South Africa See And Do
Stormsriver Village, next to Tsitsikamma National Park, is the epicenter for adrenaline sports. Land Rovers line up outside small B&Bs catering to backpackers, and adventure companies offer zip-lining and river tubing. Stormsriver Adventures offers a Tsitsikamma Canopy tour consisting of ten zip lines (called "slides" here) that take you between ten platforms 100 feet up in the indigenous forest. Half an hour away on the N2, an unmissable sign exhorts you to "Face Your Fear" by taking what's said to be the highest bungee jump in the world, courtesy of Face Adrenalin. Anyone not wanting to weigh in for the 700-foot free fall off the Bloukrans River Bridge can try the Flying Fox, a 600-foot cable zip line onto the arch underneath, or a bridge walking tour.
Denizens of Cape Town are spoiled with so many beach option. The water, though, can make or break an outing, as the Atlantic-side beaches are freezing, while the water on the Indian Ocean side is often quite warm. However, the Atlantic seaboard beaches are more image-conscious (read: social types wearing the latest fashion bikinis), whereas the Indian Ocean beaches are more welcoming to diverse visitors. Keep in mind that the Indian Ocean side loses the sun as early as 3:30 in the winter, as it drops behind the mountains, while the Atlantic seaboard beaches have incredible sunsets—best seen from Camps Bay beach. Sand is usually clean and white. A few words of caution regarding the water: Because there is an undertow, it's important to swim where a lifeguard can see you. Shark watchers scan the waves on the Muizenberg side of the peninsula (scene of most recent shark attacks) for great white sharks, and you'll do well to watch for their flags—a black flag with a picture of a shark on it means get out of the water immediately.
A more sedate option is a visit to Boulders Beach, in Simonstown. One of Cape Town's best beaches, it has secluded swimming coves but is now overrun with Jackass penguins that nest on the shoreline. They are charming, but also smell a bit strong. The palm-lined beach at Camps Bay is easy to get to and close to bars and restaurants, whereas Clifton's four beaches and Llandudno each take a bit of a walk. Bloubergstrand is the beach with the most famous postcard view of Table Mountain—but it's windy.
Long, often desolate beaches are the signature of the Garden Route, although you might miss some of the best—Keurbooms, Nature's Valley, and Buffalo Bay—if you don't detour off the N2. Victoria Bay, near George, is a tiny but renowned surfing destination and often hosts international events. Though Plett's popular Lookout Beach was wiped away by raging storms in 2007, it still has Robberg Beach, which ends in Robberg Nature Preserve, a wildlife sanctuary on a rocky peninsula teeming with seals. Both magical and off the beaten track is Noetzie, a few miles outside Knysna, which has a half dozen stone castles dating from the 1930s located next to the Noetzie River mouth. Two of the castles have been turned into luxury villas by the famed Pezula resort.
You don't need to go far to find vineyards around Cape Town—there are five in the Constantia valley, a 20-minute drive from the city center. Groot Constantia is the oldest wine-producing estate in South Africa, though the tastings here can be overwhelmed with busloads of tourists, so you might continue up the Main Road to Buitenverwachting. The restaurant is closed during the month of July, and the picnics are only available in summer (November to April), but the tasting room is open regardless, and free. Klein Constantia is literally up the road, and here you'll find the estate's award-winning nectar, Vin de Constance, a dessert wine popular in the courts of Europe for centuries. If you're short of time, head straight to Constantia Uitsig. The John Platter Wine Guide (an invaluable reference if you're interested in SA wines) always give its grapes high marks, and the three restaurants (including La Colombe) are some of the Cape's finest.
Addo Heights Road
Addo Elephant National Park
Tel: 27 44 532 7818
Gorah Elephant Camp occupies more than 12,000 acres of private preserve within state-owned Addo Elephant National Park, between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown. It was opened in 2000 by Ian Hunter of Hunter Hotels, who also owns Hunter's Country House and Tsala Treetop Lodge outside Plettenberg Bay. The camp's luxury tents are a fabulous place to stay while watching the wildlife. Addo itself was created in 1931 on approximately 5,000 acres to save the last 11 elephants in the Eastern Cape and now has an elephant population in excess of 450 that ranges over 400,000 acres.
Tel: 27 21 799 8783
Located a ten-minute drive from central Cape Town, this modern Eden is devoted to indigenous plants, and you'll find about 5,000 of South Africa's botanical species here. There is also a fragrance garden, and a medicinal garden featuring plants used by Khoisan healers. The lawns, streams, and winding paths are a magnet for children, so if you're after some peace and quiet, then avoid the lower slopes, which are inhabited by stroller-pushing mothers, and head for the wilder upper slopes, with their great view over the city. The gardens are at their peak when covered in spring flowers in September and October. There have been some muggings, so don't walk alone in the park's deserted areas. Two hiking routes also begin in the gardens: Skeleton Gorge and Nursery Ravine. It takes up to three hours to get to the top of Table Mountain along these routes, and the hike is strenuous, so consider going with a guide (bookings can be made through the Cape Town Tourism office, 27-21-762-0687).
Open daily 8 am to 7 pm.
