There’s nothing charming about progress, even when it occurs in coastal towns like Hermanus. What happens when an old fishing village turned holiday hotspot embraces the business of watching whales go by?
Also read: How to spend the perfect weekend in Hermanus
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 a cold, blustery afternoon on the Cape Whale Coast. The rain, instead of dropping from its billowing reserves in the sky, is tearing maliciously through the streets of Hermanus like an invisible bus with pins attached to its front. Below the tied-up umbrellas on Village Square, lumbering swells turn fierce and crash into the rocks next to the old harbour. Nobody is outside; today the elements have the run of town. But it doesn’t matter to me because I’m settled in a creaky armchair in a corner of Hemingways Bookstore on Marine Drive.
‘Where better to defy nature’s wrath than from behind the faded pages of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Shakespeare’s Tempest or Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea?’ I think, noticing a selection of speckless first editions inside a glass bookcase. As it happens, I’m flipping through something a bit more recent: a coffee-table book simply titled Hermanus, by Beth Hunt. I glance up and the peculiarity of my surroundings is inescapable. This isn’t a sanitised CNA. Between, above and below the straining shelves are postcards, paintings, old typewriters and porcelain figurines, among which is a portly burlesque dancer, a red-bearded bard and a sway of austere mademoiselles – characters too colourful even for the pages that separate them. It’s a bookshop with a charm that’s easy to put your finger on. Outside, however, the town of Hermanus has been a little more difficult to thumb. I haven’t been here long, but ‘quaint’ is not a word that’s crossed my mind. Thick slabs of concrete frame a litany of franchises and supermarkets and much of the town is surrounded by burly holiday apartments and squared-off hotels. Few old landmarks exist from the time when this was a simple fishing village discovered by a Dutch shepherd who’d wandered over the hills with his sheep. Old Harbour is no longer the heart of the village, its cement cleaning tables stand empty and the handful of boats nearby drawn up on the hard look lonely. Neither will see any action. And if the weather keeps at it, I’m worried that I won’t either.
The next morning I’m awoken by sunshine. Lots of it. It’s as if my sea-facing room at Birkenhead House and Villa is the target of a helicopter searchlight. The strip of fynbos that lines the jagged curves of the bay is glowing in the mid-morning rays. I’d planned to be up at sunrise (like all good photographers should), but at some point in the night my bed had grown hungry and swallowed me whole.
I dash downstairs and charge along the single-track path that cuts through the fynbos, keeping as true to the rocky shoreline as possible. My charge soon becomes a meander. Cliff Path is 10 kilometres long, winding its way from the Klein River Lagoon through town centre to the new, larger harbour on the other side. It’s a beautiful walk. The path is peppered with benches that overlook the bay and stony side tracks beckon me closer to the sea where the shoreline is creamed with foam. The fynbos is thick; it smells sweet and rich in the sunlight. The air is clear and crisp. The locals call it ‘Champagne air’ and not too long ago it was considered a remedy by London’s finest doctors, who prescribed Hermanus as a place for rest and recuperation.
Most of the people I meet along the path are foreign and they’re all looking for the same thing: that first humpback whale. Every year, from June through October, southern rights and humpbacks flee the frosty Antarctic winter for warmer waters to calve and mate. And for them, this particular bay is heaven. Its soft, sandy bottom is perfect for a belly rub and the kelp beds just offshore turn into giant water hammocks.
Information boards dotted along the path are an indication of just how cardinal whales are here. In a matter of steps, I learn how these awe-inspiring creatures spyhop, surf and breach. I also learn that the lobe of a whale’s tail is called a fluke and, in town, statues of whale tails appear from the brick walkways like the tips of blubbery icebergs. The restaurants clustered around Village Square make no bones (baleen, in whale-speak) about who their primary customers are and for five months of the year, they burst at the seams with visitors here for one reason alone: whale-watching. Because of it, Hermanus has become the fastest-growing town in the Overberg and everyone wants a piece of the whale pie.
I’m reminded of a quote that I saw in Hermanus the previous day, by JO Rowe, the editor of the Hermanus News in 1949: ‘I hope with all my heart that Hermanus will not become a city of casinos and gin palaces, of great pavilions blocking out the glory of the seacoast; of wild concrete parades reflecting the heat of the sun and burning the eyes… Anyway, Hermanus does not seem to be geographically suited for such attraction, for mercifully it is not on the way to anywhere special.’
The irony? In a twist of fate, Hermanus became that ‘anywhere special’ and as I turn in for the evening it’s impossible not to wonder if this whole business of watching whales go by has made it, well, less special.
The next day, a cool breeze blows through town, but something’s different. Racks of tie-dye T-shirts and scarves spill out from a store I hadn’t noticed before. The royal-blue street poles I’ve walked past every day seem to crane inquisitively over me and the vendors in Market Square greet me as I pass by. On Marine Drive, the Rossouw Modern Art Gallery is displaying some artwork outside. One in particular catches my eye. It’s of a young fisherman with a yellow hat and a cheeky grin. There’s text alongside: ‘’n Mooi dag het buite gewag’ (a beautiful day was waiting outside). Next to it, I catch my reflection in a window. I’m smiling.
