Meandering along the R44 from just beyond Gordon’s Bay, next to a gorgeous stretch of False Bay coastline, through a bevy of beautiful little towns from Rooiels to Kleinmond, and then diverting onto the R43 to do the same from Benguela Cove to Gansbaai, the brand new Whale Coast Route promises to be the latest, greatest and most exciting on South Africa’s tourism bucket-list.
We pick 12 of the most exciting sights and activities to enjoy on your next whale watching trip. (P.s. With so much to see, taste and experience it’s really not an easy feat!)
1. Clarence drive itself (Part of the R44)
In many ways resembling Cape Town’s Chapman’s Peak Drive, this stunning scenic route is often slighted in favour of the more accessible and efficient Sir Lowry’s Pass by those travelling to Hermanus. However, if you’re planning on doing the Whale Coast Route properly, I would go as far as saying Clarence Drive (or the coastal road as the locals call it) is the key.
Not only does it have a wealth of viewing areas where you can pull over, step outside and do some whale spotting, it is also the most direct route to the small and charming towns of Rooi Els, Pringle Bay, Betty’s Bay and Kleinmond. Besides, this road will guide you past some incredible tourist, fishing, diving and surfing hot spots like Crystal Pools and Kogel Bay/Dappat se Gat.
2. Pringle Bay town life
With not much to see from the main road, but a quaint scattering of holiday houses, Pringle Bay is rather easy to pass by without a second glance. However, if you obey the brown sign, turn right where it says you should, and follow the road for no more than 5km, you will be rewarded with an absolute feast for your senses.
Congregating right in the center of the village is a business hub that will turn its big brother, Hermanus various shades of green with envy. Two or three coffee shops, a number of gift stores, a deli, a cookie factory, a farm shop, a bar or two, a few restaurants and a good ol’ holiday town cafe all just beg to be invaded. Simply Coffee for cake and tea, @365 for dinner, periGators for a drink and some live music, Bella Donna for pizza and Ticklemouse factory shop for biscuits are my top picks.
3. Penguins in Betty’s Bay
Although Boulder’s Beach’s penguins are considered to be the quintessential South African colony, Betty’s Bay’s are just as cute and also have a whole lot of interesting stories to tell. Despite their survival being threatened in many ways over the past few decades, including the famous killing spree by a local leopard in the 1980s, the colony seems to be thriving. So much so that the protective fences have never been that successful in keeping them inside.
So, expect a few tuxedo’d waddling friends and a curious turning head or two, as you make your way along the wheel-chair friendly wooden walkway to the furthest outcrop of Stony Point. The best time to go is most definitely sometime around sunset as this is when the flightless birds return from their underwater hunting excursions, making for quite a comic sight as they have to find their feet on solid ground again. Pack a cooler bag, some snakcs and kick back for Mother Nature’s best sitcom.
Getting there: once you’ve passed Pringle Bay, keep your eyes peeled for the first turn-off into Betty’s Bay, take it and let the penguin boards guide you the rest of the way!
4. Kogelberg Nature reserve
Due to its exceptional variety and high quality of Fynbos, the Kogelberg Nature Reserve is often considered to be the very heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom. It’s magnificent location within the Southern reaches of the rugged Hottentots Holland mountain range, it’s close proximity to the sea and the pristine presence of the Palmiet river and its various tributries running through the reserve, make for a delectable taste of wilderness not that far off the beaten track.
Although you can experience some of it by merely spending a fun afternoon splashing about in the Palmiet river, or doing one of the short walks, there is also the option of exploring one of the five day trails (ranging between 6 and 24 km), or undertaking the stunning Highlands Trail stretching over two days with the provision of lovely acommodation.
Getting there: the entrance to the reserve is located on the road between Betty’s Bay and Kleinmond, a few 100 meters before you cross the Palmiet River bridge (coming from Betty’s Bay’s side).
5. Kleinmond harbour
Once nothing more than a dusty and dingy industrial area, Kleinmond’s Harbour Road has developed into a vibey and colourful hive of activity in the past 10 years or so. Awash with an enticing assortment of pokey gift stores like Sunshine Trading and the Fishing Cat, laid-back cocktail bars like Sandpiper, a rustic seafood restaurant called The Shellfish Bar where you can order fresh oysters, abalone and Crayfish (but not chips) as well as fun party spots like Gringo’s, this delightful little road is highly evocative of Knysna in its early days.
The road will once again be going through a new series of facelifts in the next few weeks, so be sure to pop in and watch it grow.
