TripAdvisor and Booking.com provide lists of guest-rated accommodation, but as much as we love peer reviews, can we trust them? Pippa, who has reviewed accommodation for 15 years for Fodor’s, headed south down KZN’s old coastal road to find the best beach houses between Umkomaas and Umzumbe. In her quest to rate the rated, she discovered some great new finds that have yet to make the ratings sites.
Also read: Guide to accommodation in Sedgefield
Why choose the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast?
- Proximity: An hour from Durban, and you’re on a deserted beach, toes lapped by a warm Indian Ocean, nothing but a lush green tangle of milkwoods and wild bananas behind you, and the occasional rumbling train.
- Untouched: Due in part to the coast-hugging railway line, vast swathes along the R102 have escaped the rapacious development that characterizes the north. The areas to look out for are Umkomaas’ Widenham beach and Clansthal Conservancy, the historically fascinating and upmarket Pennington, and Umzumbe – home to a blue-flag beach, cool surf schools and the fabulous Pumula.
- Beach access: There aren’t many places on South Africa’s coastline where you a) can open your garden gate and step directly onto a gorgeous beach, and b) aren’t forced to keep your eyes on the horizon to avoid all the concrete monstrosities.
- Exclusivity: Cutting through the length of this coast, the railway means that many of these beaches are effectively the private domain of the low-key bungalows and cottages tucked into the thickly vegetated dunes.
- Affordability: The South Coast is very, very affordable, particularly in winter, when the weather is best.
- Architectural history: Pennington is home to three of South Africa’s most gorgeous examples of early 20th-century architecture: Lynton Hall and Botha House, both built by the sugar baron Sir Frank Reynolds, and Selborne Manor House, built for the managing director of Reynolds Brothers Ltd in 1954. Selborne was the first residential golf estate in the country.
- Diving, surfing, golf: Aliwal Shoal (boats launched from Umkomaas) is considered one of the top 10 dive sites globally. Green Point near Clansthal is a world-class surfing break, while Umzumbe is one of the best places to learn. Selborne Park Golf Estate and Umdoni Park are two of the top-rated, must-play golf courses in South Africa.
Best beach house with a great pool
1. Umkomazi Rocks Beach House
‘The quintessential barefoot beach house,’ is how Joburg-based owner Josh Triegart describes his conversion, but it’s definitely of the chic varietal. An interior designer who fell in love with the view from St Helier Road, Josh has transformed a simple, low-slung bungalow into a Umkomazi Rocks Beach House, a farm-style ranch, filled with eclectic furniture, animal skulls, and interesting art. The house is an L-shape that opens seamlessly to a wrap-around veranda and sea views, with a 14-metre lap pool as centrepiece. It’s a fairly democratic arrangement that would suit a group of friends, with all four en-suite bedrooms (three kings; you’ll have to pull lots for the queen) opening directly onto the veranda and the view. The house offers plenty of space, with a number of nooks to hive off if you’re not feeling sociable – aside from the large indoor lounge-dining area and the deck around the pool, there is a very inviting outdoor lounge-dining area at the view end, completing the L-shape. Great kitchen; no TV; serviced after departure.
Most affordable stylish beach house
2. Highrocks Beach House
Highrocks Beach House is the most affordable of the three St Helier Road options listed here, but shares the same glorious view (all three are elevated above the railway line; be warned that trains start rumbling past fairly early). The indoor public space comprises a narrow, open-plan, kitchen-dining-lounge area opening onto the house’s focal point: a deep, semi-shaded stoep. Furnished with a long dining table, an L-shaped seating area and a couple of hammocks next to the small but deep (1.8-metre) plunge pool, the stoep is big enough to accommodate all guests. Adults are accommodated in four bedrooms (three en-suite and air-conditioned; the master suite has a bathtub next to the window to make the most of the view); kids are in a huge room with four bunk beds that double up as a children’s playroom; doors lead out to the garden with swings and a trampoline. Of the three St Helier Road options, Highrocks is the closest to the beach; and, dog lovers rejoice – well-behaved four-legged children are welcome.
Cost: From R2500 (sleeps up to 12 – eight adults, four kids); serviced daily by live-in Sindy Mbele.
