Remote island home of spies and turtles opens its doors to tourists

A new holiday destination has arrived on the map: Ascension Island, formerly one of the Cold War's most secret and remote outposts.

This British-owned fly speck in the mid-Atlantic between Africa and Brazil is to be opened for the first time to civilian flights, and the island is already gearing up for tourists. It is unlikely to be a mad rush. The cost of getting there will be high; and the number of available beds for visitors is tiny. Ascension, with a semi-permanent population of about 100, is one of the strangest places in the world, a James Bond island if ever there was one.

The island has a US Air Force base and it played a crucial role as a staging post in the Falklands War. But with the end of the Cold War it has started to become less useful. The super-secretive Central Signals Organisation, the overseas branch of GCHQ, runs a listening operation there.

Opening Ascension to civilian traffic has long been an aim of the island's enterprising Administrator, Roger Huxley. It will help prop up Ascension's microeconomy and also provide a vital new transport link for the 6,000 islanders of St Helena.

The island rises steeply out of the sea in the middle of nowhere. Formed by successive volcanic eruptions, it is interspersed with harsh fields of volcanic rock. One common description is "hell with the fires turned off". But the main peak in the centre of the island is covered with dense vegetation.

The island's attractions are mainly natural. It plays host to green turtles which swim hundreds of miles across the Atlantic to lay their eggs on its sandy beaches.

Just as fascinating are the mementoes of British and American military occupation - from the Victorian forts to satellite tracking systems.

- Andrew Marshall

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