One of the advantages of living in South Africa is that, despite the fact that we are quite far away from the rest of the world, we really are quite far away from the rest of the world! Unfortunately, this, combined with our current Covid-19 status, means we aren’t going to be travelling internationally for quite some time, but that also means that foreign tourists might take some time to return to our shores…
Fortunately that means that:
- NOW is the perfect time to explore your own backyard.
- NOW is the time to visit a place you’ve been meaning to visit but never have.
- NOW is the time to travel locally!
There really has never been a better year to get out and about within your own country. Not only is it far more affordable than heading off overseas, it’s convenient and less crowded!
Initially you might feel like a rebel, breaking free and leaving the safe surrounds of your own four walls, or you might feel quite anxious, nervous and exposed. The truth is that it’s going to feel different! There’s not been much travel to be had over the past year, and many of us might have found ourselves becoming quite a lot more of a hermit that we expected. Even I, an adventure-seeker, have struggled. But that is exactly the reason why I have jumped at any chances to get out of my house that have come my way.
The recent school holidays were the perfect opportunity to hit the road to somewhere new. We hit the road and headed out on the N2 before turning right at Caledon and driving along the scenic R316 that cuts through the heart of the Overberg towards the coast.
Our destination was in fact new to all in our travelling party – myself, my husband, my daughter and my mom. None of us had visited this local town before, so we had no preconceived ideas of what to expect.
What we were to discover is that our destination, a quaint coastal town 2.5 hours from Cape Town, is one of the most authentic in South Africa.
Arniston is a small, safe seaside town with a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. Surrounded by a sparkling turquoise sea and pristine white beaches, it holds a unique position lying between two untouched nature reserves, De Mond and De Hoop.
The town is peaceful and quiet (well, it was during our Autumn visit!) and there are beautiful unspoilt, child-friendly beaches, perfect for swimming and surfing.
Roman Beach in the Waenhuiskrans Nature Reserve is a popular hangout on hot summer days. It’s a lovely stretch of sand perfect for an early morning beach walk, or head down a bit later for some lazing under a beach umbrella. The warm Mozambique current creates pleasant water temperatures (considerably warmer than Cape Town or even Hermanus). The clear turquoise water here is calm and shallow making it a great beach for kids.
Arniston is a fisherman’s paradise with an abundance of sea life and delicious seafood is caught daily by the fleet of local fishing boats.
The gorgeous village is full of history and character, especially the neighbourhood of Kassiesbaai, an authentic taste of local life. Visiting this heritage area was a highlight of my visit to Arniston and I loved meandering through the streets of the village and catching glimpses of locals going about their lives – boys playing soccer, laundry flapping in the wind, men fixing their fishing nets.
History of Arniston
Located near the southern-most tip of Africa, Arniston’s rugged coastline has played a huge part it its’ rich history. Home to some of South Africa’s most infamous shipwrecks, this historical fishing hamlet became known as Arniston after a ship of the same name, HMS Arniston, ran aground here in 1815 with only 6 survivors.
However, the history of Arniston can be traced back long before that, to almost 2 000 years ago, thanks to the stone implements and bones of fish, seals and various mammals left behind by the nomadic hunter-gatherers that passed through the region. These mixed artefacts indicate that there was contact between the Khoisan nomads that stayed here and the survivors of the various shipwrecks from the 16th century onwards. The 17th century also saw the exploration of the Overberg by European settlers trying to establish farms and start breeding with their cattle.
Arniston/ Waenhuiskrans (both are official names of the town – the only one in SA with 2 names!) was established as a town in 1922 and in 1932 the Fishermen’s Union was founded to manage the fishing village of Kassiesbaai. By the 1970s the village was in severe decay and the small community and some conservationists jumped in and raised enough money to restore the village to its former glory. Kassiesbaai was officially declared a National Heritage Site in 1986.
Stay in Arniston
Our two day stay in Arniston was at the Arniston Spa Hotel which is located in the heart of the village and is, for many locals and visitors alike, the heart of the village.
Overlooking the beach, harbour and sea, and within easy walking distance of all the main attractions, the hotel is part of the Cape Country Routes collection of privately owned hotels.
An upmarket 4 Star hotel, there are five types of rooms, including double rooms and family suites, ensuring there is an option for all budgets. All rooms have DStv, a minibar with tea- and coffee-making facilities and free Wi-Fi. Sea-facing rooms have private balconies with beautiful sea views!
