Editor's Note: As of 2016, this ship is no longer operating.
More than almost any other vessel in the world, the RMS St Helena is not so much a ship but more a way of life. And for those of us not fortunate enough to own a private yacht, it remains until at least 2016 the only way to reach the remote island that bears its name.
A British Overseas Territory, St. Helena lies in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, almost 1,200 miles from the coast of Africa and even farther from Brazil. It's almost 2,000 miles by sea from Cape Town, South Africa, from where the RMS makes its regular five-night journeys carrying up to 156 passengers and 1,800 tons of cargo; trips depend on onward journeys to Ascension Island.
The ship is the beating heart of the small community of 4,000 on St. Helena. When it is in James Bay, life in the sleepy capital, Jamestown, perks up. Shops and bars will open specially or stay open for longer hours than they do during the rest of the month.
The St Helena transports residents -- known as Saints -- to the outside world for education, training and employment. It brings them back for family celebrations and when they decide to return home for good. It brings everything needed for daily life -- food, household goods, cars and tools. You name it, it's all there in the containers winched off the ship and onto pontoons to be floated ashore.
The ship has a homey feel -- and most of the comforts of home -- but it would be wrong to pretend it offers a luxury cruise experience. It's not so much a country house hotel as a seaside B&B (in the English sense rather than the luxury U.S. version) or a cross-channel ferry on an extended voyage.
But if you're going to go, you might want to plan your journey sooner rather than later. In 2016, the island's first airport is scheduled to open, and the RMS St Helena -- built in Aberdeen in 1989 -- is expected to be auctioned. The unique experience of its passage across the South Atlantic will disappear.
Tourists are likely to find themselves outnumbered by Saints and by government employees and other workers on their way to begin contracts or going home on leave. The ship is the islanders' lifeline when they need medical treatment in Cape Town, and the vessel's hospital -- a single cabin next to the doctor's surgery (office) is in frequent use accommodating patients and family.
It takes a different kind of holidaymaker to choose to travel somewhere as far off the beaten path as St. Helena. On the voyage I made, they came from the U.K., South Africa, Australia, and the U.S. (a retired Navy commander and his wife). A Spanish couple enjoying their retirement were the only non-English speakers.
Dress during the day is informal -- read casual and relaxed -- although swimwear is not permitted in lounges or the dining room. The evening "Rig of the Day" for officers is stipulated in the daily program, and passengers are encouraged to follow suit. Red Sea Rig is informal; short-sleeved shirts are acceptable and ties are not required. Sundown Rig requires a long-sleeved shirt and tie, although jackets are not compulsory. The one Mess Dress night per voyage is formal, though few gentlemen pack tuxedos and all but the most glamorous of ladies will have left the sequinned ball gown at home.