The Complete Guide To: South African shores
Dramatic cliffs, golden beaches, coral reefs, mountains... There are natural wonders aplenty on both land and sea on this celebrated coastline. Cathy Packe reports
The allure of South Africa has many dimensions, from wild animals to wineries. Yet wherever you are in this vast and fascinating land, the shoreline keeps calling.
The 1,500-plus miles of coast - stretching from the Namibian frontier in the north-west to the border of Mozambique in the north-east - includes some dramatic cliffs and rocky shores. But there are also plenty of beaches to choose from. Western Cape province is on the Atlantic shore, so the water is colder, and this part of the coast is sparsely populated. Beyond Cape Agulhas, some 110 miles south-east of Cape Town, is the warmer water of the Indian Ocean. The most popular section of South Africa's coast is between Cape Town and Durban, after which the resorts thin out. Most of the northern shore of KwaZulu Natal consists of protected nature reserves and marine parks.
Where should I start?
South Africa's main international gateway is Johannesburg, but Cape Town is best for shore-seekers. This extremely attractive city is built on a peninsula sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean. Many of its attractions are coastal, including the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, built around a working harbour that has been operating for more than 100 years. This has now been redeveloped to turn it into a lively area full of shops, restaurants and upmarket hotels. One of the Waterfront's main attractions is the Two Oceans Aquarium (00 27 21 418 3823; www.aquarium.co.za ), which opens daily 9.30am-6pm. It contains more than 3,000 sea animals in six different galleries; qualified divers can dive among the sharks.
Robben Island (00 27 21 409 5100; www.robben-island.org.za ), where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years, is now a museum. The austere buildings of the former prison contrast starkly with the island's idyllic setting. Boats to Robben Island depart daily, weather permitting, from the Clock Tower Precinct at the V&A Waterfront (00 27 21 413 4200).
Cape Town is dominated by Table Mountain, the summit of which can be reached by cable car (00 27 21 424 8181; www.tablemountain.net ); on clear days, it provides superb views of the coast. The service operates from 8am-8pm (8.30am-6pm May to mid-September), and a return ticket costs R130 (£9.25). Some people prefer to walk down - or even up - the mountain, but Cathy Alberts from Cape Town Tourism advises caution. "This is not a small hill", she warns. "You've got to be reasonably fit, take water and sunscreen, and tell people where you are going and when you expect to return."
One of city's latest attractions is a series of hiking trails on and around Hoerikwaggo, the mountain of the sea, which is the name given to Table Mountain by the area's original inhabitants. The most challenging of these is a six-day trek, the Top to Tip Trail, which links the mountain's summit to Cape Point, 25 miles to the south. The trails are operated by South African National Parks (00 27 21 465 8515; www.sanparks.org ); hikes are led by qualified guides, and accommodation, meals and porters are provided.
So it's worth going out of town?
There are some lovely beaches south of the city, long stretches of sand that are often surprisingly crowd-free, and one of the most attractive trips is to head out of the city towards the Cape Peninsula. Camps Bay is in an attractive setting, with the Twelve Apostles mountain range in the background; the more enclosed Hout Bay is dominated by the Sentinel mountain. This is a good place to visit some of Cape Town's many craft shops; here, old teabags are made into candle-holders that make unusual gifts to bring home. Simon's Town, in False Bay, is the gateway to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve (00 27 21 780 9204; www.cpnp.co.za ), which opens 6am-6pm daily (to 5pm May-mid September). The Cape of Good Hope is the most south-westerly tip of Africa - Cape Agulhas is further south - and it is an area of spectacular, rugged scenery and an astonishing variety of flower species.
Better than the Garden Route?
One of the great attractions of the so-called Garden Route, a 150-mile stretch of Indian Ocean coastline through mountains and forests, is that there is something to see all year round, whereas the wildflowers of the Western Cape are only at their best in spring, which, in this part of the world is in September. The route begins at Mossel Bay, and the first 30 miles, as far as uo George, can be covered by steam train, the Outeniqua Choo-Tjoe (00 27 44 801 8288), which sets off from the Diaz Museum at Santos Beach at 10am and puffs along the coast,arriving at the Outeniqua Transport Museum at Mission Street in George two hours later. The trip back departs at 2pm, and the return fare is R110 (£7.85). Trains run daily except Sunday from September-April; Monday, Wednesday and Friday from May-August. East of George is the Wilderness National Park with its chain of lakes and tree-covered slopes, and the town of Knysna, situated on a lagoon protected from the ocean by sandstone cliffs. This is a good base for exploring the area, or for enjoying its cycle trails and watersports. A more upmarket resort is Plettenberg Bay, 20 miles further east; this also offers adventure sports, and is an excellent base for whale-watching. There are a number of onshore vantage points from which to observe these fascinating animals, including Plettenberg Park and Lookout Rocks; to see them at closer quarters, take a boat from Central Beach. The best time to see whales is between March and November.
