Tristan da Cunha

Remote, difficult to access and with unpredictable weather, Tristan da Cunha wouldn’t appear to top the list of holiday destinations. Yet would-be visitors have many different reasons to make the long journey.

For some, the whole point of visiting Tristan is simply because it is so remote. Others come for the natural history: the birdlife, the volcano; the sheer wilderness. And for others, it’s an opportunity to experience, even for a short while, the life of the Tristan islanders. Whatever your motivation, consider carefully the best time of year for your trip.

Within the Tristan archipelago are the neighbouring islands of Inaccessible and Nightingale, and the small Stoltenhoff and Middle or Alex islands, all of which are uninhabited, whereas the more distant island of Gough, some 218 miles (350km) away, has an inhabited weather station. The islands have a very distinctive flora and fauna, and are an important breeding ground for seabirds.

The best things to see and do on Tristan da Cunha

Edinburgh of the Seven Seas

Despite the grand name, Tristan’s ‘capital’ is little more than a small village, nestled at the foot of the mountain. Widely known as the Settlement, it sits on an undulating slope some 500m wide and above low sea cliffs. The Settlement is home to some 70 families – almost the entire population – and a number of domestic animals.

Church of St Joseph Tristan da Cunha by Adrian Turner
St Joseph’s Church is dwarfed by the volcanic backdrop © Adrian Turner

Tristan’s two churches are long, low, white-painted buildings, similar in construction to many an island home. The Anglican church, St Mary’s, was built in the 1920s. Inside are several inter-denominational features and a number of brass memorial tablets, alongside items such as wood and a bell drawn from shipwrecks – and a large portrait of Queen Victoria on the wall.

The Catholic church of St Joseph has a beautifully serene stained-glass window depicting a Tristan longboat that is well worth a visit in its own right.

Some of the world’s most remote walking opportunities

Visitors are permitted to walk alone between the Settlement and the Potato Patches, a half-hour walk along a tarmac road, but elsewhere hikers must be accompanied by at least one local guide. Most hikes need to be organised in advance through the tourism department, and are subject to suitable weather conditions.

© Adrian Turner

Hiking to the summit of the 1961 volcano, at about 400ft (120m), is relatively straightforward, though you’ll need to be aware of loose, uneven rocks. Park 61, at the foot of the volcano, provides a pleasant spot for a picnic before or after the trek.

Note that hikes to Queen Mary’s Peak and The Base used to be recommended options; however, owing to recent mountain slides, these routes are currently deemed unsafe and attempting them is not encouraged. Be aware, too, that if a ‘fishing day’ is declared, the guides may be otherwise occupied and even pre-organised excursions could be cancelled.

Getting to Tristan da Cunha

There is no airstrip on the island and all journeys are made by sea, usually between Cape Town and Tristan.

Ideally, start planning at least a year in advance; provisional berths can be booked as soon as sailing schedules are published on the government website.

The Tristan government controls passages on all ships providing scheduled services, and operates a priority booking system. Thus, for example, a Tristan resident with a medical emergency, or someone on official business, will take priority over a tourist. This means that even if a booking is secured, sailings cannot be guaranteed, although passage on the Agulhas II is considered the most reliable option.

The islands have grown in popularity as a call for South Atlantic cruise ships, despite the vagaries in local weather and sea conditions that can prevent passengers landing at the Settlement. (In such a case, and if circumstances permit, an official party of islanders will board the ship to sell stamps and souvenirs and to endorse passports with a record of the visit.)

Some cruises include in their itineraries a circumnavigation of Gough Island, and also a trip to Inaccessible and Nightingale islands (up to an hour’s sailing from Tristan itself). Landings are not normally permitted on Gough, which is protected as a World Heritage Site, but local guides – conditions permitting – may take small groups ashore on Nightingale or Inaccessible.