Each year, some 2,000-or-so southern right whales migrate from their Antarctic feeding grounds, and head for warmer waters along the southern Cape’s Atlantic coastline to breed and nurse their young. They especially fancy mating and calving in the series of sheltered, deep-water bays of the Overberg, a region within an hour’s drive of Cape Town. These bays provide sanctuary for the whales, protected along these shores since 1946. For the best chance of a sighting, whale watching in Hermanus is the obvious choice.
Hermanus, a popular seaside holiday town stretched along the wide, curved outline of Walker Bay, is considered one of the best places on earth for land-based whale watching, and markets itself as such. An abundance of cetaceans gather in its waters, often spotted breathtakingly close to shore, and potentially visible whether you’re on the beach, tanning on a sunbed at Birkenhead House (the town’s ultimate in boutique hotel glam), taking lunch at a harbour restaurant, or hiking in the mountains that form the town’s gorgeous backdrop.
Binoculars in hand, the simplest way to spot these gentle, gigantic sea-faring mammals is from the 11km granite cliff path that runs along the seaside edge of town. They can be watched for hours””sometimes at a distance of a mere 10m””and, in case you imagined all they did was lethargic lumbering, are seen breaching, logging, fluking, lobtailing, spouting, and spyhopping.
While southern rights (so-named because whalers considered them the “right” whales to hunt) are most abundant, you can also spot humpbacks and Minke whales, and there’s a pod of Bryde’s whales that lives in Walker Bay. Most activity happens from mid-July through November, although whales can be seen throughout the year. There is, however, more to Hermanus than these elegant 60-tonners.
The cliff path also provides an easy half-hour walk between the town’s Old Harbor (now a museum) and New Harbor. The latter is where one of the town’s best-loved restaurants, Harbor Rock is situated on rocky cliffs constantly pounded by waves. It’s nothing fancy, but popular with locals who come for the friendly vibe, personable bar, and fresh seafood accompanied by the dramatic atmosphere bestowed by the aforementioned crashing waves.
While staring out to sea from the cliff path will eventually bear fruit, you are more likely to experience an up-close whale encounter by boarding a boat with a specialised license permitting it to come within 50m of the whales; whale-watching operators include Ivanhoe Sea Safaris and Southern Right Charters, both with years of experience and thousands of successful encounters.
An even more astonishing way to get up close to the whales (although you wouldn’t want to get too close) is in a kayak, where you’re out on the open water with these gentle giants on their own terms. Sea kayaking outings are led by Walker Bay Adventures, which also offers motorised boat trips.
While it’s no longer the tiny Victorian-era village of twenty years ago, Hermanus still offers bucolic charms. Walks on Hermanus’s long, empty beaches (Grotto Beach continues for some 30km) are as restorative as the incredible hiking trails in its nearby nature reserves that protect indigenous fynbos, the main constituent of the world’s smallest plant kingdom. Fernkloof Nature Reserve overlooks the town and offers more than 50km of hiking trails and great views of Walker Bay. Within the reserve are examples of the world’s largest carnivorous plant, the highly endangered Roridula gorgonias, which grows up to 2m. Fernkloof, along with the nearby estuaries of the Bot and Klein rivers, are also fantastic birding areas, where some 180 species can be spotted, including Cape sugar birds, orange-breasted sun birds, the Cape siskin, Cape bulbuls, Protea seed eaters, and the southern tchagra. If you want to see flocks of flamingos, head for the Vermont Salt Pan, a pleasant drive from Hermanus.
For animal encounters a little more thrilling than bird watching, Hermanus is just 30km from the fishing town of Gansbaai (literally Goose Bay), which is considered the world capital for the slightly surreal opportunity of coming face-to-face with great white sharks while immersed in open-water, protected within a metal cage. The waters around Dyer and Geyser islands, a short boat trip from Gansbaai, are home to one of the world’s most impressive concentrations of endangered great white sharks. The islands are home to breeding colonies of seals that are the favourite source of food for the sharks, such that the channel between the islands has been dubbed “Shark Alley”. Morning departures happen early, with pick-ups from your hotel or guesthouse (the best time of the year is April to mid-June and July), and the outing includes breakfast, a half-day at sea, wetsuit, and snorkelling equipment. It’s standard practice also to first brief all participants, and a packed lunch is provided out at sea (sea-sickness medication is not, however, so come prepared). No diving experience is required, and if you’d rather not go down in the cage, you are still able to ride along on the boat and watch from the deck.
White Shark Projects is among the longest-running operators, and was instrumental in getting the white shark protected under South African law. Marine Dynamics is also recognised for its responsible eco-tourism credentials; besides shark cage-diving, Marine Dynamics also offers whale-watching trips accompanied by a marine biologist. The easiest way to sign up for one of the dive trips is through David Caravias’s Shark Bookings, a one-stop service connecting you to all the best operators in the country. Caravias also offers lodgings in his guesthouse, The Roundhouse, in Gansbaai””stay here the night before you dive, and you’ll get to sleep later than everyone else on the boat.
If you’re looking for more sedate adventures, there are a myriad of quaint rural villages set amidst a dreamy countryside. In nearby villages like Stanford, Arniston, and time-trapped Elim, originally a Moravian mission station, the pace of life dips to a virtual standstill, and each place has a unique local culture.
Most wineries on the Hermanus Wine Route are located within the gorgeously bucolic Hemel-en-Aarde (“Heaven and Earth”) Valley, and are easily reached since they’re strung along a single, undulating road (the R302) that starts just outside the town. Although the valley doesn’t get the kind of hype bestowed on Stellenbosch or Franschhoek, its wines benefit from the area’s atypical mix of terroir, plus the affects of the cooling sea breeze. Pinot noirs here are perennial award-winners, and in 2009, Decanter magazine named Ataraxia one of the “Top 10″ Chardonnay producers in the New World. Established in 2004, Ataraxia is among the valley’s younger estates, and worth visiting not only for the calibre of its wine, but also its location in the most elevated part of Hemel-en-Aarde. Some of the valley’s oldest and most respected wineries include Bouchard Finlayson and Hamilton Russell, which at one time boasted the distinction of producing South Africa’s priciest wines.
At the start of the wine route, Hermanuspietersfontein is another winery offering engaging tastings administered by folks with a distinct interest in local culture and lore. There’s also a Saturday food and wine market. Hermanuspietersfontein, incidentally, was the name originally given to Hermanus. It stuck, until a local post office clerk decided it was too cumbersome, and lobbed it down to size. The town itself, though, has never stopped growing.
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Have you been whale watching in Hermanus? What do you make of Hermanus wine? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Keith Bain