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This week’s travel dream: Napoleon’s final island home

St. Helena “is one of the most inaccessible and forbidding-looking places on Earth.”

St. Helena, the remote island where Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile, “is one of the most inaccessible and forbidding-looking places on Earth,” said Anthony Mancini in The New York Times. The 47-square-mile British territory sits a full 1,200 miles west of Angola, “surrounded by thousands of miles of water and not much else.” To reach it, your only choice, aside from a private yacht, is a mail ship that sails once a month and spends days out on the empty South Atlantic. This is how my wife and I arrived at the volcanic speck of land that Napoleon referred to as “this cursed rock.”

Napoleon undersold the place a bit. Its “moonscape appearance” from the sea “belies the surprisingly green hills and valleys of the interior,” and St. Helena proves to be a land of contrasts. If not for the cars that clog the cobblestoned streets of Jamestown, the port’s Georgian and Regency buildings “would transport you to the 19th century.” Even the deposed dictator had good moments here. While his permanent residence was being readied, he briefly stayed in a garden pavilion known as the Briars. Visiting the pretty one-room house, which retains its original neoclassical style, one can “easily imagine Napoleon’s enchantment” with the location and his host family. But Longwood House, his final abode, looks nicer today than it must once have been. Accounts from Napoleon’s time paint the house “as a damp and cheerless place crawling with mold” and infested with rats. The undesirables are gone. What remains are Napoleon’s portraits of his wives, and the holes he cut into the shutters so he could watch the grounds with his telescope. 

Later, we head to Geranium Valley—“a lovely flowered place in a windless hollow shaded by towering Norfolk pines.” Napoleon liked to picnic here. After he fell sick at Longwood House and died, at a mere 51, his remains were buried in Geranium Valley for 19 years. Today, the shaded gravesite is one of St. Helena’s most popular tourist destinations, though “the willows that once grew here have been stripped away as souvenirs.” 

Doubles are $324 a night at St. Helena’s Consulate Hotel, reachable by email at con.hotel@cwimail.sh.

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