To me, the best part about blogging is interacting with readers and exchanging travel stories. I honestly feel like a kid in a candy store when someone sends me an email recounting their adventures, photos included. Some trips stand out as truly unique.
That’s why when I learned that my reader Audrey will be sailing RMS St. Helena to the island of St. Helena (what are the chances?), I asked her if she would be willing to share her experience on my blog. She graciously agreed.
I remember learning about St. Helena in school, mainly due to the fact that Napoleon was exiled there. And now I know a person who has actually been to the island!
Without further ado:
1) So, Audrey, I know you are basically a regular mom like me. What made you decide to go to Africa and take two young kids with you on a month-long journey in the middle of the Atlantic ocean? What did your husband say when you approached the subject?
Wait a minute – you’re a regular mom?? Honestly, I don’t think I’d ever call you that, and I mean that in the best way possible! Anyway, I first learned about the RMS (Royal Mail Ship) St. Helena from a blog post on Rapid Travel Chai. Though I had no idea what he was talking about, there were several points that caught my attention.
For those unfamiliar with the ship, it was purpose-built by the British government to carry both cargo and passengers to the island of St. Helena, a small British territory in the South Atlantic (as well as other “nearby” islands). In my BK (before kids) days, I was always intrigued by the idea of traveling by cargo ship, so this seemed like an ideal opportunity.
Additionally (very importantly), because St. Helena now has an airport, the ship – the last working mail ship in the world – was going to be decommissioned. Though it now looks like it will be converted to a floating armory. So, it was the last chance for me to experience it – always hugely motivating to an impulsive traveler like myself.
RMS St. Helena
You can see some photos of the cabins via this link We were in a T4, with 4 bunks, though we were only 3 passengers. Overall the ship was pretty basic, but compared to some cruises I’ve been on, I found the cabin quite roomy – definitely adequate.
The ship sailed from Cape Town, South Africa, where I’ve wanted to take my kids for a long time (on safari, etc.) On a minor note, besides Antarctica, Africa was the last remaining continent for my kids to visit.
Lastly, Stefan talked about going on the ship to visit the island of Tristan da Cunha, known as the most remote inhabited land on earth. How much cooler/more perfect could you get? I was sold.
Sailing away party on main deck
Though it cost a bit more than our typical trips, since I homeschool my sons (13 and 10), I could always claim it was educational. And it was! In the end, I was unable to get on the Tristan voyage, but we went on the very last cruise instead, so that was pretty special too.
My husband’s response when I broached the subject was: “When do you leave?” Though he (frustratingly) is unwilling to fly himself, he is 100% supportive of our travels and is very proud of the incredible life experience our sons have gained.
2) Were you able to use miles and points to reduce your out-of-pocket costs? If so, how?
In 2016, I took advantage of a British Airways promotion to fly us to Hungary in business class. It was an awesome experience in more ways than one, but unfortunately created a monster in the form of my younger son, who has an unaccountable preference for most things fancy (not food though).
Ever since, he’s been begging to repeat the experience – sometimes I think he’d be happier to skip the actual trips if he could just fly around in business class all day (hmm, is there a blog in his future…?)
Well, usually that’s out of the question, but this time I could finally agree it was a good use of miles (with your encouragement, Leana!). South African Airways has a direct flight from JFK to Johannesburg (about 15 hours), then we had to catch a 2-hour flight to Cape Town.
Using United miles/UR points was about 160k +$70 r/t, with economy at 80k r/t. So I would pretty much use up my stash of UR points but the thought of how excited my son would be (not to mention having the opportunity to be vastly more comfortable) convinced me it was worth it. Except – no availability.
Weeks passed and the cash price was rising. So in the end, heavily emphasizing the 15 hours of in-flight entertainment (my kids have very limited electronics access), I used 186,903 UR points to book three economy tickets worth $2803.59 via the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal. I have the Chase Sapphire Reserve, so points are worth 1.5 cents each when redeemed in this way.
By so doing I used fewer points per ticket, eliminated the cash cost, and earned miles for our flights. I credited the flights to JetBlue (with some difficulty) and we each earned roughly 10k points – not amazing, but definitely better than nothing. Overall, it was a much more comfortable “spend” for me than the business class would have been.
Of course, two weeks later the tickets went on sale for 2/3 the price, but oh well. Not to mention that said in-flight entertainment DID NOT WORK, but whatever! We were on our way to the experience of a lifetime.
3) What surprised you most about RMS St. Helena as well as the island of St. Helena?
I really didn’t have many preconceptions of either the ship or the island, due partly to the dearth of online information, but mostly due to me being completely overwhelmed by various things prior to the trip. Ironically, I am by nature an in-depth-researcher type of person, so when I couldn’t devote myself 100% to the planning, I gave it up entirely.
I booked the flights with about 9 days in Africa before the sailing and 9 days after. Aside from booking 3 nights in an Airbnb in Cape Town for our arrival, I did nothing at all to prepare. Also, although the ship sailed from South Africa, it otherwise had almost nothing to do with Africa.
It was a British ship sailing to remote British territories – as one passenger commented to me, “overwhelmingly British”. As half of our trip was spent exploring South Africa, we ended up with two quite distinct trips in one. Which doesn’t answer your question at all!
