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THE WATERSIDE WONDERS JUST BEYOND CAPE TOWN

by
Anton Crone
18 September 2015

I am lucky to call Cape Town home because it means I’m able to enjoy the ocean right alongside mountain wilderness, five star dining enhanced by fine wines, a buzzing art scene and a vibrant nightlife, the ramifications of which can be cured with exceptional coffee found on every street. To leave Cape Town for a holiday seems like madness, but perhaps it’s okay if it’s just for a weekend.

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Atlantic Rail’s “Katie” Steams towards Simonstown ©Anton Crone.
Victorian buildings line the main street of Simonstown ©Cape Town Tourism.
Boulders penguin colony in Simonstown is the protected home of more than 2,000 endangered African penguins ©Mikkel Houmøller

Every second weekend a certain train leaves Cape Town for Simonstown in False Bay. Catch it and you’ll travel back in time – not just because Simonstown clings to a bygone era, but because this train runs on steam. As you chug away from Cape Town the expanse of False Bay is steadily revealed. Before long the ocean is almost lapping at the rails, the hiss of the engine marks your passage in time and you eventually arrive, with a steamy shudder, in the 1800’s.

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Victorian buildings line Simonstown’s streets. With shuttered windows flung open to the bay and naval flags lining the eaves, it’s clearly the ocean upon which this town thrives. A centuries old naval base gives credence to the old cannons that spike the surrounding hills, and a yacht club lures sailing ships from around the world. Not far from the old town, on the way towards the jagged cliffs of the Cape Peninsula, penguins make their home on protected beaches, and False Bay’s secrets, of kelp forests and strange creatures, are hidden beneath the waves.
It’s a wonderful place from which to explore the peninsula, surf the waves of Muizenberg and commune in the antiquarian haunts and coffee shops of nearby Kalk Bay. But don’t miss lunch at The Flagship back in Simonstown. Chef Duncan Doherty is the relaxed and funny host of this unique establishment – more of a delightful home than a lodge and restaurant.

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The view over False Bay from the deck of The Flagship. Chef Duncan Doherty’s fare is inspired by the ocean on his doorstep ©The Flagship.Clarence Drive, skirting the winding coast of False Bay on the way to Hermanus, is the ideal biking road ©Ian Barbour.
The author chats to a Hermanus fisherman while looking out over Walker Bay ©Romy Chevallier.

Much of his fare comes from the ocean on his doorstep, and although many arrive at his table as strangers, they are soon kicking their shoes off as friends. I kicked mine off, made some new American friends and stayed the night, anticipating the next leg of my next trip around False Bay on a more modern form of transport.

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If motorcycles came with cup holders I might have taken off immediately, but coffee was enjoyed sitting on Kalk Bay’s vibrant street gazing alternately at the passersby and the imposing motorcycle that Tyger Valley Harley Davidson had lent me. I couldn’t help comparing it to a steam train; only because it handled like it was on rails. The size of the bike belies surprisingly nimble handling on the most curvaceous of bends.
Sticking to the coast after Muizenberg, the road skirts a long windswept stretch of beach making up the deepest cut of False Bay, then, after crawling through Strand and Gordons Bay, you are rewarded with the most scenic stretch of coastal road in South Africa, if not the entire continent. It’s also the most fun. You can’t take a train around the tight turns of Clarence Drive, but on a bike it becomes a fairground ride enhanced by the sea air washing up from the waves below and the breathtaking views around every bend.

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Birkenhead House’s location, on a small cliff top overlooking Walker Bay, is the envy of many ©Anton Crone.
Photographed from the air, a whale breaches the waters of Walker Bay ©African Wings.
The view from Birkenhead House’s pool deck at sunset ©Birkenhead House.

When the curves run out, you cant just stop and turn around, no matter how enticing the road. Hermanus is too close to ignore, especially during the whale season, and it’s a perfect base to explore the beautiful Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and Earth) wine valley, and commune with the water creatures of Walker Bay.

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Birkenhead House is an incredible base, the hotel’s location being the envy of many – on a small cliff-top overlooking Walker Bay where so many whales come to calve their young.
The unobtrusive entrance gives little away of its wonderful interior, and as you descend its three expansive levels, flanked by an enviable collection of contemporary art, the ocean grows larger and larger in your view until you are walking through the lounge and standing on the pool deck with the entire bay at your feet. Then a whale waves a flipper in greeting, a chilled glass of wine is put in your hand, and you think, perhaps getting away from Cape Town is something I should do more often.africa-geographic-logo

Practical info. and recommendations below

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practical info. and recommendations

HERMANUS

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©Ivanhoe.
©African Wings.
©Marine Dynamics.

Whale Watching by boat: Ivanhoe Sea Safaris specialises in boat-based whale watching from June to September. They are located in Gansbaai, just 40 minutes from Hermanus, operating in the waters of Walker Bay which is famous for its whale activity. Ivanhoe also offers eco trips focussing on the wider marine life, as well as private charters.

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Whale Watching by plane: African Wings takes off from Stanford, just 25 minutes from Hermanus, giving you a unique perspective on the whales in Walker Bay. Flights take up to three people and vary in duration between 30, 45 and 60 minutes. African wings also offers a variety of scenic flights and tailor made experiences.

Shark cage diving: Marine Dynamics launches from Gansbaai, just 40 minutes from Hermanus. Breakfast is included before launch and the boat trip to Shark Alley takes approximately 20 minutes. The boat can take up to 40 people with a maximum of 7 in the shark cage at any one time. Sandwiches and refreshments are offered on the boat and a DVD of your experience can be viewed and bought.

