A small town with a big heart, Umhlanga is a spot for everyone to enjoy almost year-round sunshine on KwaZulu-Natal’s north coast. Here’s our guide for what to do and where to stay in Umhlanga.
Please note: we’ve included the prices, as a guideline – but although they were correct at time of travel, they’re liable to change at the owner’s discretion. Please confirm with individual establishments before booking.
It’s what summer is all about: a beach where the gaps between bright umbrellas, beach towels and tanning bodies are filled with soft, crumbling sand, and a pier that stretches towards the distant horizon. The picture’s accompanied by cheerful youngsters’ screeches and the carefree rhythm of KwaZulu-Natal’s invitingly warm seawaters. This golden edge of the Indian Ocean, otherwise known as Umhlanga’s main beach and undoubtedly the town’s main attraction, runs parallel to a paved promenade and if you follow the bare feet, flip-flops and running shoes that cross it every day, you’ll find a strip of towering flats and hotels where holidaymakers in their thousands base themselves for weeks of beachfront sun-soaking.
Yet you wouldn’t believe that this jam-packed holiday town started as a humble beach cottage just north of Durban, with nothing but the sugar-cane fields at its back and the ocean to its front. In 1869, the tin roof of a cottage that later became the Oyster Box hotel, reflected light that warned boats about Umhlanga’s famously rocky shore. Today the red and white lighthouse has this role, the lonely cottage replaced by big resorts, trendy cafés and cocktail bars. A visit here can be as luxurious or affordable as you choose. Stay in homely B&Bs, eat fresh seafood on rustic wooden benches and snack on R2 naartjies from the local fruit vendors, or go all out and make it a five-star spa-filled, fine-dining holiday.
What to do in Umhlanga
1. Be a beach bum
There are no better or worse beaches in Umhlanga. It’s simply one long stretch of sand from Durban, north all the way along town until it becomes a nature reserve at Umhlanga’s northern tip. Although the water’s relative warmth may lure you, shark nets protect only certain spots, so stick to areas marked off by red and yellow flags. if you’re swimming with small kids, Granny’s Pool is a natural tidal pool with shallow, calmer water.
2. Dive deep
If you’d rather explore beneath the ocean’s surface, Ocean Blue Scuba’s one-, three- and four-day courses will introduce you to this bright new world. If you’re experienced, these waters will fuel your diving addiction. Uncover KwaZulu-Natal marine life within a long-forgotten shipwreck, dive among manta rays and ragged-tooth sharks, and perhaps you’ll even encounter unicorn fish.
Tel 031 561 8120, www.oceanbluescuba.co.za
3. Surfer’s Scoop
If you’re looking to catch some waves, head south of the lighthouse to a beach called Durban View, which promises the best waves in town.
4. Coastal Walk
Explore Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve, starting where the promenade ends in the north and taking a leisurely two-kilometre walk through thick coastal vegetation, along a mirror-like lagoon and onto a deserted section of the beach before ambling back to civilisation. You can do the route on your own, or pay R30 and let breakers resort’s guide Mazwi Ngubane point out which trees were used for Zulu huts and weapons. Daily guided walks at 9:00, 11:00 and 15:00. book at breakers resort.
Tel 031 561 2271, www.umhlangatourism.co.za
5. Creeper Forest
Encounter more than 60 different types of vines as you pick your way along the paths of Hawaan Forest. Look out for bushbuck, duiker, crested guinea fowl and bushpig in the undergrowth. It’s worth joining the monthly walks and booking is essential.
Tel: 031 572 4116 or 083 275 2216.
6. See inside a shark
A shark dissection isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s interesting to learn more about the feared kings of the ocean. Only those found dead in the shark nets are used for dissections and kids love watching as they’re cut open to reveal a liver, a heart and shark mucus (don’t worry, it’s not as gory as it sounds). Dissections take place at KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board twice daily on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Adults R45, kids and pensioners R30.
Tel 031 566 0400, www.shark.co.za
Where to eat in Umhlanga
1. Harvey’s Restaurant
Don a suit jacket, hook your date’s arm through yours and enjoy a slightly theatrical touch to fine dining. An enormous chandelier hangs from the roof of Harvey’s Restaurant and the waiters’ corseted waistcoats are tied with colourful ribbons. The wine list boasts Champagne and a thoughtful selection of South African wines, while the cuisine is artistically presented without holding back on portion sizes. Slice your silver into the Asian-roasted linefish or dip your spoon in a classic Provençal bouillabaisse.
