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The yin and yang of the Western Cape East Coast

ASMALLWORLD

If you’re setting off from Cape Town through South Africa’s famous Garden Route, stretch your trip beyond Knysna to Plettenberg Bay. These two seaboard towns are the yin and yang of the Western Cape East Coast. Plettenberg Bay is wide, ambitious and blingy, while Knysna is contained and vintagey, and they are best appreciated as a pair. Here are the contrasting must-sees in Plettenberg Bay and Knysna.

Plettenberg Bay – the yin

Being built on a hillside, Plettenberg Bay treats visitors to an amphitheatre view of the ocean, Keurbooms Lagoon and Tsitsikamma mountain range, regardless of where you’re located. It’s a mecca for the outdoorsy, for watersport nuts and mountain hikers, hence its testosterone vibe. The town is affluent, mirroring the tastes of its regular December holidaymakers from Johannesburg, South Africa’s pulsating economic hub up north. The beaches are the drawcard of Plettenberg Bay - Central Beach for sun worshippers and families, Robberg Beach for walkers and runners, and Lookout Beach for surfers and paddlers. Then there are a variety of nature experiences to enjoy – Tsitsikamma Forest, Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary, Junkana Wildlife Sanctuary and Birds of Eden, the largest free-flight aviary in the world.

A birds-eye view from Sky Villa

Meander up a tree-lined road to Sky Villa boutique hotel, once a privately owned mansion with the best views of Plettenberg Bay and now a hotel with the best view of a little piece of heaven. Take in the artfully rendered metal sculptures themed on birds, the work of the owner, and the spectacular double spiral staircase lined with wrought iron balustrades. Sky Villa once belonged to a Breaking Bad-style pharmacist called Bernard Rens, who went broke and vanished, leaving behind his home that once housed a bad lab and an armoury in what is now the wine cellar. It all stirs imaginings of Rens surveying his turf from his birds-eye balcony overlooking the pool, now fringed by seating snuggeries on wooden decks.

Hike the trails of Robberg Nature Reserve

The Robberg Nature Reserve is a World Heritage Site and its three hiking trails, varying at 2km, 4km and 11km, circuit the Robberg peninsula with its breathtaking sights of ocean, beach and mountain. The rocks here date back 120 million years, and you will find evidence of Stone Age inhabitation in some of the caves dotted along the trails. Try and spot the dassies (rock rabbits) as you walk, and watch out for the Cape fur seals or Cape clawless otters lazing on the rocky outcrops below. Robberg is also an excellent spot for whale and dolphin spotting. Other animals you might see are mongoose, grey buck and duiker (antelope native to sub-Saharan Africa). If you’re a birder, look for Cape Robins, Cape white-eyes, orange-breasted Sunbirds and red-winged starlings, to name just a few.

Hang with Hobie Beach hipsters

Take a swim or body surf the waves at Hobie Beach, where you’ll find Plettenberg Bay’s hipster set. The best place to set up for the day is The Bungalow restaurant & bar, a boho-chic haven that features a plunge pool and Sea-viewing decks shaded under indigenous Milkwood trees. On a Friday evening, The Bungalow jives to live music, and you can get a thin-based pizza for a reasonable price. If you’re happy to go nowhere from there, stay in one of The Bungalow’s lovely suites, within earshot of the healing ocean waves. On the rocky, cliff-face side of The Bungalow is a more intimate space with a cosy fire boma area ringed by comfy chairs, a perfect snuggery for winter evenings.

Knysna – the yang

Boldly clinging to its heritage stretching back to 1800’s colonial farmers, Knysna feels like a living museum, prettily perched above its picturesque harbour characterized by the Thesen Islands development, a quaint Legoland of colonial maritime-style homes. Once you’ve crossed the arched causeway onto Thesen Islands, a laidback holiday feeling instantly overcomes you as you wander around the eateries and swanky designer shops dotted around a gentle waterfront. Over weekends, this little seaside town is alive with laid-back locals and tourists browsing its flea markets and craft shops, and whiling the afternoon away in its cosy cafes and bars. The area surrounding the town is a Garden of Eden that includes a lagoon, a protected marine reserve and home to the extraordinary Knysna seahorse and over 200 species of fish.

Stay a night in Knysna’s old power station

The Turbine Boutique Hotel and Spa is one of the coolest hotel concepts you’ll ever experience. This is because the Turbine used to be Knysna’s main power station, so you’re surrounded by massive turbines in the reception area, and on the ground and first floors – massive steel pipes and pillars, vividly painted in reds, blues, greens and oranges, forming the essence of Turbine’s authentic steampunk appeal. All sorts of unusual instruments and contraptions are dotted around the hotel. The rooms are also shaped around its industrial past, with the industrial backdrop of bare bricks and whitewashed walls are softened by playfulness in the décor. Despite the constraints of working within a heritage building, all the rooms feel remarkably spacious and airy. 

Trawl Knysna’s antique stores

For a taste of how life was when Knysna was a settlement of European and British farmers, wander into a few antique shops. Here you’ll find everything from copper milk pails, porcelain ceramics and crystalware to militaria, old nautical instruments and vintage jewellery. For unusual African-crafted furniture, in particular, the stunning hardwood doors carved by Tonga people, visit The Valley Forge, started by Zimbabwean artist Bunny Mentz in 2002. Other fascinating antique experiences can be found at Déjà vu Antiques, Leisure Isle Antiques and Gallery and Pandora Jewelry. It’s easy to get lost browsing around these stores full of yesteryear memorabilia, reminding you of a time when Knysna’s citizens were rugged Dutch farmers, followed by colourful British entrepreneurs.

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