Monday, October 31, 2011

Plettenberg Bay, South Africa: where locals go to play

Plettenberg Bay, South Africa: where locals go to play

When Cape Town's inhabitants want to escape the city, many head for Plettenberg Bay.
Sandra McGregor joins the exodus.
Plettenberg Bay's pristine beaches draw such crowds that the town's population swells to nearly four times as many during the
summer Photo: Alamy
9:16AM BST 02 Aug 2011

"I'll let you in on a little secret," says the waitress as she refills our coffee. "Though Cape Town may get all
the attention, this is where South Africans come to play." But frankly, judging by the number of people I see
walking around Plettenberg Bay barefoot, wearing little more than bathing suits and touting picnic baskets
and inflatable dolphins, it's not much of a secret. At least not in South Africa.
Located in the Western Cape along the popular Garden Route, Plettenberg Bay's pristine beaches draw
such crowds that the town's population of 44,000 swells to nearly four times as many during the summer
months of December and January.
Yet despite a little international recognition, few visitors from outside Africa ever make their way to this
picturesque town. Fewer still ever venture beyond the beaches to explore what are some of South Africa's
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most commanding coastline vistas and the largest remaining tract of indigenous forest in the country.
Lack of international renown, I'm discovering, is not necessarily a bad thing. Despite the focus here on
beaches, even Plett's (as the town is locally known) most popular ones, such as Robberg or Central, are
never overcrowded outside the Christmas period; the only creatures I see competing for space are a group
of house-hunting hermit crabs fighting over an empty seashell.
"Welcome to South Africa's version of Fort Lauderdale," says Russell Katzenberg as he helps us aboard his
river ferry, soon to depart for a leisurely cruise of the Keurbooms River Nature Reserve. Though we are only
a few minutes' drive from town, this greeting seems out of place amid a pristine river system and the
surrounding verdant forest, with the only raucous behaviour coming from some nearby ducks who seem to
be involved in a mating ritual.