40 Main Street
Tel: 27 44 382 5510
Before continuing to Plettenberg Bay, the N2 motorway briefly metamorphoses into Knysna's Main Street. The village was once known as a sleepy-hollow hippie hideout, but a steady stream of tourists has made it a mini-destination of its own. Fortunately, the old town itself—with its wide, tree-lined streets and Victorian houses—has been preserved.
Great Fish River Valley
Tel: 888 882 3742 (toll-free)
Tel: 27 46 603 3400
Opened in October 2001 in the Great Fish River Valley, at the heart of the Eastern Cape, this game reserve hosts more than 7,000 animals. The buffalo, lions, cheetahs, rhinos (white and black), giraffes, wild dogs, and elephants were introduced to their new home in a massive translocation exercise that cost upward of $10 million. More diverse than Gorah, the landscape here includes dense thicket and open, river-crossed savannah. Accommodation choices at the reserve include two Relais & Châteaux safari lodges and Melton Manor, run by luxury safari outfitters &Beyond; day and night wildlife viewing trips are offered.
Plettenberg Bay Tourism Centre
Mellville's Corner Centre, Main Street
Tel: 27 44 533 4065
Roughly a 30-minute drive east of Noetzie Beach and Conservancy lies posh Plettenberg Bay (everyone calls it "Plett"), where hundreds of Johannesburg's wealthy families have built grand vacation homes. Like the view, Plett's town hasn't changed over the years: Lookout Beach, an enormous sand spit, remains the best for surfing and sunbathing and is still the least crowded. The town bursts into life at 8 a.m. every Saturday morning and shuts promptly at 1 p.m., when folks head for the beach.
Tel: 27 44 533 2125
A sweeping peninsula five miles south of Plettenberg Bay, Robberg has some of the best hiking in the area. It takes about four hours to circumnavigate along narrow cliff-top paths and down sweeping drifts of powder-fine sand. Your rewards: incredible views of the bay, the colonies of Cape fur seals at the base of the cliffs, and dolphins and whales swimming close to shore. Word to the wise: Rain is commonplace all year, and storms can strike with very little warning at this wild and wonderful place.
If you crave a close encounter with a great white shark (and who doesn't?), the answer is cage diving. Locals can't agree whether the chumming for sharks is attracting more of them to the shores, or whether they've been there all along, but either way, there are a lot of sharks out there—enough to warrant watchers keeping an eye on the beaches to warn swimmers. While the sharks do swim along the peninsula beaches, the best cage diving is in Gansbaai, about an hour-and-a-half drive out of the city. A cage diving operator will pick you up from the city center, and your $160 fee will cover breakfast, snacks on the boat, all diving equipment, and safety gear. Contact an operator like Marine Dynamic, which conducts shark research as well as sightseeing trips.
Capetonians are serious about surfing: Big-wave surfers get towed out to Dungeons, a break off Hout Bay with waves estimated at between 50 and 60 feet tall. Muizenberg beach is less suicidal, with long, flat lines at Surfer's Corner that attract surfers of all experience levels. Rent equipment and book lessons at one of the surf shops that line the beachfront, such as Gary's Surf School. Kite boarding is also big, especially on Bloubergstrand beach; for lessons and gear, contact Windswept.
Cape Town's most famous landmark is Table Mountain, a flat-topped mountain that stands 3,563 feet above the city. It has two mountains on either side, Devil's Peak and Lion's Head, as well as a small hill called Signal Hill. The city center nestles within the circle formed by these mountains and the sea. Eighteen million visitors have taken the revolving Table Mountain Aerial Cableway to the top. The cars run every ten minutes and will lend you a better understanding of the city's layout. The mountaintop is flat and easy to explore, but for an adrenaline rush, try the world's highest commercial rappel, with Abseil Africa. Hikers do walk up the mountain face, and it looks easy from the cable car; however, we recommend this be done with a guide, as visitors regularly get stuck after underestimating the mountain or taking a wrong turn. Reserve a guide through the Cape Town Tourism office.
Tsitsikamma National Park
Tel: 27 42 281 1607
Some of the Garden Route's best-known hiking trails are in this park, which comprises 50 miles of coastline, forests, and mountains. The most famous hike is the five-day, 26-mile Otter Trail, which winds through forests, alongside rivers and waterfalls, and skirts coves and beaches, with huts along the way for spending the night. Be forewarned, however, that only 12 people a day are allowed on the trail, so you need to book at least a year in advance. Nature's Valley, adjacent to the park, is itself a peaceful place to disappear for a day, with a three-mile beach and a quiet lagoon at the mouth of the Groot River.
About a 90-minute drive east of Cape Town, Hermanus was once a poor fishing village, then a wealthy retirement village, and is now the whale-watching capital of South Africa. Each season (May to November), southern right whales wallow in Walker Bay, where thousands of admirers watch from winding cliff paths high above the rocky shoreline. It's a tidy industry, with a horn-blowing town crier directing visitors to the best viewing points, information kiosks, and a tiny museum on the quayside that highlights the town's now-extinct fishing industry. Plettenberg Bay also offers great viewing of humpback and Bryde's whales, as well as dolphins and seals, through outfitters such as Ocean Blue Adventures. Boats leave from Central Beach, next to the Beacon Isle hotel. While calving season is usually in July, whales are easy to spot through November.