I duck down a crunchy stone path past an alcove of hidden art galleries and hanging plants and head across to Westcliff, a suburb on the western side of town, I pass a couple on a bench, fully engaged in the business of staring out to sea. I’m not sure what happened, or when it happened, but as I sit down on the grass next to the boardwalk that leads down to a natural rock pool swirling with seagulls and foam, I realise that, right now, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Hermanus may be a burgeoning, modern seaside resort. It may not be quaint or old-fashioned, but it will never lose its charm. Because that doesn’t live in the brick and mortar; it hangs thick over the bay in the evenings and blows in every morning on that cool Champagne air.
What to do in Hermanus
1. Head up Rotary Way
Get a bird’s-eye view of Walker Bay from the top. Get there by hiking through Fernkloof Nature Reserve behind the town (the reserve has recently been extended to include most of the fynbos-rich areas around Hermanus). Feeling lazy? Rotary Way can be reached by car: head about four kilometres out of town (towards Cape Town) and go right at the turn-off marked ‘Rotary Way’. The road is narrow, so look out for oncoming vehicles.
2. Visit the SA Shark Conservancy
Tucked away in the old harbour, the red-roofed South African Shark Conservancy is dedicated to sustaining our marine resources. Visitors can get up close to its young residents, including pyjama and leopard sharks, and learn a little more about these misunderstood marine predators. Free entrance.
Contact: Tel 028 312 3029, www.sharkconservancy.org
3. Watch whales from a boat
From the beginning of June to the end of November, Walker Bay is a whale sanctuary and only licensed operators are allowed to approach them within 50 metres. A two-hour boat cruise with Southern Right Charters is the closest you’ll ever get to the largest mammals on Earth and their curiosity might see you get a little closer than you bargained on. Boats leave daily from New Harbour (inclement weather notwithstanding). Booking is essential during peak season. R650.
Contact: Tel 082 353 0550, www.southernrightcharters.co.za
Where to eat in Hermanus
1. Bientang’s Cave
You’re not going to get closer to the sea than at Bientangs Cave, built into a cave next to the old harbour. Tuck into a delicious (yet pricey) seafood curry on one of the wooden benches outside before talking a stroll along the rocks to ease it down. Watch out for the break – you may end up soaked.
Contact: Tel 028 312 3454, www.bientangscave.com
2. Tipples Bar and Grill
Make peace with your wallet and get friendly with the locals at Tipples Bar and Grill. With a combination of friendly staff and nightly spe- cials such as half-price pizzas, Tipples cuts to the chase when it comes to a good night out.
Contact: Tel 028 313 0377, www.tipples.co.za
3. Lemon Butta
If you’re looking for great seafood with a cracking view, Lemon Butta holds all the cards. Upstairs in Village Square, this modern yet cosy restaurant combines top-notch seafood with great service and infinite ocean-gazing distraction. Try the sesame-crusted tuna or one of the salmon specialities. Book early to get a window seat.
Contact: Tel 028 312 3611, www.lemonbutta.co.za
Where to stay in Hermanus
Accommodation in Hermanus ranges from quality B&Bs and short-term holiday homes to modest self-catering options and even a backpackers. To get the most out of Hermanus, sea-facing accommodation is a must. Both options below tick that box, vehemently.
1. Birkenhead House and Villa
If being blown away is on your itinerary then Birkenhead House and Villa is a velvet-covered, luxury bomb. Perched on the rocks overlooking Voelklip Beach, this upmarket accommodation is adorned with antique French furniture and original artworks, and has direct access to the beach. Exploring your capacious room is an ad- venture on its own and the beds will swallow you whole. Expect four-course dinners, cocktails on the deck and staff on hand to cater for your every whim. From R3 100 a person a night, includes full board and drinks. Yes, even the alcoholic ones.
Contact: Tel 028 314 8000, www.birkenheadhouse.com
2. Abalone Guest Lodge
Peeking out from behind a strip of fynbos that separates it from the sea, Abalone Guest Lodge feels like it was meant to be there. White- washed furniture and bright blue finishes give it an extra beachy feel and its elevated position and ample outdoor space makes stay-at-home whale-watching a pleasure you won’t feel guilty about. A bonus is that you can hop onto Cliff Path through a pe- destrian gate at the bottom of the property. B&B in a standard room from R705 a person a night sharing and includes a complimentary glass of wine.
Contact: Tel 028 312 3744, www.abalonelodge.co.za
Getting to Hermanus
Hermanus is a 90-minute drive from Cape Town, mostly on the N2. If you have a little extra time take the scenic route along the R44 from Gordon’s Bay.
This article first appeared in the August 2014 issue of Getaway Magazine.