If you’re visiting with kids you’ll be pleased to know that there is a swimming pool and a kids/ teen game room with pool, fooze ball and table tennis as well as regular kids activities and movies on offer at the kids club which runs during school holidays. The grass lawns in front of the hotel’s restaurant are filled with fun activities on sunny days including a jumping castle and there is a beach within walking distance – although it’s more suited to rock pool explorations that sand castles!
During our stay we enjoyed a comprehensive complimentary breakfast every morning in the sunny dining area and we devoured the pizzas from the restaurant for dinner.
I was also lucky enough to take full advantage of their on-site spa and visited the Gingko Spa for an indulgent afternoon of mommy-me-time.
The hotel to be the perfect place to relax and recoup after exploring the village and walking the wider area.
Things to do in Arniston
Our visit to Arniston was in the cooler months and so we didn’t quite spend as much time on the beach as this picturesque destination demands… however, there was still plenty of things to do in Arniston.
1. Walk through time in Kassiesbaai
As mentioned above, the old fishing village of Kassiesbaai is a national heritage site and has been home to the local fishermen and their families for over a century. The name comes from old paraffin kassies (crates) that were washed ashore from shipwrecks and used by the early inhabitants to build their homes.
These boxes were stacked on top of one another, the sides worked off with clay plaster and the structure covered with a thatched roof. It’s full of historical and the characterful cottages make it the ideal place for artists and photographers to get lost in the late afternoon light. Meander the winding streets, talk to the locals, get inspiration for your photography or art, and soak in the seaside atmosphere.
2. Visit the Slipway
Right next to the village is the harbour. For generations the fishermen of Kassiesbaai launched their small boats from the beach at Oubaai (now known as Roman Beach). They used to fish within sight of the shoreline and would race one another back to sell their catch.
It’s only in the last 100 years that they began using the area below Kassiesbaai to launch their boats. In order to get heavier boats in and out of the water, they used wooden rollers. It was a slow and cumbersome process – often in bad weather they could not get out into the bay. In 1936 a slipway was built and launching a boat became much easier.
These days, a tractor is used to help the boats down the concrete slipway and into the waiting ocean. When the weather allows, the fishing fleet of colourful ‘chuckies’, carrying seven or eight men each, goes out to sea in hope of a good catch. Be sure to keep an eye out for their next catch of the day!
3. Lunch locally
While visiting Kassiesbaai don’t miss out on enjoying a local lunch at Willeen’s, a locally run restaurant located in an old fisherman’s cottage that has enchanting views of the seascape. The tables are rustic as is the shop, but the menu is authentically Cape and filled with favourites such as fish and chips, calamari and chips, pickled fish, fish cakes, lamb shanks and babootie.
Willeen’s offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as coffee and tea. The inside of the traditional building is warm and cosy, though one can also sit outside and enjoy breathtaking views of the sea, a long, long beach and dunes. Willeen also provides fresh bread and other food to order. We were fortunate to enjoy an alfresco lunch of fresh fish, fish cakes and pickled fish at Willeen’s while taking in the view of this pristine coastline. For reservations contact Willeen de Villiers, cell phone 083 729 0651.
Another local lunch spot is Wanda’s Waenhuis where you can enjoy hearty meals in a warm, happy gathering place. With excellent value for money, Wanda’s Waenhuis offers anything from sea food to steaks and pasta. For reservations contact Wanda Europa, cell phone 078 367 6672.
4. Walk to Waenhuiskrans cave
We spent a lovely morning walking from the Arniston Spa Hotel to the Waenhuiskrans cave located in the Waenhuiskrans Nature Reserve. The walk is less than 40 minutes from Arniston Spa Hotel or an easy 20-minute walk from the car park at Roman Beach.
This is the town’s most incredible natural feature, an enormous sea cave which is only accessible at low tide. ‘Waenhuiskrans’ translated from Afrikaans means ‘wagon house cliff’ – a reference to the belief that it would be possible for a wagon and a full span of 16 oxen to turn around inside the massive cave.
Our walk took us along Roman Beach and across rock pools brimming with life. Be sure to plan your visit for low tide to be able to fully appreciate these colourful miniature worlds.
Follow the signs that point to ‘Grot’ (cave) from Roman Beach and along the dunes. It’s about a 1.5km walk from Roman Beach. You first scramble down a limestone slope and then squeeze through a small porthole into the back of the large cave. The last stretch is a bit uneven and slippery so make sure you wear shoes with a good grip and that you don’t mind getting wet.
