South Africa is home to such a vast and varied abundance of fascinating travel and holiday destinations, offering so many unforgettable experiences. Yet so much remains undiscovered for so many. So, in each edition we feature a different region or province of South Africa as part of our mission to promote local travel. In this edition we visit the magnificent Sunshine Coast.
If the name ‘Sunshine Coast’ is only vaguely familiar to you and you don’t really know exactly where it is located and which cities and towns are included in it, it’s simply because it’s one of South Africa’s best-kept secrets.
For some reason the Sunshine Coast has been something of a Cinderella of South African coastal regions in the marketing context, not receiving as much attention or marketing propaganda as some of the others like the Cape Peninsula coast, the North Coast of KwaZulu-Natal, the Garden Route coast with playgrounds like Knysna, the Wild Coast, the West Coast and so forth. But that’s a blessing in disguise – this way it remains largely unspoilt and there’s more to be selfishly enjoyed by those who are in on the secret and those who permanently live there.
Not that it’s all that unknown, because during the summer holidays this otherwise mostly rural, sleepy stretch of coast – apart from its two major, bustling cities – comes alive with the influx of thousands of holidaymakers from the interior.
Nonetheless, there are different definitions of exactly which part of the coast comprises the Sunshine Coast. Some say from the Storms River Mouth to East London or Kei River mouth; others from Port Elizabeth to East London. For our purposes, we’ll consider it as being the coastline from Oyster Bay near Cape St Francis in the west, to roughly Gonubie northeast of East London in the east.
It is a truly magnificent stretch of coastline with a unique character all of its own. From South Africa’s only big river port at East London, going west it traverses a number of seaside towns of German and Xhosa heritage, then an unspoilt coastline divided only by a number of large river mouths that are home mostly to holiday homes and traditional villages, passing nature reserves on the way, then on to the marina at Port Alfred, Kenton-on-Sea and Bushmans River Mouth, before hitting the urban industrial surroundings of Port Elizabeth. A relatively short distance on you reach the surfer’s paradise of Jeffreys Bay and Cape St Francis.
It’s a coast with an overwhelming feeling of summer and a slower pace where elements of the Garden Route, the Wild Coast and urban South Africa all are rolled into one, plus something that is unique and not found anywhere. That something is inherent in the laid-back way of life along these parts, as well as the way the scenery naturally shifts and changes in beauty and intensity as you travel from east to west. And of course it is the region with the most sunshine in South Africa. In-between all of this the roads and rough tracks, the traditional settlements and modern towns give access to an awesome spread of beaches, rivers, lagoons, nature reserves, huge dunes and hiking trails.
South Africa’s only major port located on a river like its British namesake, East London is a blend of traditional Africa, colonial Britain and breath-taking wilderness. To a large extent the city owes its origins to the border wars between the British and the Xhosa as well as the arrival of the 1820 British settlers. To its south and inland the area around East London also has something of a German character, brought here by German settlers in the early 1800s, in respect of the names of people still living here and the names of places such as Hamburg and Stutterheim.
East London plus Mdantsane, Bisho and King William’s Town, together make up the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality. The city with its fort, Fort Glamorgan which was built on the West Bank in 1847 as one of a series of frontier forts, played an important role in the frontier wars with the Xhosa.
Today East London is a pulsating city and popular destination for tourists and holidaymakers. The city is home to several museums, including the Steve Biko Centre and the Calgary Transport Museum, and also boasts some fine art galleries and an aquarium. The city is also well-known for the older architectural examples from the colonial era that have been preserved, among them the Cuthberts Building, Fort Murray, the headquarters of the Buffalo Volunteer Rifles, the Lock Street Jail, the City Hall on Oxford Street, and more.
There are a number of game and nature reserves close to the city while the Bridle Drift Dam is popular with water sports enthusiasts. East London is also renowned for its superb beaches. These include the Orient Beach next to the harbour, the seaside area along the Esplanade Street, Beacon Bay East Beach, Nahoon Beach, Bonza Bay Beach, and others. There are many other attractions to also be found in East London.
As you travel southwest from East London, you’ll pass some truly unspoilt coastal areas not unlike the Wild Coast, with traditional villages dotted across the landscape. On the way you will also pass numerous river mouths, some really pristine beaches and holiday settlements that include Winterstrand, Kidds Beach, Christmas Rock, Kayser’s Beach, Hamburg, Begha Mouth, and Great Fish River Mouth until you reach Kleinemonde. But as the national road lies inland along this stretch, you have to turn off and travel back to the coast to reach most of these locations.
Kleinemonde is the epitome of the travel brochures’ pristine white beaches, bush covered dunes, sparkling tidal pools and absolute tranquillity. The little town, mostly populated by holidaymakers in the summer months, straddles twin river mouths as Kleinemonde East and West. The major pastime here is fishing off the beaches, lazing on the beaches, swimming in the ocean, or boating up the passive water of the river surrounded by lush vegetation on the banks. Next to the village – which has a small but bustling little business centre – lies the Waters Meeting Nature Reserve, and a little further on you will come upon the Great Fish Point Lighthouse with its distinctive black and white stripes.