6. See the wild horses run
Perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of the area is the fact that a large herd – technically two – of wild horses roam the Botriver lagoon marshlands between Kleinmond and the Arabella Western Cape Hotel & Spa. Although they are occasionally visible from the R44 that runs alongside the marsh, they appear as little more than dots on the horizon. The real treat is to experience these majestic creatures up, close and personal.
If you take a leisurely row from Kleinmond’s beach – where the lagoon mouth lies – all along the snaking body of water, you are bound to come across them at some point. Although it’s probably not wise to disembark and approach them, relax your oars and bask in their beauty for as long as you like.
If you’re not much of a water baby, you could always opt for one of the stunning Rooisand Reserve hikes. The easiest and most accessible is the boardwalk to the bird hide, the horses are known to gather there from time to time.
Getting to Rooisand: driving along the R44 away from Kleinmond, you will find the turn-off on your right about 5 km out of town. The signage is pretty good, so keep your eyes peeled.
7. Wine tasting in the Hemel and Aarde Valley
Lying on the outskirts of Hermanus, this fertile valley is not only home to some of the Western Cape’s most breathtaking views, but also some of its most delicious wines. According to the winemakers of the area, their secret lies in the slopes that catch the cool Atlantic breeze, the rich coastal soil where the vines take root and the laid-back local attitude.
Hamilton-Russell, Bouchard Finlayson, La Vierge and Sumaridge are some of the most sought after estates to try out. If time is not on your side, however, you could always pay the Hemel and Aarde Wine Village a visit where passionate wine-lover and owner, Paul du Toit will let you taste and help you choose the best of the best. The shop is located on the R43 into Hermanus, right by the Sandbaai junction.
However, if quaffing and taking in the scenery is far too sophisticated for your liking, get your game on with the super cool guys from Paintball Junkies.
You pay R60 for a gun and R30 for a round of 100 bullets, after which they will kit you out fully with a suit, some protective gear and a helmet. With most of the course located in a pine tree plantation, you will feel like a kid playing the most exciting game of Cowboys & Crooks ever!
Getting there: You will find them on the R302 to Caledon. The road turns off from the R43 at the Sandbaai traffic lights.
9. Hermanus cliff path & town life
Possibly the best vantage point for whale watching, this charming path wends its way all along the rugged Walker Bay coastline for 10 km or more, starting at the New Harbour in the west and ending at the mouth of the Klein River in the east. If the distance sounds a bit stiff, start your walk across from the Spur, just above Marine drive and wend your way to the Marine Hotel. This section will lead you past some buzzing tourist spots including Gearing’s Point, the flea market, the hip and happening town square, and the rustic Bientangs Cave restaurant.
Once you’ve gotten the blood pumping, enjoy the view while having a soothing drink and a bite to eat at one of the town square’s many restaurants, cafes and coffee shops, after which a tiny bit of shopping wouldn’t seem that bad now would it?
10. Whale museum
If you want to find out more about the mysterious mammals after which the route is called, Hermanus’ Whale Museum is a must-visit. A life-size Southern Right whale skeleton forms a compelling center piece, while fascinating interactive features and a very real underwater atmosphere with suitable sounds and lighting guide you through the whales’ underwater world.
Getting there: Located on Market Square in the center of town, the museum is very easy to find and a good place to visit before or after embarking on a real-life whale watching walk along the cliff path. There’s a nominal admission fee and you can find out more by calling 028 312-1475.
11. Stanford River Cruise
So, you may very well have heard about the gorgeous little town of Stanford with all its artsy nooks, quaint eateries and fresh food market, but has anyone ever mentioned the Cariba-style river cruises before? If not, listen up and listen well, because Stanford’s true hidden gem is a double decked boat called the African Queen afloat on the Klein River. Sadly she does not operate between May 31st and September 1st, but book early for a spectacular spring cruise!
12. Danger Point lighthouse & Birkenhead memorial
In 1852 the HMS Birkenhead, a British iron, paddle-wheel frigate, rammed into a jutting-out rock and ran aground just off the coast of what is now Gansbaai. The tragic event saw 445 people losing their lives, while only 193 – at least including all the women and children aboard – survived.
A bit more than 40 years later, the Danger Point lighthouse was erected close by to warn passing ships of the dangerous reef down below and has no doubt saved many-a precious life. The 18 m tall white tower with its red cap, still stands guard there today, and is one of the most beautifully maintained lighthouses in South Africa. Rich in history and beauty, visiting the site is a definite must on the Whale Coast to-do list!
During the winter months (May – September) it is open for reservations only, but during the rest of the year you can visit between 10:00 and 15:00. It costs R13,70 for adults and R6,90 for kids. Tour groups, schools and pensioners also get special rates.