or Very Good - in fact 92% rated it Excellent. Many visitors commented that their whole visit far exceeded what they had anticipated - one visitor from the Silver Whisper said: Your island has far surpassed any expectations we might have even thought about giving it, and another from Seabourn Quest said that St Helena was So much nicer than the Caribbean.

Most people (94%) were visiting the island for the first time, but everyone said they would recommend the island to other people. There was a fairly even split between those taking pre-arranged tours and those who did their own thing, and the amount spent by visitors (over above the cost of pre-arranged tours) varied from £5 to £60.

The highlight for many people was seeing the whole island and meeting local people. In addition visiting Longwood House was rated very highly, along with seeing the tortoises at Plantation paddock and walking the Ladder.

It is clear that this mix of Britons, Americans, Swiss, Canadians, Belgians, Australians, Hungarians and other nationalities had a great time, and it is a real credit to the whole island that they left with such a positive experience and impression, with many wanting to return in the future. The fact that everyone said they would recommend the island to others means we have several hundred ambassadors working for us to boost interest in St Helena right across the world, particularly when they felt - as one couple said - this is the most surprising place we’ve been on a cruise in years.

Article: Looking back: Visit of the ocean liner ‘SS France’ in 1969

By A.E. David Clarke, published in The Sentinel 23rd January 2020{6}

Big preparations were made for the cruise of this last elegant ocean liner to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Napoleon. The ship was carrying 1,354 passengers and staff of 1,233.

I was the Assistant Postmaster at the time and in 1972 was promoted to Postmaster. Extra staff had to be employed to prepare the thousands of first day covers and sets of stamps entitled Mail Communications, to be released on the day of the arrival of the ship. There were four denominations depicting mail ships which called during the ages.

Staff were made aware that the new franc notes and the old franc notes were running at the same time. One had to be vigilant when accepting these currency notes as 100 old francs were equal to one new franc.

The ship arrived early on the morning of 19 April 1969 and remained in the harbour until the afternoon of the following day. The weather was wonderful with calm sea conditions and bright sunshine.

Four stamp units consisting of four stamp sellers each were sent on board, accompanied by the Postman who was prepared to make frequent trips from ship to shore to replenish stamp stocks; and to cater for the passengers who remained on board.

Boat loads of traders went on board to sell post cards, handicrafts of seed work, aloe work, drawn thread work, tablecloths and tray cloths, models of Napoleon’s house, sailing ships in the bottle, etc.

By 10 o’clock that morning the streets in Jamestown were alive with visitors purchasing souvenirs and stamps. The Post Office staff were rushed off their feet, so two extra stamp units were set up in the front of the Canister. A communications link was set up with Solomon’s and the ship; and Cable and Wireless also had facilities in Jamestown for making overseas calls, instead of having to go up to the Briars.

Two stamp units were set up at Longwood House, together with a large post box bearing French and English language. There was never a dull moment for the Postman who had to be on the go between the selling points replenishing stocks.

There were insufficient taxis to cater for the visitors, so many groups were seen hiking in the country areas. The Ladder was full with visitors at all times and at the top food was sold. There were smiles everywhere.

The following day was similar to the first, people making money left, right and centre. The good weather continued and the sea like a milk pond. The comments made by the visitors were heart-warming and the Islanders praised for their hospitality and friendliness.

Late in the afternoon of the second day the passengers returned to the ship, having spent two wonderful days on the island. At 6:30pm the ship sounded her siren and sailed into the sunset, with the islanders cheering on the wharf - car horns blaring and light flashing - what a glorious sight!


{a} Bruce Peters{b} John Coyle{c} Cruise Ship Brochure{d} ‘A Description of the Island of St Helena{7}{e} Extracted from ‘Five Years in China’ by Charles Taylor, 1860, Chapter XXXI ‘Two Days at St Helena’{f} St Helena Statistics Office


{1} Our recommendation is based on personal experience and/or comments received from visitors. Please Note We receive no reward, financial or otherwise, for recommending these tours. We do so simply because they are, by popular acclaim, the best.{2} See his tour brochure: [Image, right]

Robert Peters’ tour brochure

{3} A lot more stormy than the sea conditions, by all accounts.{4} And some would say they still leave a little to be desired!{5} The largest at the time of writing was the Queen Mary II, which visited in March 2010.{6} @@RepDis@@{7} …containing Observations on its Singular Structure and Formation; and an Account of its Climate, Natural History and Inhabitants’, 1st May 1805.