ESCAPE TO THE SEA
The most glorious beaches in South Africa – including some hidden gems
Whether you’re looking for an isolated, wild piece of coastline to spend time by yourself, or a sandy stretch with warm water for frolicking all day long, each province by the sea has something to offer.
No two beaches are the same, much like the reasons they attract us. Some are beautiful with cold water temperatures, others warm yet with riptides. Some offer mobile coffee caravans or cafés across the road, others have volleyball nets and great birdlife. Others are a wilderness paradise.
The good news is that we’ve only skimmed the sand in our search.
Lookout and Robberg No 5, Plettenberg Bay
Before it was literally washed away, Lookout Beach used to be widely regarded as the best beach in southern Africa. With perfect breaks and life-savers on duty, it was great for body-surfing and safe for families, with a café at the head of the beach situated against some iconic rocks.
The beach has since returned, but it’s not quite the same. Today it is a protected sanctuary for birds – white-fronted plovers and black oystercatchers among them – and a special spot for long, quiet walks towards Keurbooms and the Crags beyond.
The “new” Lookout – and the most popular beach in Plett – is Robberg No 5, running along the loosely delineated “millionaires’ mile”. Fat new mansions replaced old beachfront cottages, with owners often duplicating their city lives right here at the beach.
Yet it is the area’s nature that draws people here: a very long beach, good breakers, the bay stretching to Nature’s Valley in front and the imposing, magnificent Robberg peninsula to the southwest. And an Italian making and selling coffee in the car park. Take note, however, that it is packed during the school holidays.
There is a seal colony towards the end of the peninsula, which boasts a fine walking trail.
A lesser-known fact is that Nelson’s Cave – accessed via a path to the right just after the security boom – contains an excellent display about the evolution of humankind on this stretch of southern Cape coast, dubbed the Cradle of Human Culture.
A 15-minute drive around the lagoon from Knysna, Brenton ticks a number of beach boxes. It is relatively far removed from town, meaning it’s not as crowded as Leisure Isle, for example, over public holidays.
Keeping in mind that experience is as much about the journey as it is the destination, whether driving in from town on that winding N2 fringing the lagoon or approaching from Wilderness, the views are simply fabulous.
This is especially so if you’ve read Dalene Matthee’s Kringe in ’n Bos, or Circles in a Forest, which is highly recommended by us at DM168.
Back to the beach. If granny is with you, it’s a fairly long walk down to the beach proper from the car park. But from there it’s empty beach as far as you can see, all the way to the holiday homes and restaurant at Buffels Bay on the other side of the bay.
Highlights include clambering around the rock formations above the beach, the cliff walk towards the western part of the Knysna Heads and, a firm favourite, bike-riding or walking to Buffels Bay at low tide. In terms of swimming, this coastline has its share of riptides, Brenton-on-Sea being no exception, so caution is required.
Soon after passing the Petro SA refinery, on the inland side of the N2, is the turning – ironically, having just passed that controversial fuel fiend – to a beautiful bay of beaches, better known as Vleesbaai, and incorporating the pristine Boggomsbaai. It’s important for environmentally conscious travellers to know that the latter is part of a conservancy known as Fransmanshoek.
There are various interpretations of what “boggoms” meant. We won’t go into those here, but the developer responsible for building the first quaint “eco-friendly” village, Kleinbos, in Boggomsbaai in 1984 says it was the first “fully solar, off the grid” development on the southern Cape coast. It’s not surprising, then, that many in the know refer to it as the best beach on this coast. It is also one of the flattest.
Boggomsbaai is for the family that doesn’t feel compelled to share hip-hop-boom-boom with the neighbours. From June to November, the bay offers sanctuary to southern right whales.
Here they calve and breed, and the black oystercatcher breeds undisturbed. Swimming is safe, as is walking, with the stretch to Danabaai, on the western edge of Mossel Bay, measuring a 15km beach hike. Good to know for holidaymakers is that this area has its own microclimate in which, on average, 70% of rainfall occurs at night.
If residents of the KwaZulu-Natal strip of south coast towns and villages are entirely honest, the strip is in need of a paint job.
Places like the provincial yet formerly bright Port Shepstone and Shelly Beach are looking a bit tacky once you branch off at one of the many off-ramps that characterise this part of the N2.