Marine Dynamics works closely with a number of conservation bodies to address conservation challenges and improve living conditions for the local communities and the wildlife. They include the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, Marine Anti-Litter Campaign and Faces of Need.

Wine tasting in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley:

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©Ataraxia.

Before reaching Hermanus when driving from Cape Town, turn left onto the R320 Hemel-en-Aarde Road to explore the wines and landscape of this beautiful valley. It’s a refreshing alternative to Franschoek and Stellenbosch with a wide selection of award winning vineyards and restaurants.

Ataraxia’s tasting room, The Wine Lounge, is built as a chapel situated on what must be the most spectacular spot in the valley – an ideal place to sit and contemplate their delicious wines.

Creation Wines has wonderful wine pairings with tapas daily between 11H00 and 16H00, 10AM brunch pairings and a secret food & wine pairing (Needs to be reserved 24hrs in advance).

Accommodation at Birkenhead House

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©Birkenhead House.

Birkenhead House is situated in a quiet part of Hermanus on a cliff-top overlooking the whale haven of Africa. It’s made up of 3 houses with 11 eclectically decorated rooms, a spa, gym, and two pools. Stylish luxury contrasts with a laid back atmosphere that has you feeling completely at home. Everything is at your own pace here and the staff treat you more like friends than guests.

SIMONSTOWN

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©Matthew Fortey.

Boulders penguin colony:
As part of Table Mountain National Park, Boulders Beach is the protected home of more than 2,000 endangered African penguins. But it doesn’t mean you can’t visit to delight in the antics of these characterful birds. From the turnstile entrance, a walkway means you can view the penguins without destroying their natural habitat, and there is also access to a sheltered beach where you and the kids can swim – but don’t touch the penguins.

Opening times:
December – January: 7am – 7.30pm
February – March: 8am – 6.30pm
April – September: 8am – 5pm
October – November: 8am – 6.30pm

The penguins are supported by SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds)

Simonstown waterside and Naval Museum:

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©Anton Crone.
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The variety of eclectic shops, restaurants and cafés on Simonstown’s main street and waterside belie the quaint size of this town. You can lose yourself here for a day hunting down that art piece, learning about the history and sampling the tasty wares of its restaurants and cafés.
Hard work like this needs a respite and the restaurants on the waterfront are a good place to relax for a maritime meal while you watch the sail boats bob in the harbour. Boat excursions to Cape Point and Seal Island can also be arranged here with Boat Company, as well as whale watching excursions in False Bay.

Simonstown Naval Museum:
The naval history of the town goes back to 1810 when the Royal Navy moved its headquarters from Cape Town to Simonstown. It’s a fascinating place to learn about the history of South Africa’s fighting and defensive ships, from the days of sails through to the minesweepers and submarines of World War 2 and beyond. Most surprising are the mapped records of German U-boat activity along South Africa’s coast, making one realise this wasn’t necessarily a quiet theatre of maritime war.

Daily Opening times 09:30-15:30 except Good Friday, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

Lunch and accommodation at The Flagship:

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©The Flagship.

Chef Duncan Doherty hails from the renowned culinary and wine capital of Franschoek, his connection with wine and food showing in his portfolio of work with Haute Cabriere, Fancourt, The Lanzerac Hotel and the Graham Beck Wine Estate. At The Flagship he builds your 5 course meal around the very best wines, pairing them with local sustainable seafood in a relaxed atmosphere that makes you feel completely at home. To top it off, 4 sea-facing suites are waiting for you so you can linger in Simonstown for much longer.

Kalk Bay

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©Matthew Fortey. ©Nikki Albertyn\Lekker.

This seaside town is the hip sister of Simonstown with restaurants, cafés and shops that range from cool and funky to discerning and chic. Kalk Bay’s harbour is a small, buzzing fish market where fishing boats offload their catch daily. A couple of tasty fish and chip restaurants line the harbour and the finer fare can be found at Harbour House with a view over the crashing waves of False Bay. Punctuating the shops of this town are a number of cafés, each with its own eclectic vibe, but make sure to sample the fare of Lekker, an Afrikaans word meaning “tasty”.

GETTING AROUND

Rent a Harley Davidson from Tyger Valley:

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©Harley Davidson.

The Western Cape’s coastal roads are ideal for two wheel touring – with twisty roads and incredible scenery, there’s no better way to experience it. If it’s for a weekend away, you can fit everything you need on a tourer like the Ultra Limited which has enough luggage space for you and a passenger.

Let off some steam with Atlantic Rail:

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©Anton Crone.

Every second weekend, Atlantic Rail gets under way, steaming down the track towards Simonstown or Stellenbosch and back again. Invite friends and family, take a picnic along, and if you really want to get into the swing of it, wear period costume for a true journey back in time.

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About the author

Anton Crone (right) in Naboisho, Kenya

ANTON CRONE quit the crazy-wonderful world of advertising to travel the world, sometimes working, sometimes drifting. Along the way he unearthed a passion for Africa’s stories – not the sometimes hysterical news agency headlines we all feed off, but the real stories. Anton has a strong empathy with Africa’s people and their need to meet daily requirements, often in remote environmentally hostile areas co-habitated by Africa’s free-roaming animals. His journey brought him to Africa Geographic where he is now Editor in Chief, and custodian of Africa Geographic online magazine.

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  • Wonderful perspective of a stunning part of Cape Town, in which I have the privilege to live in Simon’s Town! Superb photographs!

  • Howie Owen

    Re Atlantic Rail steam train trip to Simonstown – heard on the radio last week that line from Fish Hoek to Simonstown will only re-open again in Feb 2016 (due to on-going maintenance) so for now they only do the Stellenbosch run. Still a great experience.