How do I get there?
British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com ), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com ) and South African Airways (SAA; 08707 471111; www.flysaa.com ) fly daily non-stop from Heathrow to Cape Town; expect return fares to start at around £600. SAA operates a network of internal flights to the main coastal cities of Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban; and Comair (00 27 11 921 0111; www.comair.co.za ), which also flies on behalf of BA, operates flights from Cape Town to Durban and Port Elizabeth. The leading local low-cost airline is Kulula ( www.kulula.com ).
And getting around?
Hiring a car and driving is an easy way to get around the South African coast, and several tour operators offer fly-drive holidays from Cape Town; among these is Virgin Holidays (0871 222 5825; www.virginholidays.co.uk ). For short excursions out of Cape Town, a good way to get around is to hire a Mini Cooper S from Short Shift Rentals (00 27 21 861 743363; www.shortshiftrentals.com ). Vehicles have MP3 players and an on-board computer, and can be hired for R1,100 (£78) a day; the first 200km are free, after that it costs R3 (£0.20) per kilometre.
To experience a little luxury, Rovos Rail operates 24-hour trips between Cape Town and the coastal town of George, departing from Cape Town in the morning, and leaving George again the following lunchtime. There is a stop on the way out for a wine-tasting excursion, and a visit to a brandy distillery on the way back. Accommodation on the beautifully restored Pullman trains, meals and alcoholic drinks are included in the fare, which starts at R4,540 (£331) for a one-way trip. A more basic, but effective, way of travelling along the coast is by bus. Several companies, including Intercape (00 27 21 380 4400; www.intercape.co.za ) and Greyhound (00 27 83 915 9000; www.greyhound.co.za ) cover the ground, as does the BazBus - a hop-on, hop-off backpackers' bus ( www.bazbus.com ).
Any good seaside cities?
Other than Cape Town, the main coastal conurbation is Durban, the biggest city in KwaZulu Natal. Less scenic than Cape Town, it nevertheless has plenty to offer, from Art Deco architecture in the streets north of Victoria Embankment to the botanic garden on St Thomas Road (00 27 31 201 1303; www.durbanbotanicgardens.org.za ). Mixed with the city's Indian and Zulu heritage are the attractions of a modern seaside resort: every kind of beach activity from surfing to beach volleyball, and a long, coastal strip of hotels, restaurants and entertainment: Durban's golden mile.
One of the city's highlights is the remarkable uShaka Marine World (00 27 31 328 8000; www.ushakamarineworld.co.za ), the largest marine theme park in Africa, a beachfront complex comprising a salt-water aquarium, water rides and a lot of shops and restaurants. It opens 9am-6pm daily; combined admission to the Sea World and Wet 'n Wild areas is R135 (£9.60).
Competing with Durban is the less commercialised city of Port Elizabeth, the centre of an area known as Nelson Mandela Bay. "Our sea water may be cooler than in Durban", claims Jonker Fourie from the city's tourism authority, "but the beaches are safe, and there is lots of entertainment for young and old."
Especially popular are several swimming pool complexes that have been built along the beach, and the Boardwalk Centre, an attractive collection of shops and restaurants around a man-made lake. This is where the South Africans themselves come when they want a family-friendly resort that offers a combination of watersports, good shopping and cultural attractions. One of the newest of these is the Red Location Museum (00 27 41 408 8400), situated in a township of the same name that was established in 1901 and was the home of many anti-apartheid activists. The first museum to be built in a South African township, it is surrounded by shacks on one side and low-cost housing on the other, and its galleries explain the history of this black settlement. It is also possible to visit a shebeen, or tavern, to have a drink or two and check out the music and atmosphere of the township. Evening trips are organised by Ezethu Tours (00 27 41 463 3698; www.ezethutours.co.za ) and cost R350 (£25).
Although there is a variety of accommodation in Port Elizabeth, much of it is in guesthouses rather than luxury hotels. Now, however, two five-star establishments are being built on the beachfront, the first of which, the Radisson, is scheduled to open in December next year.
