Muizenberg is where Agatha Christie and George Bernard Shaw came to surf and Cecil John Rhodes went to die. At one point the area was more popular than Cape Town, and Yiddish was spoken on her streets. Here is the story of her glamorous past, and the places you can’t miss in Muizenberg’s evolving present. Photographs by Teagan Cunniffe.
When I first arrived in Cape Town from Durban as a student in the early 1990s, Muizenberg reminded me of home. A long beach and warm water, fine long sets of white-backed waves, but more than anything, that sun-bleached sense of faded grandeur that beautifully breaks my heart. I’ve felt it around the world in once-splendid places now slipping into the chinks of history, paint flaking, cornices worn down, promenades wind-greyed and empty as a tube of sunscreen. I have felt it in Alexandria and Blackpool and Torquay and Coney Island and Durban: a seductive melancholy, a siren-call of sadness, like an ageing beauty who never quite learnt to properly love herself.
In Muizenberg – the Story of the Shtetl by the Sea, Hedy I Davis describes how in the late 19th century Cape Town stopped at Wynberg, then just ‘a dirt road through the farmlands bordered with myrtle, sweet oleander and plumbago’. Diep River and Retreat were wild sandy fynbos scrub dotted with proteas and purple heath and reed-ringed vleis, and on the long, difficult trek to Simon’s Town there was nothing at Muizenberg but some fishing huts and farmsteads, a granite marker declaring the 15-mile mark from Cape Town, and a ramshackle fleapit called Farmer Peck’s Inn.
In 1880 Isidore Hirsch, a German Jew who came to Africa prospecting for diamonds, bought the inn and renovated it in anticipation of the railway, which arrived in 1882 and made it to Simon’s Town at the end of the decade. Hirsch established the first bathing huts on Muizenberg beach and bought the refreshment café at the railway station. On weekends Capetonians paid 2/6d return to take the train to Muizenberg and purchase one of Hirsch’s prepacked picnic baskets for a day on the beach.
The railway was the first spark but the South African War of 1899–1902 really ignited the popularity of the South Peninsula. Wounded British soldiers were sent down from the battlefields to the tented village at Kenilworth campground to recover, and heard tales of the magical recuperative powers of the ozone-rich Muizenberg air. Convalescent soldiers migrated down the line to take lodgings and heal their bodies and shattered nerves and to dally with the local ladies. Cecil John Rhodes, liberated from the siege of Kimberley, went to Muizenberg to regather himself and restore his ruined lungs. It didn’t work – he died in his tin-roofed cottage in 1902 – but the popularity of the South Peninsula surged.
As the weekend crowds flocked, Muizenberg built a wooden pavilion in 1911 that catered for 3000 bathers at a time, perfectly angled to shelter a corner of the beach from the sweeping winds. In 1914 the first kosher hotel opened, as well as the most southerly synagogue in Africa. By 1925 of 28 hotels and boarding houses, 17 were Jewish-owned, and by the 1930s Yiddish became a lingua franca of its narrow, flower-lined streets and alleys.
In 1913 a grand new station with a splendid teak clock tower was opened to acknowledge the importance of Muizenberg as a holiday destination. On a sunny Saturday 6000 people a day would descend from Cape Town. In 1914 sailors from an Australian naval ship introduced the locals to surfing, and the first wooden boards appeared.
In 1922 Agatha Christie took time from a world tour with her husband to catch the train to Muizenberg and learn to surf. Ten years later a 75-year-old George Bernard Shaw went out to do the same thing, and was photographed on the shore in his black unitard bathing suit and great white Old Man of the Sea beard, his board over one shoulder.
Muizenberg and its little cousin Kalk Bay became ever more fashionable through the 1930s. They were sold as ‘the African Riviera’, the ‘colonial Brighton’. Randlords and millionaires bought holiday homes; day-trippers flocked; visitors came from the Highveld and Rhodesia and Bechuanaland and Namibia to spend the summer; great entrepreneurial waves of Jewish immigration from Europe swelled the population until immigration restrictions were introduced in 1935.