Most luxurious beach house on the South Coast
3. St. Helier Cottage
St. Helier Cottage ticks every box – tucked away at the end of a panhandle, you enter a private eyrie that feels very secure. Step inside, and the view will stop you dead in your tracks: a cool, uncluttered living space – all textured whites; modern geometric lines softened by natural materials – while beyond, through the floor-to-ceiling wall of glass, a manicured green lawn drops off to meet the blue of the horizon. It’s classy and clever – enormous mirrored sliding doors on both bathrooms (no en suite in the main house) reflect more of that amazing view, and an almost hidden slit in the garden reveals a set of stairs that leads to a completely private en-suite guest bedroom, a level below the main house. The balau-timber exterior spaces are equally well-proportioned and stylishly furnished. Hardly surprising, given that owner Joy Brasler was part of the design team that created the award-winning interiors for Singita Lebombo Lodge (ranked No. 3 hotel in the world by Travel + Leisure magazine in 2013 and 2014). It’s sophisticated but comfortable, fabulously equipped, and the atmosphere very welcoming: this has much to do with Joy and Lucien’s help-yourself-and-make-yourself-at-home attitude. The passing trains rumble by from dawn, but I was pleased to rise with the sun. A great place to cook, read, contemplate, dream.
Cost: From R5000 (sleeps up to 10 in four bedrooms (six adults, four kids in one room with two bunk beds); serviced thrice weekly.
Best guest house (and great for golfers)
4. Botha House
TripAdvisor ranking: No. 1 of 1 B&B/Inn, Pennington
‘Could you find me two or three acres here? I would like to put up a small cottage for Annie,’ General Louis Botha is said to have asked his friend, the sugar magnate Sir Frank Reynolds, in 1918. Louis never lived to see the home Reynolds built for him on the high ridge in Umdoni Park, with its glorious vantage of the ocean, but his wife Annie would spend every winter and her last days at Botha House. Still part of the 220-hectare Umdoni Park, the historic Cape Dutch gabled homestead has remained under the control of Umdoni Park Trust and as such stands completely intact, with virtually the same solid teak furniture and even much of the china on display picked out by Reynolds in 1920. With just six rooms, it really is quite an extraordinary experience staying here. Adjacent is the Umdoni Park Golf Club; Botha House manager Tony Hallet happens to be the golf captain. The house is within walking distance to the beach, but the wave-battered coast is not really swimmable – it’s better to walk or take the short drive to Pennington’s main beach. Service is warm and personal; dinners, served on request, are simple home-cooked affairs.
Room tip: Room 1 or 2 (Mrs Botha’s suite)
Cost: From R450 per person sharing B&B
Best family hotel
5. Pumula Beach Hotel
TripAdvisor ranking: No. 1 of 1 Hotel, Umzumbe
Pumula Beach Hotel really is right on the beach but – unlike so many south-coast beach hotels – it doesn’t rest on its location laurels. Every inch of the hotel looks fresh and shipshape (a challenge when you’re this close to the sea); the staff is warm and enthusiastic, facilities tip top. I’ve seen a lot of hotels purporting to be family-friendly but Pumula ties with Umngazi River Bungalows on the Wild Coast as the best beach hotel for families in SA. Not only do they offer a packed children’s programme in the holidays, but the kids get a lounge, a games room, their own-size toilets, and a dining area (children can eat with adults but are encouraged not to, so parents can rediscover why they had them in the first place). There are surf lessons, provided by a local business, a putt-putt course, a lawn for soccer and of course the tidal pool and a blue-flag beach. And the specials are ridiculously well-priced. Food is old-fashioned. The only big downside? Good luck trying to secure a room during school holidays.
Cost: From R1075 per person per night sharing DB&B and lunch (adults); R580 per person (10 –14 years), R425 per person (6 – 9 years), R275 per person (1 – 5 years) – all sharing DB&B and lunch.
Best for surfers, families, friends, dogs
6. Clansthal Beach House
‘Look directly ahead, about five kilometres offshore, that’s Aliwal reef; to the right is the Green Point break, one of the best surf spots in the world.’ Owner of Clansthal, John McCarthy – a prior SA surf champ runner-up and successful ‘surfpreneur’ – would know. He’s surfed the top spots in the world, ‘and nothing will drag me away from KZN in winter’. We are standing on the large veranda of Clansthal Beach House, his pet-friendly, family bolthole in the quaint village of Clansthal; next to us is a small pool; a broad staircase sweeps down to the large subtropical garden in which monkeys gambol; behind us is a comfortably furnished cottage. It’s large, with five bedrooms (two with double beds, two with double beds plus a single bed, and a room with a double bunk on the bottom and single on the top), and it’s a 150-metre stroll to the semi-private beach. Described by John as a ‘glitch in the matrix’, Clansthal Conservancy is part of the Aliwal Marine Protected Area, and is one of those untouched south-coast gems those in the know have kept fairly secret – even the local Chief’s Cabin pub appears to have undergone no changes; similarly their prices – from R12 for a beer makes for a very happy hour.
