November 7, 2011
For the latest installment in our series of mini road-trips, we’re handing over the reins to regular vtravelled contributor, Cape Town resident and South Africa expert Lucy Corne, who leads us on an exhilarating journey along the Western Cape’s ‘Whale Coast’ from central Cape Town to the seaside town of Hermanus. Over to you, Lucy…
You might think that day drives from Cape Town would be limited, scrunched as it is into the south western-most corner of the continent. But stunning drives fan out in every land-based direction, snaking through mountain ranges, semi-desert and along a coastline that has you jumping out at every lookout point for photos. We’re taking the coastal road to Hermanus, whale watching capital of SA. On a non-stop highway drive, you could be in Hermanus in under two hours, but this route hugs the coast from Muizenberg, guaranteeing spectacular vistas across False Bay and some worthy stops along the way.
Take the M3 south from central Cape Town, driving in the shadow of Table Mountain as you bypass the Southern Suburbs. When the motorway peters out at Tokai, follow signs for Muizenberg (via Main Road, the M4), surfer central for Capetonians and a great place to take a surfing class if you have a morning to spare.
From here the R310 east hugs the far-from-tepid waters of the Atlantic Ocean (the official start of the Indian Ocean is 130 miles east at Cape Agulhas) and soon becomes sandwiched between sand dunes and powdery white beaches at the southern end of the Cape Flats. Strandfontein and Mnandi beaches both boast blue flag status, though strong winds and currents might make them more attractive from afar unless you stick to the waters of Strandfontein’s massive tidal pool.
After 15 miles, the route takes a few turns before returning to the coast, briefly joining the N2 through Somerset West and six miles later heading south on to the R44 towards Gordons Bay. Keep your eyes peeled for R44/Gordons Bay signs as you make for the coast once more in this utterly enviable seaside town of ocean-facing mansions.
Gordons Bay marks the start of Clarence Drive, one of South Africa’s most remarkable roads. Take advantage of the many lay-bys and lookout points to admire the Table Mountain Range as it tapers out at Cape Point, 25 miles across False Bay, so named because early explorers frequently confused it with Table Bay. Homeward-bound after a spot of spice shopping in the East, they would reach Cape Hangklip and, mistaking it for Cape Point, hang a right, thinking they were heading north along Africa’s coast when instead they were beach-bound.
As Clarence Drive really starts to shine the road meanders between the ocean – look out for whales between June and December – and the craggy mountains of the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve. Known for its unique and delicate Fynbos plants – over 1600 species can be found in this 18,000-hectare reserve – the Kogelberg is the throne room of the Cape Floral Kingdom and its fragile landscape demands the highest level of protection.
Hikers and bikers are of course welcome, though in limited numbers and any visit into the park must be booked in advance. Alongside plants, you might spot baboons, small antelope, Cape clawless otter and the Cape’s only herd of wild horses, descended from those abandoned here after the Anglo-Boer War.
For a less strenuous taste of the outdoors, drop in at the Harold Porter Botanical Garden, 22 miles southwest of Gordons Bay in Betty’s Bay. Easy trails wind through the Fynbos and flowers, taking in waterfalls, forests and mountain slopes.
Betty’s Bay is also the hopping off point for excursions into the Kogelberg as well as home to a large population of breeding African Penguins – a quieter and cheaper place to view them than at the more famous site over the bay in Simon’s Town.
After Betty’s Bay the road continues to cling to the coast for a few more miles before heading inland after Kleinmond. Some 15 miles from Betty’s Bay, a junction appears – turn right onto the R43 and admire misty vistas of the Kleinriver Mountains to the east, sheltering the fertile Hemel-en-Aarde valley. Hemel-en-Aarde, meaning “˜Heaven and Earth’, produces some of the Cape’s finest wines so here we will take a brief detour to sample some Sauvignon (and more).
There are a dozen wineries along the R320, a turnoff heading north, three miles before you arrive in Hermanus. Try Bouchard Finlayson for an array of award-winning vintages, superb Pinot Noir and exquisite surrounds. Newton Johnson also excel at Pinot, or if you prefer a wide-ranging look at local wine, head to Wine Village on the R43, four miles west of Hermanus.
After a morning of winding roads, wildlife and wine, your destination awaits. Hermanus is a charming seaside town filled with art boutiques and seafood restaurants. In the early 1900s, the town was known for its all-healing “˜champagne air’, with some Harley Street doctors even prescribing a dose of Hermanus air to their patients.
Today the name Hermanus is synonymous with whales, specifically Southern Right Whales, which delight visitors by swimming close enough to shore to render up-close boat trips an optional extra. In whale season (June to December) look out for the world’s only “˜whale crier’ who points out the whereabouts of whales with his kelp horn – similar to a vuvuzela. End your trip on a sea-facing restaurant terrace, munching on a seafood platter as you gaze out to sea, hopefully catching a glimpse of a whale tail disappearing into the depths.
If you’re heading straight back to Cape Town, consider the short route home, which begins with a pleasing drive between hills up to the N2 highway. From here the first 20 miles along the N2 are far from dull, passing the farm stalls of apple country (Elgin and Grabouw) and taking in the bends of the Sir Lowry Pass with its incredible views of False Bay below.
Virgin Atlantic flies direct to Cape Town from London Heathrow – log on to virginatlantic.com for the best fares. Alternatively, for a complete holiday package to Cape Town and the Whale Coast and Western Cape, visit Virgin Holidays who will help you build a South Africa itinerary and an experience you’ll never forget.
Photos: Header shot of Muizenberg beach © Neil Bradfield | Dreamstime.com, Muizenberg town © Sean Nel | Dreamstime.com, Gordons Bay © fabulousfabs on Flickr, Kogelberg © Woozie | Dreamstime.com, penguins © Cvacubo | Dreamstime.com, Hemel en Aarde © RobW on Flickr, Hermanus © Xvaldes | Dreamstime.com, Southern Right Whale © Ken Moore | Dreamstime.com.