Ascension Island Travel Guide
Introduction to Ascension Island
Situated roughly halfway between Western Africa and Brazil in the South Atlantic Ocean, Ascension Island is a curious place that didn’t even exist until just one million years ago. At a time when our ape ancestors were figuring out how to bang rocks together to make fire, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge was putting on a fireworks show of its own, as it ejected lava rock out of the sea floor until it breached the surface of the sea.
Subsequent eruptions created a dry, nearly lifeless husk of land that was eventually discovered in 1501 by Portuguese explorer Afonso de Albuquerque. He named it Ascension, as it was sighted on the feast day of the Ascension in the Catholic Church, but it wasn’t settled until the 1800s when the British garrisoned it for the express purpose of preventing the French from mounting any missions to rescue Napoleon, who was exiled on nearby Saint Helena.
It has maintained its military importance to this day, but it also has become a scientific curiosity over the years, with terraforming experiments and tracking of space satellites being conducted here.
No matter how you slice it, your trip to Ascension Island will be anything but boring.
Currency: Saint Helena pounds, British pounds
What To Do in Ascension Island
Begin your visit to this remote isle by exploring the exhibits found within Ascension Island Heritage Society Museum. Consisting of a small building and the remains of Fort Hayes, it contains items that tell the story of one of the most intriguing islands in the Atlantic.
From its time as a supply way station for ships traveling between the Old and New Worlds to its role in wars ranging from World War I to the Falklands War of 1982, the displays here tell intriguing stories, so make time to include a visit to this institution during your trip to Ascension Island.
Though not as tightly knit as Saint Helena or Tristan da Cunha, Ascension Island has a cohesive community where most residents know each other well. St Mary’s Church is a great place to get a feel for the vibe of the place, as this Anglican congregation not only participates in the service enthusiastically, but people often linger afterward to socialize.
Even if you come by outside Sunday services, the priest is often around and would be pleased to give you a tour of this humble but subtly beautiful church.
When Ascension Island was first discovered, the island was a mostly barren place, with grassy scrubland comprising the most robust form of vegetation. At the urging of Charles Darwin, though, who visited the isle in the 19th century, trees were planted on its highest peak in a bid to increase rainfall.
This early attempt at terraforming proved to be a success, as the banana, eucalyptus, bamboo, and other plants sucked up the ocean’s moisture and grew, expelling even damper air that became clouds and eventually, rain.
Up on Green Mountain, it is considerably damper and cooler than the hot and dry desert plains thousands of feet below. It is possible to rent a cottage up there – doing so gives access to a variety of hiking trails that lead towards the highest point on the island, but to get there, you’ll go through forests contains a wild blend of plants sourced from every corner of the planet.
Back on the coast, those looking for an adventure more subterranean in nature will want to explore one of several lava tube caves found across Ascension Island. While this sounds risky, there hasn’t been an eruption in over 600 years, with no signs of an imminent return to volcanic activity.
Command Hill Cave and Clarkes Beach Cave are some of the most popular, as the features found within provide a payoff for minimal effort. It isn’t all fun and games, however, as the average temperature in these passages is 27 degrees Celsius with very high humidity – expect to come out coated in sweat!
After steaming yourself like a dumpling in the lava tube caves, nothing will cool you off quite like a swim in the ocean. Situated at 9 degrees South Latitude, the ocean is warm enough for a comfortable swim (25 degrees Celsius on average), yet its position in open Atlantic means the water is more refreshing than in other spots in the tropics.
You need to pick your beaches well here, though, as currents/undertows are strong – out of all the places available, the oddly named Comfortless Cove is your best bet. Getting its moniker due to it formerly being a quarantine station for those afflicted by Yellow Fever, it plays host to many local families looking to enjoy the ocean on their days off from work.
What to Eat in Ascension Island
Food on Ascension Island lacks much of the culture found on Saint Helena and Tristan da Cunha due to the transient nature of most of the population, a large portion are scientists and military personnel on temporary deployment.
Accordingly, you’ll find plenty of fast food in the canteens on the American and British bases that serve up burgers, fries, and other quick serve staples of modern Western life.
That said, a small core group of locals enjoy dishes common in Saint Helena to the south – this includes Plo (a rice-based curry dish), Tuna Fishcakes, and fried fish.
In the case of the latter, there are regular Fish Frys where the latest catch is breaded, fried in oil, and served up with chips (fries) at a public gathering that often includes music and plenty of good times.