“See you at the beach,” waves a Cape Town friend. A week later, in Durban, I hear the same farewell.
It’s that time of year. South Africans have sand between their toes.
They share summer’s beach culture with Australians. So, it’s no surprise when rainbow nation tourism officials announce surging numbers of Aussies are taking African beach holidays.
Our dollar’s strong – making this inexpensive destination even cheaper.
Exploring its rich cultural mix and scenic attractions are year-round activities. However, summer isn’t prime time for eyeballing wild animals in famed game reserves such as Kruger National Park.
While animal-viewing remains reasonable, conditions are sometimes wet with washed out roads. In South African game reserves, winter is high season (though climatic conditions vary in other African countries).
But the beach is a different story. Summer crowds make a beeline for South Africa’s superb beaches.
From Cape Town in the far south (where some beaches cluster on the Atlantic Ocean side and others face the Indian Ocean) to the east coast’s Durban and beyond – with Port Elizabeth and East London in between – are dozens of memorable options.
Here’s a tote bag of some of the best:
Clifton: South Africa’s most glamorous beach is a 10-minute cab ride from downtown. Skimpy designer swimwear, high-fashion sunglasses, a well-toned body and loads of attitude are de rigueur at this see-and-be-seen chill-out zone for self-styled beautiful people where the beach is a series of coves.
Camps Bay: A white-sand strip a few more minutes’ drive, similarly oozing affluence but not as crassly as at Clifton. Good restaurants thrive nearby. Regulars include surfers (as at Clifton) and families with kids. Be warned: the Atlantic can be chilly.
Sea Point: Between Clifton and the city, this isn’t really a beach at all (though there’s a swimming pool). It’s more hang-out territory for seafront promenading. Sea Point has many restaurants (with particularly good seafood ) and bars along with vibrant nightlife.
Blouberg: Also an Atlantic beach, it’s far less pretentious than Clifton. Splendid Table Mountain views attract professional photographers. Popular for swimming and surfing, its water is wonderfully cool on hot summer days.
Muizenberg: Faded grandeur lingers from 1960s trendiness. A long white-sand strip, with gaudily-painted “beach huts”, still attracts big weekend crowds. On the Cape Peninsula’s warmer-water False Bay side, Muizenberg has charming Indian Ocean neighbours: St James, Fish Hoek, Hout Bay (a fishing village renowned for swimming and kayaking) and Kalk Bay (with calm water and shallow tidal pools in a family-friendly setting).
Boulders: Alongside False Bay’s Simonstown naval base – with quaint pubs, art galleries, souvenir shops and an English seaside ambience – is the Boulders, home of an African penguin colony which waddles ashore at dusk while watched from tourist boardwalks. By day, gigantic smooth-surfaced rocks create sheltered coves.
Strand: “Strand” is Afrikaans for beach. This 5km False Bay white-sand strip is reminiscent of Queensland’s Surfers Paradise. A 40-minute drive from downtown, it’s one of the safest near Africa’s southern tip. Water sports include kayaking. Beginner surfers are numerous. The next beach, curved Gordons Bay, also pulls large crowds.
Hermanus: Whale-watching (of Southern rights) draws June-December crowds. An all-year lure: cage-diving among great white sharks. The less daring choose from several operators offering shark-spotting trips. One recent boatload watched a frenzied fish leap from the water with a seal in its jaws. Other Hermanus diversions: seal colonies, beach horse-riding. Several beaches entice swimmers; nearby Onrus is arguably the Cape Town area’s number-one surfing destination.
Margate: South of Durban (127kms), this tranquil holiday choice has abundant accommodation in all price categories. Swimming, body-boarding, surfing, fishing and undemanding beach-lazing are lures in a hideaway less frenetic than Durban itself.
North Beach, South Beach: Durban is one of the few cities boasting downtown beaches. Cross hotel-studded O.R. Tambo Parade to reach the Golden Mile’s band of sand – just beyond footpath vendors of Zulu handicrafts.
Suncoast Beach: Nearby Suncoast is decidedly trendier than its downtown rivals. Some call it Durban’s best. Tropical Durban – with weather similar to southern Queensland’s – promotes year-round swimming but beaches do get chilly in winter.
Umhlanga Rocks: Ten minutes’ drive north is an up-and-coming district with hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and a beach liked by South Africans and tourists. Families congregate at calm areas. Surfers insist Umhlanga is unrivalled along KwaZulu-Natal province’s coast.
La Lucia: Between Durban and Umhlanga Rocks is La Lucia with pristine beaches, safe Indian Ocean swimming and reasonable surfing. Upscale suburbia, it’s a winner for diverse cheaper-than-Australia mall shopping. (Only electronics are more expensive.)
Humewood Beach: Among many Algoa Bay beaches in and near Port Elizabeth. it attracts locals, solo travellers, holidaying couples and families with children. It’s safe for swimming and recommended for surfing (which aficionados describe as reasonable rather than outstanding).
Bluewater Bay: A suburb of car-manufacturing Port Elizabeth, this beach is handy for city workers who throng here before or after work. to the city. Both swimming and fishing are evident during my weekday visit – with many people sprawled on the sand (some with laptops). Surfing isn’t a drawcard here.
Blue Horizon Bay: 45kms from Port Elizabeth, this Indian Ocean area is awash in worthwhile choices including Maitland Beach (with 5kms of coastal dunes), Hobie Beach (great for body-surfing), Paradise Beach (with hotels, shopping and uncrowded sands) and Pollock Beach (with sheltered, shallow rock pools trapping sea life at high tide; I’ve beachcombed happily here, hopping between rocks and peering into rock pools – a pleasant postscript to several hours’ snorkelling). A good side-trip is Addo Elephant National Park, a pachyderm habitat with other beasts also roaming free.
Orient Beach (in suburban Quigney), Nahoon Beach (where surfing contests are regularly held) and Gonubie Beach (25kms north, with a boardwalk across indigenous vegetation) are this laid-back Eastern Cape city’s best.
And then there’s Coffee Bay, also on the Wild Coast.
Coffee Bay: It’s an East London-area gem, arguably South Africa’s supreme surfing spot and a flourishing tourist destination (particularly for backpackers). Some lodgings offer transfers for the 197kms from East London. There’s surprisingly little at Coffee Bay where rolling green pastures slope towards the sea – except splendid beaches, glorious surf, numerous backpacker lodgings, upmarket BBs and good tourist hotels, along with several restaurants. “The surf here is absolutely spectacular,” a backpacker from Adelaide tells me, emerging from the sea. “So are the sharks,” jokes Xhosa-speaking tour guide William Ross. Top side-trip: tiny Mvezo village – birthplace of Nelson Mandela, father of South African democracy.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: South African Airways (1300 435 972; flysaa.com) flies between Australia and Johannesburg, where travellers connect with domestic flights. Various companies run tours including South Africa. Among these: Australia-based Inca Tours (1800 024 955; incatours.net), specialising in Africa and South America.
Staying there: South African cities have plentiful accommodation options, from opulent to budget. The country’s biggest chain, Protea Hotels (+ 27 21 430 5300; proteahotels.com), has a selection at most destinations.
More: South African Tourism (1800 238 643, southafrica.net).
The writer was a guest of South African Airways, South African Tourism and Protea Hotels.