Next, still travelling southwest, we come to Port Alfred. Settled on the banks of the Kowier River, not only does the town have some wonderful long stretches of white sandy beaches and river scenery, but it’s also home to a unique marina, the Royal Alfred Marina. Every house in this tidal marina has its own waterfront, and the marina is adjacent to the 250-berth Small Boat Harbour.
A haven for water sports, the town is considered to be the “heart of the Sunshine Coast”. The Kowie River, which is navigable for about 28 kilometers upstream, divides the town in two linked by several bridges. The area offers some unique and exhilarating river and hiking trails. Golf lovers can drive the twenty minutes trip to the Gary Player golf course at the Fish River Sun hotel, which also lies next to the Shamwari game reserve.
There is plenty of history in the area too, most of it going back to the time of British rule and the Frontier Wars.
After Port Alfred lies Kasouga, located at the mouth of the Kasouga River. The village, a national heritage site, consists largely of of private holiday homes that have been in the same families for generations, most of them situated in the forest behind the sand dunes. Part of the village is still the original 1825 Bovey farm which was divided up in 1880 and is said to be the oldest resort in the Eastern Cape. Here the 1800s and early 1900s still live on.
Midway between Port Elizabeth and East London, Kenton-on-Sea, exists largely as a holiday town, built between the mouths of the Kariega and Boesmans (Bushmans) Rivers. Here, on the quiet beaches or beside the calm river waters, absolute tranquillity reins. It is said to be one of the most picturesque resorts in the country, with much to offer nature lovers and eco-tourists, water sports enthusiasts, families wanting to relax, bird watchers, hikers and more. Only a short 15-minute drive inland you also have a choice of game reserves, including Kariega Game Reserve, Sibuya, Shamwari and Lalibela Game Reserve.
Bushmans River Mouth
Probably more recognisable to most people by its Afrikaans name of Boesmansriviermond, this fabulous, picturesque holiday town lies just across a bridge over the Bushmans River from Kenton-on-Sea. In fact, the two towns look like one town separated by a river. Here too are plenty of holiday homes, B&Bs and self-catering accommodation. Again the place is all about the sea, beaches, the river and nature.
In the area you will find the Dias Cross Memorial – a stone pillar put here by Portuguese sailors led by Bartolomeu Dias who came there in the 1400s during their search for a sea route from Europe to India. On the edge of the town you’ll also find an intriguing wetland system and upstream along the river you can tackle the Bushman’s River Canoe Trail, an overnight trail 15 km upstream. Just a few kilometres on going southwest lies another tiny resort town called Boknesstrand and located along the mouth of the Boknes River. And after three more kilometres you’ll come to yet another seaside holiday resort called Canon Rocks. And so, onwards to Port Elizabeth.
Alexandria, Colchester & Sundays River Mouth
Before we get to Port Elizabeth, we pass the settlements of Alexandria and Colchester on the Sundays River. Alexandria is home to a quiet and friendly farming community who make their living from dairy farming, growing chicory and pineapple plantations.
Between the small town and the sea lies a subtropical coastal forest similar to those found further north in KwaZulu-Natal, the Alexandria State Forest, but known to locals as Langebos. Next to it is the Alexandria Dunefield, considered to be one of the largest moving dune fields in the world with some dunes as high as those of the Namib Desert. Between the nearby Sundays River stretching all the way to the Bushman’s River, is the 25,000-hectare Woody Cape Nature Reserve which is a birding enthusiast’s paradise. From here on the reserve forms part of the Addo Elephant Park.
The small settlement of Colchester is not much more than a collection of riverfront holiday homes, although there are quite a number of permanent residents too. The small town is built between two sharp bends in the Sundays River and is an ideal place for kayaking, sailing, or small pleasure craft and fishing. Carry on downstream around the river bend and you’ll come the mouth which is right next to Alexandria Dunefield.
As we travel on, we arrive next at what is alternatively called ‘the windy city’, ‘the friendly city’ or ‘die baai (the bay)’ – Port Elizabeth. The harbour city of Port Elizabeth, together with Uitenhage, Despatch and Colchester make up the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro. It is the largest city in the Eastern Cape with a population of more than 1.3 million people, is a major seaport and is the southernmost large city on the African continent.
The city was founded in the early 19th century by the Dutch government of the Cape Colony. In 1820, by then under British rule, some 4,000 British colonists were settled here in order to strengthen the border region between the Cape Colony and the Xhosa region which at the time was a point of conflict and the scene of several frontier wars. Sir Rufane Shaw Donkin, the Acting Governor of the Cape Colony, named the small frontier town Port Elizabeth after his late wife in 1820.
Today the city is major transport, commercial and industrial hub as well as a favourite holiday destination for thousands of South Africans each year and a large number of visitors from overseas. There are two major harbours here; the old main port of the city and the newer deep-water port of Coega some 20 kilometres north of the city.
The city is also a gateway to the scenic Eastern Cape province to its east and the world-renowned Garden Route to the west, and it is sometimes referred to also as the ‘water sport capital of Africa’. Nelson Mandela Bay is also recognised as both the Mohair and Bottelnose Dolphin Capital of the World and is home to the largest breeding colony of the African Penguin. It boasts no less than 5 biomes within its city limits.