Anything off the beaten track?
If you really want to get away from civilisation, head up the east coast as far as St Lucia in northern KwaZulu Natal. From here to the Mozambique border is an area of wetlands and coral reefs that are almost untouched by human habitation. According to Anton Roberts, who runs tours in the wetland park, the region's most striking feature is its diversity. "One second you are on the ocean, looking at whales," he says, "and the next you are looking at black rhino or a herd of buffalo walking along the road." His particular interest is birds. "My record is seeing 169 species in one day," he boasts.
The village of St Lucia, on the edge of Isimangaliso - as the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park is now known - is a good base; boat cruises along the estuary from here are excellent for sightings of crocodiles, hippos and rare birds. The dirt roads and lack of accommodation mean that tourism has been slow to develop in this part of the country, preserving the area for wildlife, such as the turtles which lay their eggs among the sand dunes.
The Rocktail Bay Lodge (00 27 21 702 7500; www.wilderness-safaris.com ) provides secluded accommodation in wooden chalets, built on stilts into the jungle canopy, and is a relaxing base from which to enjoy the wildlife and activities, including horse-riding, fishing, and snorkelling or diving among the dolphins and sharks. Chalets are available from R1,650 (£118) per person, including accommodation, meals and transfers from a farm five miles away where vehicles can be left.
Best places for watersports?
St Lucia is one of South Africa's least-known diving areas, and yet it has some of the best coral reefs in the world. A more popular centre is Port Elizabeth where several sports are on offer, including sailing. This, too, is a good diving spot, especially during the South African winter months, May to September, when the water is clearer. The Aliwal coast, 20 miles of beaches on either side of Durban, was nominated by National Geographic magazine as one of the five best diving spots in the world. Several companies offer dives, including the Aliwal Dive Centre (00 27 39 973 2233; www.aliwalshoal.co.za ) at Umkomaas, just south of the city. A good time to be in the area is during June and July, when the "Sardine Run" takes place - vast numbers of fish, in a shoal that may be several miles long, begin their swim north. The Aliwal Dive Centre sends boats out on two-hour observation trips, and qualified divers can get into the water to observe the sardines at closer quarters.
Within easy reach of the coast are several game parks where a huge variety of animals can be spotted:
Shamwari Game Reserve (01483 425 465; www.shamwari.com ) is the largest private game park in the Eastern Cape province, with a superb range of wildlife to be seen.
Luxury accommodation is provided in lodges, which have excellent facilities, including swimming pools, open-air dining, and individual tented suites; most do not allow children to stay.
South Africa's best-known elephant park is easily accessible from the Indian Ocean at Port Elizabeth. Addo Elephant National Park (00 27 42 233 8600; www.addoelephant park.com ) (pictured below) is 30 miles north of the city, and is a great place to get up close and personal with one of the country's native animals. Admission to the park is R100 (£7.15), and a choice of accommodation, from tents to cottages, is available inside. In addition to more than 450 elephants, the park is also home to the rest of the so-called " big five" – buffalo, rhino, lion and leopard – as well as to the southern right whale and the great white shark. A new gate at the south of the park now makes access from the coast easier.
Situated in Plettenberg Bay, Monkeyland (00 27 44 534 8906; www.monkeyland.co.za ) is a sanctuary for a large variety of primates, and is the most popular eco-tourism attraction on the Garden Route. The animals roam freely around the forest; visitors can walk through the park and try to spot them in their natural habitat. Admission to the park's forest deck, where there is a viewing platform and restaurant, is free. Hour-long walking safaris through the park, accompanied by a ranger, cost R110 (£8). The park opens daily 8.30am-5pm.
The beautiful west
Many travellers ignore South Africa's west coast, north of Cape Town, unless they are driving north to Namibia. In contrast with the more developed east coast, the west is undeveloped, a fascinating combination of desert terrain and waters that are too cold for swimming. But within easy day-trip distance of the city are some wonderful coves, including Lambert's Bay, sheltering Bird Island, which, as its name suggests, is a breeding ground for a number of species of birds.
The highlight is Namaqualand, a National Park (00 27 27 672 1948; www.sanparks.org/parks/namaqua ) slightly inland from the coast, whose nearest town is Kamieskroon.
As soon as the first rains fall in September, the landscape bursts into life, with carpets of flowers spreading out as far as the eye can see. There is no ideal viewing spot: the flowers are everywhere. The gates of the park itself are open daily from 8am-5pm, and admission is R60 (£4.30).