As we glide serenely along the river, flanked by some of South Africa's last remaining old-growth indigenous
forest, Russell expertly describes the region's geology and animal life, and confirms that the Plettenberg Bay
area is as much a draw for nature lovers as it is to those who come for the beaches and bars. He explains
that, as a central fixture on the Garden Route (a drive renowned for its lush forests, diverse vegetation,
lagoons and ocean views), the town's Fort Lauderdale vacation vibe is tempered by the hikers,
eco-adventurers and adventure fans who come to explore the region's overwhelming expanse of natural
beauty. Visiting the region is perhaps best described as Club Med meets Mother Nature.
Later that day, as if to confirm Plettenberg Bay's standing as an ecotourism hot spot, I meet a group of
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amateur ornithologists only too happy to list the birds they saw at the nearby Tsitsikamma National Park (the
Knysna Loerie being the big prize). Another of the protected areas found in the region, the park is crisscrossed
by miles of trails (including the Otter Trail, regarded as one of the best hiking trails in South Africa),
rocky ravines and secluded valleys.
The birders' excitement is contagious, and I decide that some birdwatching may be in order. But I take the
easy way out. A 15-minute drive from town is The Crags.
A kind of condensed version of the region's ecological offerings, it affords those of us with only faint outdoors
leanings the chance to explore the environment.
At Birds of Eden, the world's largest free-flight aviary, more than 3,000 birds fly unfettered within a massive
3.2-acre dome filled with indigenous trees and plant life. No binoculars are needed to spot hundreds of birds,
from the ubiquitous ring neck doves to the rare and shy Knysna Loeries. It's beginner birding at its best.
Here, I meet a group of students on vacation from Stellenbosch University who, misjudging my sense of
adventure, invite me to join them bungee jumping at the nearby Bloukrans Bridge, the highest bungee jump
in the world.
I politely pass and opt for the more subdued version of adventure offered next door: going for a walk in the
company of more than 400 primates at Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary. Here, I am joined by a small group
of fellow adventurers and a guide who, carrying nothing but a walking stick, leads us through a 12-acre
enclosure among curious spider monkeys, bellowing gibbons and laid-back lemurs. "They're just like the
visitors who come to Plett," says our guide pointing up the pathway to a group of lemurs, "they love to
worship the sun."
Ahead of us are almost a dozen of the charming creatures, all vying for a share of sunbeam, eyes wide,
arms raised as though in worship.
Of course, no creature quite encapsulates the taking-it-easy ethos of Plettenberg Bay as do the languorous
felines found at Tenikwa Wild Cat and Wildlife Sanctuary (where visitors are allowed in the enclosures of
most of the wildcats), another of the wildlife experiences to be found at The Crags. Or if you're not a cat
person, the nearby elephant attraction or snake sanctuary may suit.
The next attraction up is a more "agrarian" sort at Bramon Wine Estate, the most easterly winery in the
province. After filling up on some lovely sauvignon blanc and tapas at the winery's restaurant, I have just
enough energy to make plans to go for a long hike among Tsitsikamma's many gorges and exquisite rare
yellowwoods. But then I think again and change my mind, deciding to hit the beach instead. My lovely new
hiking boots never make it out of the box.
Getting there
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ( ) and South African
Airways (0027 11 978 5313; ( ) have direct flights from London to
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Cape Town from around £700. From the airport you can rent a car (reserve in advance; visit ( for a list of rental companies and contact numbers).
From Cape Town, it’s approximately a six-hour drive to Plettenberg Bay. Alternatively, SAA also offers
connecting flights to George (the nearest airport to Plettenberg Bay, which is about an hour’s drive) from
Cape Town or Johannesburg.
As this is a popular resort town, many packages are available for both Plettenberg Bay and the Garden
Route; for a comprehensive list, visit
( .
Getting around
The best way to get around Plett itself is on foot. However, renting a car is the easiest way to visit the
surrounding region and beaches. For something a little different, renting a kayak is a rewarding way to
explore the bay – and possibly get the chance to paddle alongside dolphins; visit ( for
The inside track
The Otter Trail is regarded by many as South Africa’s best hike. The trail takes five days and four nights.
Paths take you along both the coastline and through old growth forest. The numbers of hikers allowed on the
trail is limited so reservations are mandatory and are known to book up over a year in advance. However, for
those less hardy hikers, a one-day hike is available. For information and to make reservations, visit
The Plettenberg Bay region keeps adventure sports enthusiasts very busy. Try the world’s highest recorded
bungee jump (0027 42 281 1458; ( ); ride a zip line
above waterfalls (042 280 3770; (
); or go skydiving (082 905 7440; ( ).
What to bring home
You can get great deals on local, handmade crafts at the Plett Market on Main in central Plettenberg Bay
(044 533 1630). And pick up some brut from Bramon Wine Estate, the most easterly winery in the Western
Cape (044 534 8007; ( ).
The region is also home to Mitchell’s, one of South Africa’s most popular craft breweries. Based in Knysna,
the brewery offers tours and tastings; buy some bottles to bring back and enjoy the taste of the region from
home( ( ).
The best hotels
Milkwood Manor ££
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One of the best located hotels in Plettenberg Bay, this charming, colonial-style inn is situated just steps from
the beach. Wake up to the sound of the sea and enjoy a hearty breakfast while Milkwood’s proprietor goes
around to every table to offer tips on what to do in the region and to show off some of the treasures that
have turned up on the beach such as the filigreed-like sand dollars (044 533 0420; ( ; doubles from £70 per night).
Aquavit Guesthouse ££
A high-end b & b offering elegant rooms and bountiful breakfasts. The solicitous hosts ensure an enjoyable
stay, as do the pool and fine views of both the ocean and the nearby Tsitsikamma mountains (044 533 6686; ( ; doubles from £100).
The Tsitsikamma Village Inn £££
A little off the beaten track (40 miles from Plettenberg Bay), this hotel offers cottage-style rooms in a
secluded setting, minutes from the Tsitsikamma Nature Reserve and the world’s highest bungee jump at
nearby Storms River (042 281 1711; ( ;
doubles from £100).
The best restaurants
Cranzgots £
A casual if occasionally boisterous place to dine; the food is dependably delicious and cheap. Two people
can easily dine with wine for as little as £18 (044 533 1460).
Lemon Grass, Plettenberg Bay ££
A favourite among locals, this restaurant boasts both great food and a superb location, with an open-air
dining room just steps from the beach (044 533 0420;
( ).
Ile de Pain ££
Worth the 18-mile drive to the nearby town of Knysna, this French café and bakery is open for breakfast and
lunch only. It’s always crowded but the food is well worth the wait. With the smells of fresh croissants and
baguettes filling the air you would swear you were in Paris (044 302 5707;
( ).
© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2011
Plettenberg Bay, South Africa: where locals go to play - Telegraph
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