Cost: From R2500 (sleeps 12); serviced on request for R150 a day.
Best small beach cottage
7. Umbhobe Beach House
You’ll trundle down a bumpy track to Kelso beach, four kilometres north of Pennington, crossing over the railway line to access this tiny development, clustered under beachfront milkwoods. UmBhobe (Zulu for milkwood) is a compact three-bedroom log cabin built on stilts in the canopy; it sleeps six comfortably in two queen beds and the third room has twin beds. There are two additional mattresses for children, if needed. A few metres from the front door is a timber gate, shared by only a handful of homeowners, to what is effectively a private beach – the only other access point to this stretch is from Happy Wanderers Holiday Resort (a 10-minute stroll north along the beach; Happy Wanderers has a superb beachfront location and serviceable restaurant-bar, but its accommodation is too run down). Being fairly remote, UmBhobe is unlikely to suit sociable teenagers (although there is WiFi and table tennis), but families with younger kids, or anyone looking for quality time in a quiet retreat will find it here: lounging on the sun deck, snorkelling in tidal pools, or taking walks on the deserted beach.
Cost: From R1400 (sleeps six, minimum three nights during the week); from R1750 (minimum two nights over the weekend); serviced every second day.
Best beach house for a large reunion
8. The Fat Hamster
The Fat Hamster, a sprawling beach house – another L-shape around a large pool – has one of the best locations on this stretch of coast: right on the beach, in hugely sought-after Cherry Lane, Pennington, there is nothing between you and the rolling breakers but a well-secured garden gate. It’s a comfortable lived-in sort of home, with a huge garden (a pity so much of it is under brick), a big pool and lots of accommodation: there are 10 bedrooms (16 adults and eight kids in two bunk bedrooms sleeping four each). Both the indoor and outdoor dining tables – the latter shaded by an enormous tree – can seat everyone, so you can enjoy plenty of cross- generational bonding during long, lazy meals together. Owner George Sabatta is security conscious – it’s well fenced and alarmed with CCTV cameras, and every opening is further secured with Trellidors that the live-in housekeeper John Goor will dutifully close up for you at night unless requested otherwise.
Cost: R7500 (sleeps 24); serviced daily.
Best for golfers
9. Selborne Hotel holiday villas
With the Selborne Hotel up for sale, renting one of the houses on the estate is the answer for golfers keen to play this course, described as the Augusta of Africa. Exclusive Holiday Villas is a great collection of estate villas, managed by warm and efficient Pauline Fahr-Becker who runs a tight ship – every house literally gleams. The golf estate is not in walking distance to the beach but it’s a five-minute drive away and all villas come with an access card to exclusive Selborne Beach Club with private access to Pennington Beach.
Cost: Villas sleep between six (from R1600) to 14 (from R3500).
Also worth considering
Villa Umdoni is in Eden Rock Estate, a security complex neighbouring Selborne Park Golf Estate, with indigenous bush interspersed with manicured lawns. Gabriele Lachinger has furnished three villas in the estate to an exceptional standard – all recommended, but of them the four-bedroom Villa Umdoni has the best location – overlooking a huge tract of wild bush, with a view of the distant ocean. From R3800 (sleeps 8), serviced daily.
Trust Cottage within Umdoni Park, is a charming 1920s bungalow surrounded by indigenous forest. It’s extremely basic but the remote location, old-fashioned atmosphere and price – from R250 per person (minimum charge R600 per night, sleeps 14) makes it a popular option for bachelor groups on golfing holidays.
La Providence Guest House is an unexpected gem just south of Port Shepstone; a four-bedroom B&B, tastefully furnished, and located right on Oslo beach. Be sure to book one of the two sea-view rooms. From R375 per person sharing B&B.
Thandulula Luxury Safari Tents is a non-beach affordable option (Southport beach is a 1.5km drive away). Built on raised wooden decks and beautifully maintained by Annatjie Dreyer. From R325 per person, serviced daily.
Another Pennington option is Fig Tree Lane Beach Cottage, an old-fashioned bungalow with sea views and in walking distance to the beach. From R200 per person, minimum R500 per night (sleeps six).
Also in Pennington is Ocean Eden, a collection of modern houses right on Pennington beach. From R1800 (sleeps eight).
This article first appeared in the August 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.
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All prices were correct at time of going to print, but are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please check with them before travelling.