Tel 031 561 4977, www.harveysrestaurant.co.za
2. Harry’s Cocktail Bar
Trust Haroon Haffajee to give you new appreciation for the art of cocktail-making. The award-winning bartender is based at Harry’s Cocktail Bar, part of Harvey’s Restaurant. Try the ultimate pink drink: the raspberry rose sorbet Martini contains Champagne, rosewater sorbet and raspberry-infused vodka.
Tel 031 561 4977.
Remo’s is part street café, part bistro, and makes an Italian sausage and stringy cheese pizza that proves thin bases don’t necessarily mean better pizzas. Be sure to book, as tables are likely to be packed with cheerful, hungry mouths on any given night.
Tel 031 561 7143, www.remos.co.za
4. Life Saver’s
Perhaps the most humble eatery in town, Surf Lifesaving Club, or Life Saver’s as it’s known in these parts, is perched above the beach and there’s a charm to its plastic table covers rickety wooden benches, and R8 help-yourself coffee. Order and pay (cash only) at the hatch, grab a drink at the bar and wait for your filled-to-the-brim plates of fresh fish or juicy burgers without staff giving a second glance at your ruffled hair and sand-covered feet.
Tel 031 561 3519.
5. Bar Ba Coa
Meat-eaters take note! At Argentinean-styled Bar Ba Coa, only flames are good enough for grilling prime cuts, served with chimichurri, a traditional sauce of herbs, olive oil and vinegar. For a creamier condiment, try the red-wine mushroom sauce. Top your meal with the garlic fries and a bottle of Malbec.
Tel 031 561 4106, www.barbacoa.co.za
6. Little Havana
You know you’ve hit gold when the dessert menu includes tequila and Cuban cigars. Little Havana is a place for special occasions and although pricey, the grills from the in-house butchery and the white tablecloth service are worth every penny. Strapped for cash? Try the R100 lunch special and get a starter and a main from a constantly changing menu.
Tel 031 561 7589, www.littlehavana.co.za
7. Seaside cafés
Take a break from the beach before turning lobster-coloured for cooldrinks, sangria and sandwiches at the Lighthouse Café (Tel 031 561 2371), part of Cabana Beach Resort. Alternatively, fill up on Italian at La Spiaggia (Tel 031 561 4388), the only cafe on the promenade. Let the children play on the beach below while you enjoy a breather of pizza, wine and some welcome shade.
Where to stay in Umhlanga
1. Breaker’s Holiday Resort
Enjoy the restaurants, swimming pools and kids’ activities of Breakers Holiday Resort, but sidestep the hotel-styled main building and stay in one of the privately owned self-catering flats on the property. Beach Break Holiday Letting manages a selection of these and rents them out from R1 295 a night for a two-bedroom unit.
Tel 083 788 2736, www.beachbreak314.co.za.
Jessica’s was among the first of Umhlanga’s hundreds of B&Bs. Three self-catering units have their own entrances and safe parking. The two-sleeper has only a kitchenette, while the two four-sleepers have full kitchen facilities. Pop over to the main house to tell Jessica Hallgren when you want breakfast and she’ll treat you to whichever combination of bacon, eggs, cereal and fruit you fancy. Self-catering from R350 a person a night for a double unit. R65 a person for breakfast.
Tel 031 561 3369, www.jessicaskzn.co.za.
3. On the Beach Backpackers
Umhlanga’s pricey resorts and restaurants might make it seem inaccessible to the budget traveller, but On the Beach is only five kilometres away and ticks the backpacker boxes – it’s affordable, has a bar, includes breakfast and isn’t seedy. Airy dorms sleep eight and look out over the pool, and double and triple rooms with en-suite bathrooms overlook Glenashley Beach across the road. One room can accommodate physically disabled guests. From R180 a night for a dorm bed, R550 for a single room and R800 a double room.
Tel 031 562 1591, [email protected], www.durbanbackpackers.com.
This article first appeared in the January 2014 issue of Getaway Magazine.