Remember to allow your eyes to adjust once you are inside the cave as the ground is very rocky and uneven and there are large pools of water which can be deceptive. Once you’re inside you’ll be struck by the perfect oval archway to the sea. Remember to keep an eye out so you don’t get trapped by the incoming tide!
5. Vist The Baken
About a 1 hour walk from Arniston Spa Hotel is the Struispunt Beacon, or ‘Baken’ as it is known locally.
This nondescript concrete obelisk plonked on a patch of straggly coastline is there for a reason – to warn sailors of the undersea perils of Die Rift (Saxon Reef) – an archipelago of submerged rocks that extends three miles out to sea and has claimed at least 14 ships.
6. See the Fish Traps
A bit further along the coast from the cave are the ancient fish traps that were first used in the Late Stone Age. (Recent research reveals that the first homo sapiens lived on the southern tip of Africa some 165 000 years ago.)
These pools, located near The Baken, are visible at low tide. The idea was that fish would swim in at high tide when the water covered the traps. Then when the tide went out, the fish would be stranded in the rock pools and could be plucked out. Incredibly the locals still use them today!
In the area are further reminders of the strandlopers who used to live along the coast here in the form of glittering shell middens piles amidst the dunes that contain seashells clay pottery, and the bones of fish, seals and small buck. The shell middens of Arniston tell rich stories of the past and are a visible record of days gone by. To find these fascinating historical sites continue past the turnoff to the Waenhuiskrans cave from Roman Beach.
7. Watch for Whales
The combination of shallow, clear, warm water and numerous fantastic vantage points makes Arniston one of the best land-based whale watching destinations in the world. You may very well see a whale and her calf bask and frolic in the crystalline turquoise waters mere metres from the coastline. Since the 1990s, Southern Right whales have been regular winter visitors to South African shores. They leave their icy southern feeding grounds to court, mate, calve and rear their young in our warmer waters before heading south again in time for the Antarctic summer.
Other whales that occur in the area include Bryde’s and True’s beaked whales. The whales come to Arniston between May and October every year, although the best months to see them are between July and September when you can best enjoy their displays of breaching, spyhopping, lobtailing and slapping. If you really want to get up close, nearby Struisbaai offers boat-based whale watching excursions.
8. Embrace the Sea – Go fishing, snorkelling or surfing
The sea is the heart of the activities on offer in Arniston. Whether you enjoy fishing, snorkelling or surfing you’ll be able to find something to keep you occupied, whatever the weather!
Fishing has been the backbone of Arniston for more than a century. Cast a line from the rocks or the beach and enjoy the panoramic ocean views.
Alternatively bring your snorkel and goggles and spend time exploring the rocky pools on the lookout for colourful critters like urchins and anemones.
There is also a rewarding surf break located at Roman Beach which is ideal for beginner and advanced surfers and bodyboarders alike.
9. Search the Rock Pools
Kids of all ages will love exploring the rock pools at low tide and the rock pools of Arniston are full of treasures!
10. Explore the Dunes
Explore the soft white sand dunes around Arniston. Climb to the top to get wonderful views out to sea, then dune-surf or dune-board down. For environmental reasons you’re not allowed to drive 4x4s or quad bikes on the dunes.
11. Walk around Town
We enjoyed an sunset stroll around the quiet streets while our daughter biked (using one of the free bikes available at the hotel) We found the Munus Kerk and one of the earliest fisherman’s cottages in the village in Pratt Street – with its’ thick whitewashed walls, low thatched roof, small shuttered windows and a door for only those under 1.5m tall it certainly was built in another time!
12. Visit the Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum
Located in Bredasdorp (23km away) this small Shipwreck Museum in Independent Street tells the story of the wreck of the Arniston along with some of the other famous shipwrecks of the area. The Arniston was on its way from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to England when gale force winds destroyed its sails and it broke up on the sharp rocks of the Arniston reef. Only six of 378 people on board survived. Two weeks after the wreck, a farmer was looking for lost sheep when he stumbled on the survivors. The wreck was declared South Africa’s first underwater historical monument in 1982.
13. Visit the De Mond Nature Reserve
You’ll find De Mond Nature Reserve at the mouth of the Heuningnes River 23km west of Arniston. The estuary is popular with those who love to fish for grunter, garrick and stumpnose. Aside from being one of the best saltwater fly-fishing destinations in the country, this is also the ideal place for tranquil swims and kayaking excursions. There is a beautiful boardwalk that provides amazing sightings of water birds and waders such as the three-banded plover, Kittlitz plover, great white egret, Damara tern and African black oystercatcher. You may not be a bird watcher but there aren’t many places where you will hear as much bird song and have a chance to spy raptors, sea birds, waders and ground nesting birds all gathered together in a sanctuary. The 954ha of protected land and ocean is a biodiversity Eden with small mammals like caracal and porcupine, and more than 200 bird species. Go mountain biking or hiking along the circular 7km Sterna Trail, or walk the De Mond to Arniston trail to take in dune fields, coastal fynbos, salt marshes and beautiful stretches of white beach.
