Last days for ship that links St Helena to the world

The RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Saint Helena anchored in the bay of the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena.

ONBOARD RMS ST HELENA - A day on board the five-day cruise to rugged Saint Helena, one of the world's most remote inhabited islands, is marked by aristocratic pastimes alien to modern travellers accustomed to no-frills long-haul journeys.

It's a taste of luxury that won't be around for much longer, on board a nearly seven-tonne ship built in 1989 to carry passengers and goods across the ocean.

A final chance to experience a slower way of life has spiked interest in the RMS St Helena, says John Hamilton, the cheerful purser who organises activities on board, from card games to on-deck cricket matches.

"The ship is coming to the end, so more people want to travel before she stops working," Hamilton said.

The shipping company has added a dozen cabins to meet demand before the ship cuts back on its trips when 4.5-hour flights from Johannesburg begin in February 2016.

The RMS Saint Helena - the only passenger ship serving the British island - makes the journey from the South African city of Cape Town every three weeks.

The boat travels 3,100 kilometres (1,900 miles) in five days at 15 knots, before heading to Ascension, another British island.

The ship's website describes the vessel as a lifeline for island residents, carrying everything from "wind turbines to automotive parts; sheep, goats, and Christmas turkeys to furniture, food and paint".

Passengers sip tea or coffee served by staff in their cabins before breakfast. They play traditional games such as deck quoits and shuffle board, and then share a heartwarming beef tea - or Bovril - at 11:00 am.

After lunch, entertainment includes documentary film screenings and a quiz game similar to Trivial Pursuit.

Onboard camaraderie

Passengers spend time reading or swimming in the small pool on deck, knitting or working on puzzles, as their ship cuts through the sparkling blue waters.

The activities aren't mandatory, yet they do allow for fast-forming friendships.

It's good to form bonds on board, as passengers will inevitably cross paths with each other in Jamestown, the tiny capital of St Helena with a population of around 700.

"What is amazing is that you meet people onboard and make friends. You become like family - almost," said Manuela Patterson, a tourist from Cape Town.

"It's going to be different in that aspect once the airport is here." Built in Aberdeen, Scotland, the ship can accommodate 150 passengers. It is one of the world's two surviving Royal Mail Ships - abbreviated to RMS.

As one might expect on such a ship, there are some eclectic travellers on board.

The cast of characters runs from the "Saints" - the local name for Saint Helena citizens - to South African tourists, Thai workers heading to build the new airport, and a retired British vice-admiral recounting his grisly stories from the Falklands War.

"I will miss the journey to the island," said Sandra Isaac, an island native who has lived in England for the past 25 years.

Still, Isaac said she is looking forward to the flights, as she won't have to request extra leave from her employer to cover the 10-day journey when she goes on holiday.

Prices for a one-way ticket range from 430 pounds (590 euros, 640 dollars) to 2,070 pounds - and much more if you don't want to share your cabin.

The RMS St Helena schedule will run until April 2016, two months after the airport opens.

Then what? There is talk of a cruise, perhaps northwards to England, before the ship is most probably sent for scrap.