Port Elizabeth or the greater Nelson Mandela Bay Metro is the only city that can also boast the Big 7 (elephant, buffalo, rhino, lion, leopard, southern right whale and great white shark) within its municipal boundaries, all within 45 minutes of the city centre. The city is also the gateway to more than a million hectares of malaria-free game reserves of the Eastern Cape, including the famous Addo Elephant National Park as well as numerous private reserves, all offering the ‘big five” experience.
With its warm, dry summers and mild winter temperatures this beautiful stretch of coastline boasts a perfect combination of warm water, protected beaches and invigorating sea breezes. It is a true water sports paradise and is home to some of the best sailing conditions, first-rate scuba diving with colourful coral species, beautiful reefs and shipwrecks, near perfect conditions for windsurfing, angling, snorkelling, kitesurfing, fly-fishing and canoeing, and of course surfing. Boat operators offer trips to experience the seals, whales, dolphins and even ragged-tooth sharks of the area.
Visitors are also drawn by the city’s many fine remaining examples of its early architecture, from the Victorian styles, to art nouveau, art deco and later additions. The biggest number of art deco buildings in South Africa is to be found in the city centre of Port Elizabeth! Other attractions include the Boardwalk Casino and Entertainment Complex in Summerstrand, cinema complexes, numerous sophisticated shopping malls, restaurants to suit any palate, a vibrant nightlife as well as annual and seasonal festivals and events. A selection of exciting social, historical and traditional township tours are also offered.
Situated along the warm Indian Ocean, along its more than 40Km of coastline the city boasts a multitude of beaches, including many Blue Flag beaches. Some of the better-known beaches are Hobie Beach, Summerstrand, Humewood, Bluewater Beach, Noordhoek and Sardinia Bay Beach. A short distance away are also Marina Martinique, as well as Jeffreys Bay and Cape St Francis, both popular holiday resort towns and world-renowned surfing sites.
Apart from being the gateway to the the Western Region of the Eastern Cape province, Port Elizabeth also gives access to the rest of the Sunshine Coast, Frontier Country, Sundays River Valley, Kouga, Tsitsikamma Forest, Garden Route as well as the Karoo Heartland Routes and Route 62.
Blue Horizon Bay, Humansdorp, Jeffreys Bay & Cape St Francis
The sleepy little village of Blue Horizon Bay also has beautiful sandy beaches and plenty of scenery. The Baviaanskloof Wilderness area close to Blue Horizon Bay, lies in a valley between the Baviaanskloof and the Kouga Mountains. It is a wilderness area with an incredible biodiversity. Next doors is the Gamtoos River Mouth and then, a little inland, the commercial hub of Humansdorp. From here you swing back towards the coast and cruise into the coastal town of Jeffreys Bay, or J-Bay to surfers from around the world. Close by is the Addo Elephant Park, home to the ‘Big 7’. Jeffreys Bay is also home to the Marina Martinique, a little bit of the Caribbean.
Just a short hop away is St Francis Bay and Cape St Francis. The ocean around here is world-renowned for its ‘super tubes’, the ultimate wave for any surfer in the world. At St Francis, on the Krom River, is another fabulous marina, the Marina Glades. The entire area is home to surfing, swimming, kayaking, snorkelling, scuba diving, boating, angling, sailing and anything else one can do on water, whether at sea, in an estuary or marine, or on a river.
These then are just some of the cities, towns, hamlets, resorts, river mouths and beaches found all along the Sunshine Coast, and also just a small sample of all the attractions and things to do that are on offer. Sunshine Coast Tourism rightly boasts as follows on their website:
“We are situated in the Adventure Province, with the most sunshine hours in South Africa, facilitating the enjoyment of outdoor activities such as quad biking, surf sailing, deep sea fishing, kite surfing, skiing and hiking. Explore beautiful rivers navigable for up to 25km and our rich coral reefs offer magnificent diving opportunities. Horse ride along our golden beaches, or through game parks.
“We offer a variety of accommodation ranging from luxurious lodges, hotels, bed and breakfast establishments, private homes, hiker’s huts and more. The arts and crafts in the area are well known, with many acclaimed artists living and working here. Visit their studios, watch them at work, or join our local art clubs and explore your creative side.
“The Sunshine Coast also boasts wonderful culinary experiences, from cosmopolitan cafes to lavish banquets and everything in between. We even have our own brewery!”
So, don’t miss out – be sure to visit the Sunshine Coast for a holiday of a lifetime!
- Port Elizabeth / Nelson Mandela Bay – Tourism Tel +27 (0) 41 582 2575 or +27 (0) 41 582 2573, email firstname.lastname@example.org or website nmbt.co.za.
- East London / Buffalo City Tourism – Tel +27 (0)43 705 3556 or +27 (0)43 721 1007, email email@example.com or website www.buffalocitytourism.co.za.
- Sunshine Coast Tourism – Port Alfred Office Tel 046-624-1235, email firstname.lastname@example.org or web sunshinecoasttourism.co.za; Kenton-on-Sea Office Tel 046-648-2411 or email email@example.com.