14. Visit De Hoop Nature Reserve
About 70km east of Arniston is the De Hoop Nature Reserve which is well worth a day visit. De Hoop Nature Reserve is one of the largest areas overseen by Cape Nature Conservation, covering 34 000 hectares. Featuring an extraordinary scenic estuary filled with an abundance of rare birds (more than 260 bird species, local and migratory are found in the reserve and it is the only remaining breeding colony of the rare Cape vulture), the region also includes 1 500 plants from the Cape Floral Kingdom. Alternatively go mountain biking, hiking or take a game drive to see mammals such as the Cape mountain zebra, eland, bontebok, grey rhebok, baboon, yellow mongoose and caracal. The De Hoop Marine Protected Area, which extends three nautical miles (5 km) out to sea, is one of the largest marine protected areas in Africa and provides a sanctuary for a vast and fascinating array of marine life. Enjoy excellent land-based whale-watching from June to November at Koppie Alleen.
15. Stop at a Small Town
A few of the small towns worth visiting in the area around Arniston include:
- Napier (about 40km away)
- Struisbaai (about 40km away)
- Elim (about 60km away)
- Stanford (about 90km away)
- Gansbaai (about 100km away)
- Hermanus (about 115km away)
16. Stand on the southern-most tip of Africa
A trip to this part of the world is incomplete without the obligatory visit to L’Agulhas – the southernmost tip on the African continent of Africa with its lighthouse, and the Agulhas National Park (about 45km away) Located 170 km further south than Cape Town, L’Agulhas is the southernmost tip of Africa. The L’Agulhas lighthouse has played a vital role in the history of maritime exploration in this area. It was built in 1848 and is now the second oldest lighthouse in South Africa that is still in operation. The design of the building was inspired by the Pharos of Alexandria. It is the only lighthouse museum on the African continent and is well worth a visit. For a small fee you can even climb the 71 steps to the top of the lighthouse. Be warned though, the wooden ladders are even steeper than they are narrow and the viewing platform at the top is almost always buffeted by wind. The lighthouse may not look that tall from below, but standing behind the metal railings up top and gazing towards the South, with nothing but ocean between you and Antarctica, makes you appreciate the amazing view it affords. There’s also the southernmost café and a southernmost fish and chips shop. And of course, the crude stone monument marking the spot where two oceans meet – always a photo opportunity!
17. Go Wine-Tasting
The southern tip of Africa is South Africa’s youngest wine-growing region and one of the most interesting. The cool climate and ever-present ocean winds combine with the sandstone and broken shale in the soils to produce wines of distinction that are being closely watched by wine connoisseurs the world over. In the past decade or so, many different wineries have sprung up in the area. Most are situated near Elim, but there are a few in and around Napier, while Gansbaai and L’Agulhas also have wineries. The region is particularly suited to the production of Sauvignon Blanc but the unique terroir means that most traditional varietals taste fresh and different when they’re grown in the Strandveld. In addition to the excellent wines, a number of farms have also opened restaurants.
Wineries near Arniston
- Black Oystercatcher Wines (Blackoystercatcher.co.za)
- Strandveld Vineyards (Strandveld.co.za)
- Zoetendal Wine Farm (Zoetendalwinefarm.co.za)
- The Berrio (Theberrio.co.za)
18. Enjoy a massage
After experiencing all the activities in Arniston, you may want to just lie down for a while… and what better place to do that than with a massage or a facial in the gorgeous Gingko Spa located at the Arniston Spa Hotel. They have a hydrotherapy bath, Turkish steam room and saunas, and offer everything from manicures and pedicures to massages, facials and body treatments. We enjoying a couples sauna (pre-booked) and then I spent an afternoon of indulgence – ideal mommy “me time”.
Over the past year, many of us have realised that, in order to survive this pandemic with our mental health intact, we need to seek out extraordinary things in the everyday. This enforced focus on the everyday has shifted our gaze and caused us to change the way we see and explore the world. In fact, this new necessity might even change the way we travel for a long time to come… I hope it does!