There was an annual regatta and swimming race at Kalk Bay, and Punch-and-Judy shows and afternoon dances at the new Muizenberg pavilion. There were beauty contests and Miss Lucky Legs, variety shows and symphony concerts. An Indian snake charmer called Yuldi-Yuldi returned every December with his wicker baskets of cobras. For 20 years Vic Davis packed out the Grand Ballroom of the concrete pavilion for his Sunday-night concerts. The Union-Castle shipping line bought the Majestic Hotel as a sister hotel to the Mount Nelson for foreign guests looking to escape sweltering Cape Town and spend time in the cool and glamour of the South Peninsula.
Muizenberg was at its peak in the 1950s but the seeds of decline were already sown and the end, when it came, came quickly. The 1950s saw the dawn of the modern era of tourism. Suddenly there were international flights and package holidays and new choices. Modern hotels were being built in Sea Point and Durban and Plettenberg Bay with air conditioning and en-suite bathrooms, and the old-fashioned Muizenberg residential hotels were slow to match them. In 1960 Sharpeville triggered the first big wave of Jewish emigration from the South Peninsula.
In 1969 the old concert pavilion was torn down and a new one built that was soulless, charmless and so poorly designed that it no long shielded any corner of the beach from the south-easter and the north-wester.
Once a slide starts, it’s hard to stop. Some establishments were refurbished but others weren’t, and the result was a gathering atmosphere of seediness and defeat. As Muizenberg’s fortunes declined, Clifton’s rose. Visitors trailed off, younger residents moved away to seek their fortunes, and the South Peninsula was left to languish in ruined splendour.
By the time I first saw her she was a shadow of herself, sitting in quiet modesty like an old dowager taking the sun, her tattered skirts gathered about her legs, smiling only to herself as she listened in her head to music from a long time ago.
Getting to Muizenberg
Easy. Follow the M3 or M5 south. On the M3, turn left at Steenberg Road, and right again at Main Road. To get to St James and Kalk Bay, keep going straight. To get to Muizenberg and Surfers’ Corner, turn left at the traffic lights on Atlantic Road, and right again at Beach Road. On the M5, turn right at the traffic circle onto Royal Road (which is a continuation of Baden Powell Drive). Royal Road turns into Atlantic Road. Turn left at Beach Road. If you’re aiming for Kalk Bay, rather take Boyes Drive and approach from the other end.
Getting around Muizeberg
The distances between Muizenberg and Kalk Bay are entirely doable on foot, and it’s also an easy cycle. Most people simply park and walk. The promenade is a gorgeous walk along the sea, though watch out for waves at high tide.
What to do in Muizenberg
Swim in the ocean ‒ False Bay offers better swimming than the Atlantic side and Kalk Bay and St James are often less windy than anywhere else when it blows. The best beaches are Danger Beach (but be aware there can sometimes be a rip) and Dalebrook. The area has three tidal pools: St James (forget about it on the weekend as it’s packed and the beach gets filthy with litter), Dalebrook and Kalk Bay 2. There’s a fourth, Kalk Bay 1 near the Brass Bell (not ideal).
Lean to surf with surfing legend Cass Collier, who is affiliated to Surfstore Africa, tel 0217885055. There’s also Gary’s Surf School, tel 0217889839; or Roxy Surf School at Surf Emporium, tel 0217888687. If you don’t get an answer, keep trying ‒ they’ll probably be out surfing.
Hike in the mountains above the holy trinity. There are plenty of starting points off Boyes Drive which take you to the top of the mountain, where you’ll get incredible views. It’s also a great place to go caving, as the area is rich in them.
For kids there are three water slides right near the Muizenberg beach, plus a putt-putt course and public pool, which costs R20 for adults and R10 for children.
Get bookish at Kalk Bay Books, which hosts interesting and thought-provoking discussions with authors and has a range of excellent reading material (including the Financial Times, if you’re lucky enough to get a copy).
Immerse yourself in history at Casa Labia, still owned by the Labia family. It has exquisite fabric-covered walls and a good restaurant ‒ there’s a piano player on Sundays.
