Exploring the Western and Eastern Cape of South Africa
Collectively protecting around two-thirds of South Africa’s phenomenal coastline, the country’s two most southerly provinces also incorporate several of its oldest and most characterful settlements. The main regional travel hub (and administrative capital of the Western Cape) is the city of Cape Town, which boasts an incomparable setting on the Atlantic coastline below the slopes of majestic Table Mountain. For nature lovers, the adjacent Cape Peninsula stands at the core of the world’s smallest and most botanically diverse floral kingdom, one that supports a wealth of endemic plants and animals, ranging from the beautiful King Protea to the endangered Cape mountain zebra and striking Cape sugarbird.
The Canola Fields in the Western Cape
Further afield, some of the world’s finest and most scenic wine estates are concentrated around the historic towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. The clifftop resort town of Hermanus offers the world’s best land-based whale-watching, while the Garden Route is named for its lush vistas of scenic lagoons and beaches framed by tall mountains and evergreen forests.
Jeffrey’s Bay is considered to be the surfing Mecca of South Africa
The garden route runs into the Eastern Cape, a province that is less popular with international tourists than its western counterpart, but almost as rich in attractions. These range from the idyllic Wild Coast and surfing scene at Jeffrey’s Bay to the malaria-free Big Five game-viewing on offer in the Addo Elephant National Park and the National Arts Festival held in Grahamstown every July.
One of the world’s most scenic and culturally rewarding cities, Cape Town is the gateway to any number of fine swimming beaches as well as a magnificent mountainous peninsula that terminates at the sheer wave-battered cliffs of Cape Point. A perennially popular day or an overnight excursion out of Cape Town runs inland to the Cape Winelands, where dozens of historic wine estates offer tasting sessions in characterful Cape Dutch buildings shadowed by spectacular mountain ranges such as the Simonsberg and Groot Drakenstein. Stretching for 200 km between Mossel Bay and the dramatic Storms River mouth, the Garden Route is lined with family-friendly Indian Ocean beaches, but its plethora of lakes, forests and mountains – many protected in the patchwork Garden Route National Park – offer rich pickings to hikers, birdwatchers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Set on the cliffs above Walker Bay 120 km southeast of Cape Town, Hermanus is an attractive town of cobbled alleys and relaxed seafood restaurants best known for offering some of the world’s finest land-based whale-watching. The season runs from Jun to Nov and peaks over Sep-Oct, when around 100 Southern Right whales and a smaller number of Humpback whales converge there to calve. Protected within the recently created Agulhas National Park, the rocky headland known to the Portuguese as Cabo das Agulhas (Cape of Needles) is not only the southernmost tip of Africa but also forms the semi-official divide between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. More than 250 ships fell victim to the jagged offshore rocks for which Agulhas is named prior to the construction of what is now the country’s second-oldest lighthouse.
- The main air gateway to the region is Cape Town International Airport (CTIA), which lies about 20 km east of the city centre and 35 km from Stellenbosch in the Cape Winelands. An increasing number of international flights land at CTIA, and it’s also serviced by dozens of flights daily from Johannesburg, and domestic flights to all other major centres in South Africa.
- Other important airports can be found at George (the largest town on the Garden Route), Port Elizabeth (capital of the Eastern Cape) and East London (gateway to the Wild Coast). Depending on how long you have to spare and where you want to visit, an excellent way to explore the region independently would be to fly into Cape Town, self-drive east as far as George, Port Elizabeth or East London, then fly back out. It is also possible to continue driving northeast of East London vis the Wild Coast and southern KwaZulu-Natal to Durban.
- As South Africa’s most travelled province, the Western Cape offers an immense selection of overnight options, ranging from five-star city and boutique hotels to backpacker hostels and B&Bs. Overnight options in the Eastern Cape are also profuse and varied. Although it is usually straightforward enough to find a competitively priced room, rates rocket sky high, and booking is usually necessary, over the South Africa Christmas and New Year school holidays.
Most travellers opt for affordable car hire in Cape Town when travelling to the Western Cape.