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Coastal the Western Cape

The three-pronged route between Cape Town, Hermanus and the winelands of Stellenbosch or Franschhoek offers an ideal introduction to South Africa, well-paired with a safari in Kruger National Park, a self-drive in contrasting KwaZulu-Natal or as an add on to the Garden Route.

Sandwiched between mountains, forest and coastline, Hermanus is only a two-hour drive from Cape Town with the choice of the more scenic coastal route or the direct inland road. An even more scenic self-drive route, which I would highly recommend, takes you to Cape Point – an hour and a half from Cape Town – then past the Boulders Beach penguin colony in Simon’s Town on the way back up the peninsula, before continuing to Hermanus. All in all it's an additional two and a half hour drive. This was my second trip to Walker Bay, having previously stayed on the opposite side near Gansbaai, travelling via the recommended coastal route, so this time we opted to transfer directly, arriving with plenty of time to explore.

The hotel - nautical luxury
On arrival at The Marine we were immediately taken by the luxuriously appointed property and its nautical charm, reminiscent of Hermanus’ 19th-century heritage roots as a curative seaside escape – the very reason for the hotel’s existence. Photos of the hotel from a bygone era adorned the walls and made for some interesting viewing as we explored its corridors.

Our Premier suite – one of 40 individually decorated rooms, each with a subtle, home-from-home, coastal theme – looked directly out onto the ocean. It was clearly designed with relaxation in mind, with plenty of little luxuries to enjoy throughout our stay. Suffice to say, this was the first hotel I’ve stayed in where you can whale watch directly from the bathroom, should you choose to do so!

The atmosphere was relaxed yet refined. Many guests, having returned from a boat trip or walk, retired to the aptly named Sun Lounge for tea and cake – seemingly the order of the day. The hotel’s enviable location, situated in the centre of town and perched directly over the cliffs, also afforded the opportunity to whale watch from both the breakfast terrace and bar, with views across the bay. Inevitably, every time someone spotted what was more frequently than not a wave, the rest of the room jumped to attention, then sheepishly returned to their seats once a false alarm was confirmed. Fortunately, with a little patience, this was a pastime that did eventually yield a whale sighting or two (as well as a few silent giggles).

It’s worth noting that, for those looking for pure escapism, Grootbos Forest Lodge near Gansbaai is an alternative option on the opposite side of Walker Bay to Hermanus. Grootbos provides a breath-taking experience with a tailored itinerary of activities centred on the eco-reserve’s natural surroundings. In comparison, Hermanus’ range of accommodation located next to the coastal path offers a combination of spectacular scenery coupled with boutique shopping and a range of cafés and restaurants. Either option provides a wonderful coastal escape, with the decision down to personal preference and budget, Hermanus being the more affordable option.

The coastal path - Cape floral beauty
After settling in it was time to stretch our legs on the well-marked cliff path which meanders for 11km between New Harbour to the west and Piet-se-Bos to the east, passing directly in front of the hotel.  I am a huge fan of any kind of coastal path and this truly has to be one of the best in the world. We’re talking rugged, cobweb-blowing territory at its finest, complemented by a warm sea breeze, as opposed to the bracing kind.

We wandered along the cliff path for just over 5km until we reached beachside café Dutchies – a recommended stop for a hearty seafood lunch – at the start of celebrated ‘Blue Flag’ Grotto Beach. End-to-end this is a leisurely hour’s walk, but our pace was much slower with a stop required every few paces to read information, take photos or whale watch from the benches and viewpoints dotted along the route.

The path’s fynbos-strewn flora, which makes up a part of the Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest of the world’s six plant kingdoms, is as biodiverse as it is beautiful. A staggering 70% of the colourful and elaborate plant species along the route cannot be found anywhere else on earth. It’s like walking through a delicately manicured exhibit at Kew, except that it has been nurtured by Mother Nature alone.

With this rich plant life comes an array of land-based wildlife including otters and porcupines, which are considered relatively common. At one point we stopped to sit on the rocks looking for whales and turned around to find we were surrounded by dassies, otherwise known as the rock hyrax. According to research, these inquisitive, marmot-like fellows are, believe it or not, the closest relative to the African elephant! We also spotted tortoises munching through the flowers next to the pathway.

Whale watching - by land and sea
The next day we woke early for our whale-watching boat trip, taking a short taxi ride to the harbour. We’d opted for an 8am departure (7.30am check in): the water tends to be much calmer earlier in the day, making the whales easier to spot with the naked eye. Apparently the whales can be much more active in the afternoon, but I wasn’t going to risk anything other than a relaxing cruise!

Prior to departure, our guide gave us a thorough introduction to the southern right whale, distinguished by areas of coarse white skin on their heads and jaw known as callosities, as well as the absence of a dorsal fin. Notably, we were told, they have two blowholes and baleen plates numbering up to 270 which hang from their upper jaw and are used to sieve the copepods they feed on in Antarctica.

 We learnt that southern right whale populations were decimated following close to 300 years of hunting, bringing the species to the brink of extinction. The ‘right’ actually relates back to the whales’ hunting origins as they were both easy to approach and floated once killed due to their thick layer of blubber and high yield of whale oil. As well as meat and oil – widely used for gas lamps and soap at the time – whale baleen had an array of uses in the 19th century, including for corsetry. Whilst the population has slowly recovered since then with numbers currently doubling every decade, it remains a delicate balance.

Designated an official Whale Sanctuary Area since 2001, the area of Walker Bay – extending between Hermanus and Gansbaai – covers a reported area of 112.49km². It’s said that as many as 70 whales can be in the bay at any one time, congregating to give birth, calve their young and mate. Since 2001, boats without a permit have been banned from entering the area between July and November, providing a haven for marine life. Those with a permit can approach within 50 metres and stop, with the whale making the final call as to whether or not to be sociable.

Once on the boat, within 10 minutes we witnessed a whale breach in the distance, just metres from the shore in a protected area. We then cruised to the other side of the bay and encountered a lively young male that ducked under the boat repeatedly, flirting with its audience on either side for over half an hour. This was a whale with real personality, seemingly determined to tease us all but eventually ensuring everyone on board had enjoyed a close encounter. It was almost as if he’d been paid to perform!

Our next sighting was that of a rare brindle calf and its brindle mother – an unusual pigmentation whereby the calves are born almost entirely white with a speckled black collar which gradually darkens with age. It was incredible to be able to witness such a tender moment between mother and calf as they curiously glided through the water, the calf playfully breaching in the water as they passed.

At the conclusion of our three-hour boat tour we wandered back along the remainder of the coastal path to the hotel, enjoying some land-based whale watching. Our walk afforded an unforgettable encounter as we sat on the rocky clifftops watching two whales relax in the shallow water, scraping their bellies on the sand and seemingly playing in the seaweed. It’s difficult to explain just how close the whales come to the land in Walker Bay – as near as three metres – and how surreal it is to see them bathing in depths not unusual to see a person swim. Added to that was the fact that there was no one else in sight which made it all the more enchanting.

And with that we wandered back to the hotel via Hermanus’ boutique shops and a mandatory stop at Don Gelato to conclude our stay. Needless to say, the sound of the crashing waves outside our window combined with Hermanus’ ’champagne air’ and a belly full of South African fare made for the perfect night’s sleep.

Cox & Kings offers a number of group tours and private itineraries to Hermanus and beyond. Alternatively, if you are interested in a tailor-made trip, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.