Shopping in Muizenberg
Kalk Bay Modern is where you’ll find beautiful, original jewellery, art, printed materials and ceramics from renowned artists who live in the area.
Die Kalkbaai Kooperasie, which has a few outlets (which feels a little like a chain ‒ there are four), features great local artists and designers who curate their own spaces. The products range from clothes to jewellery.
Also in the vicinity offering lovely shopping options is Omg :), Casa Boho and Oh So Boho, all in Main Road.
Kalk Bay Antiques Centre has an amazing collection of glassware, crockery and furniture, and the owners are very knowledgeable about their wares. It’s a mecca.
Kalk Bay Garden Shop is a wonderful little nursery full of lovely gifts for others or yourself. It has plenty of ideas for greening any space. Tel 0217882170.
Anke in Muizenberg is the kind of place that you should always keep tabs on if you’re a collector of old beautiful things. 8 York Road.
Antique Warehouse is a gem of a place filled with second-hand and extremely reasonable furniture. 166 Main Road.
Bellamy & Bellamy, owned by David Bellamy, has awesome one-off print runs and fabulous linens and fabrics imported from the UK at reasonable prices.
Where to eat in Muizenberg
Oroboros Tapas Bar is new. Order the mezze platter ‒ it’s good, and good value. Tel 0829251073.
Bombay Chilli serves fragrant, fresh Indian dishes starting at R60. This is one of Muizenberg’s most popular restaurants, so make sure to book. You can get an early slot unannounced if you’re out by 19:30. Tel 0218366748.
Carla’s in Muizenberg serves very good spicy prawns, Mozambican style. Carla is a huge personality too. Find the restaurant at 7 York Road. Tel 0217886860.
Yoffi Falafel on Surfer’s Corner has the most moist falafels I’ve tasted, and is delicious. Prices start at R45. Tel 0843648466.
Muizenberg’s Empire Café does really good burgers and coffee, and locals love it. Tel 0217881250.
The Octopus Garden in St James is popular for its reasonable menu and silent discos. Tel 0217885646.
Olympia Café in Kalk Bay is a favourite. It’s relaxed and has the best pasta marinara ever (ask for it if it’s not on the menu). It’s geared to locals, who are certainly loyal for this reason. You can take your own wine. Tel 0217886396.
Theresa’s Restaurant in Kalk Bay offers wholesome, homely food ‒ steaks, potato au gratin, creamed spinach ‒ and service that is warm, no-nonsense South African. Prices start from R75. Tel 0217888051.
The Ice Café in Kalk Bay has the best ice creams (and reasonable), and the lines of customers to prove it. 93 Main Road.
Live Bait is part of the Harbour House Group, and is one of the better fish and chippers although Lucky Fish & Chips is also popular. People love Harbour House, but I find the service consistently poor.
Sirocco is lovely in summer, but in my opinion overpriced.
Try the new Tiger’s Milk, the food and service is good, and it’s vibey. Tel 0217884267.
Also read: 16 of Cape Town’s best outdoor bars and pubs
Where to stay in Muizenberg
Rovos Rail has bought three of the original old beauties along the main road. For those who love the unadulterated old, St James Manor will be perfect. But for a wonderful melding of modern and old, try St James Homestead. It’s right on Danger Beach and offers the best value in the upmarket slot ‒ the price includes an excellent open wine bar. Breakfasts are also very good. From R2360 per room, I think this offers better value and service than the next option.
Rodwell House, a grand building, is set across from St James tidal pool. It has a lovely entertainment area out front, and the house and rooms are spacious. Try the Muizenberg suite, with its palm tree-covered balcony, but the sea-view rooms are prime. It has an interesting art collection. From R1475 per person sharing.
Norman Steps Studio is another of the original homes. It’s owned by an astrologer, who can do your chart. She has converted a cellar into a charming room with double doors opening onto a private outside space. The noise from the main road travels up into the room a bit, but a fan will disguise it well enough. R650 per room. Book through airbnb.com.
This article first appeared in the May 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.
All prices were correct at time of publication, but are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please check with them before travelling.