I did find prices, both on the ship and on the island, lower than I would have expected. I was also surprised by the level of service on the boat. Although by modern cruise ship standards it was pretty basic, compared to the type of cargo ship I was expecting it was quite fancy.
The cabin was comfortable, the food was good, and there was a daily schedule of activities. There were cocktail parties, picnics on the deck, etc. There was even a free laundry, which was great because in the end, we were on the ship nearly a month.
I knew nothing about the island of St. Helena before this trip – I don’t know if I’d even heard the name. The main town of Jamestown was pristine and very safe, if overly quiet for my taste. I enjoyed the lack of ATMs a little less – there are no credit cards accepted anywhere and the bank closes at 3 pm.
View of Jamestown after climbing the 699-step Jacob’s Ladder
St. Helena has its own currency which is only accepted there and on neighboring Ascension Island (which we also visited). As British sterling is also accepted, I’m not sure why they bother with what must be a costly process. I was interested to learn that many professionals on the island come from elsewhere, on two-year contracts.
Some Saints (as the people of St. Helena are called) pursue advanced education, as they can often make more money abroad than at home. The island is currently in a state of transition as the Saints have bet heavily on the new airport allowing the growth of a much-needed tourist economy.
The 1929 charabanc in which we toured St. Helena
Whether their plan will succeed, especially given the lack of some key infrastructure, remains to be seen. We certainly left wishing them all the best. So, though I may not have exactly been surprised by much of St. Helena, it’s always eye-opening to learn first hand about a whole world that you never even knew existed.
Napoleon’s tomb (his body was moved to France in 1840)
4) How did the kids handle the journey?
The kids handled it great, though inexplicably, they were not enthused about going. As my older son moves toward his (apparently) moody teen years, I’m increasingly grateful for the ways in which travel recreates the early days of our family life.
I’m in charge and my authority is (mostly) not questioned. I plan our days, everyone goes everywhere together, and we have fun doing it. On my end, I leave most of the responsibilities behind and am better able to be mentally present and enjoy my kids. So for us travel is a positive context, so much so that I sometimes wonder if that’s what draws me to it.
As an overview, we spent 9 days in Cape Town, 5 sailing to St. Helena (3 days in port), 2 sailing to Ascension Island (overnight in port), 2 sailing back to St. Helena (4 days in port), 7 sailing back to Cape Town (after a tremendous send-off, we had to turn back the next day due to a medical emergency), and 7 days driving along the Garden Route and going to a game reserve.
Since the ship primarily functioned as transportation rather than recreation, there were only about 15 of us staying aboard while in port. This was included in the fare. We ate most of our meals on board during this time so that was a significant cost savings. The ship anchored out in both harbors so we had to take tender boats back and forth to shore.
There were a few kids on various legs of the voyage, but they pretty much kept to themselves. There was a game room with an X-Box and Wii, which my kids did use in a limited fashion. There was no internet (WIFI was extremely expensive), but there was an extensive video library with movies and documentaries shown throughout the day.
My kids also participated in most of the games and activities of the entertainment program. My experience is that the less my kids engage with electronics, the less they think they’re bored. We have no television at home and they are accustomed to keeping themselves busy.
Which is not to say that they don’t require activity and stimulation, just that they don’t require it nonstop. Traveling on the RMS was not an all-out funfest, but neither is life. Assuming reasonable levels of activity and comfort, I expect my kids to deal with whatever happens and mostly they do – at least while we travel.
Everyone did keep commenting on how well they amused themselves (one person told me it was as if there were no kids aboard – um, thanks?) so maybe not everyone handles it as well. I do think my kids enjoy having a predictable routine, ironically, since it’s having to adapt often to changing environments that has made them so resilient.
5) What would you say to someone who is scared to take a trip that is a bit out of the ordinary?
I would say that often it is less intimidating than it appears. For example, we were not at all “roughing it” at any time on our trip. The southern part of South Africa is quite westernized – in fact, in a way I didn’t even feel like my kids truly experienced Africa.
The ship, while not luxurious, was equipped with all the basic necessities. The islands we visited were safe and clean, with modern conveniences readily available. The most difficult part of the whole journey for me were the water restrictions in South Africa due to the severe drought there. Showers were limited to two minutes when we arrived, and 90 seconds by the time we left. My kids selflessly offered to sacrifice themselves and skip them altogether.
The taps were turned off in public bathrooms, with only hand sanitizer available. As a former nurse, I found the situation pretty unhygienic, though ironically, it probably bothered me more than it would have in more primitive surroundings. It’s really all about expectations…
For myself, I prefer trips that are a bit different for two reasons. First of all, if a trip stands out from the crowd of available options, it’s easier for me to make a snap decision to go. After all, it’s special!
This same logic also applies when justifying the expense to myself and my family – we are by no means wealthy, and it is much easier to rationalize a trip like this as an important educational experience than, say, an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica. Where, incidentally, we are headed Sunday, thanks to IHG devaluing free night certificates, various IHG promotions (oh, those index cards) and Leana’s invaluable, not to mention hilarious, advice. Thanks so much, Leana!
Thank you, Audrey! Homeschooling never looked so cool.
Leana is the founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.