Service delivery issues in KwaZulu-Natal notwithstanding, Southbroom has seemingly retained the charm it was always known for. The roads are decent and the beach, at the bottom of whichever road you choose to descend, is subtropically beautiful with its prerequisite driftwood and shells (sometimes vying for first place with the plastic coming in from the ocean). Locals refer to “granny beach”, which has rock pools, and the more popular surfers’ beach.
There is a pizza shack above the beach, but the fish is fresh-frozen from elsewhere, say the locals. Locally caught, really fresh fish – good for the braai – is found in a marine industrial zone in Shelly Beach, 20 minutes and a few villages up the coast.
There is a fine coffee shop with WiFi in the tiny village centre, in case anyone needs their fix. It’s a beautiful village to walk, with catching the sunrise maybe first prize on the activity list.
Possibly South Africa’s finest beach, full stop. It could be that simple, but with different folks’ beach tastes being turned on by different strokes, it becomes subjective.
Heading to the beach from the discreetly positioned upmarket Thonga Beach Lodge or Mabibi Campsite and looking up and down it, there is no structure, person – unless another guest – or light to be seen as far as the eye can see and most legs will walk.
Incorporated into the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, this is a truly remote area where conservation is king and community plays a large part, owning the campsite and part-owning the lodge. There is no town to speak of and thus nothing here, which is one of the reasons the campsite is fully booked every school holiday.
This is a beach where turtles lay their clutches and hatchlings crawl in agonisingly slow motion for the waves. To access this subtropical wonderland, visitors should take their chance at the campsite or the lodge, both of which are tucked into the coastal dune forest.
Without digging too deeply into researching where South Africa’s longest stretch of sandy coastline is, a Google Maps search yields a somewhat unexpected result.
Between the dozy Eastern Cape villages of Colchester and Cannon Rocks lie about 80km of some of the country’s most unspoilt beaches.
The villages may be sleepy hollows, but the Alexandria dune field, which connects the two along the coast, is said to be the fastest-moving in the southern hemisphere.
Some of the dunes are as tall as a 10-storey building and parts of the field are up to 5km wide.
The dune field provides a dramatic backdrop to some of South Africa’s best and most hidden beaches. Hiking the Alexandria trail should be on everyone’s bucket list, says a local, adding that some of its sections reveal at least a few of these secrets.
Cannon Rocks allows easy access to a number of unusually beautiful beaches, like the kite beach – for kitesurfers on windy days – and swimming beach.
The 7km Cannon Trail, which is the beginning or end of the Woody Cape trail, offers an unusual mix of forest, dunes and beach.
Insider tip: when starting on the forest section of the trail, walkers will make their way on to the dunes. Turn left towards the beach. When you reach it, don’t head back straight away. Rather turn right and walk for about 500m. On a beautiful day the scene that awaits will tickle the visual senses.
This southern Cape beach town, below the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve and 20 minutes shy of Hermanus, may be a reminder to much older generations of what Plettenberg Bay’s “millionaires’ mile” must’ve looked like before the nouveau riche got stuck in.
Simple, relaxed and with an almost dated, charming absence of refurbs and renovations, Kleinmond could be said to be South African retro.
Children play cricket in the street and families walk the boardwalk at sunset, with the lagoon and that wild and beautiful, occasionally windswept beach always on offer.
Verfrissend is the polite Afrikaans word for what one might call damn cold. That’s a reference to the water temperature off this West Coast holiday and retirement village.
Twenty years ago we might have said Paternoster but, as it’s a bit overdone, we remembered the magnificence of this beach on the road to Cape Town that captures West Coast cold and beauty so well.
When clenching your teeth while dipping your toes into the first white breaker that bubbles up the beach, it’s worth remembering that this cold Benguela current is responsible for much of the marine biodiversity that exists along this coastline. These waters even spawn the sardines that entertain the seabirds, dolphins and sharks.
At risk of alienating the more parochial among Langebaan and West Coast residents, one could almost say that Yzerfontein, with its beaches of healthy kelp and other seaweed, was designed for fireplaces and brisk beach walks.
However, in a tourism world where collaboration is key, an Yzerfontein beach visit or holiday lends itself to sharing regional love through a few short road trips, Langebaan’s West Coast Fossil Park and !Khwa ttu, the excellent San heritage centre across the R27.
And let’s not forget those cool-climate Darling wines while recovering from a hot, midsummer West Coast day. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.