Hermanus: more than just whales

So what to do in Hermanus when the whales have headed south for the summer? RICHARD HOLMES has plenty of suggestions, from gentle scenic strolls to serious gastronomic adventures.

With panoramic views stretching from the Klein River lagoon to the Indian Ocean, the lookout on Rotary Way is a fine place to admire all that Hermanus has to offer. 

There’s a brisk wind whipping across Walker Bay, spring sunshine glinting off the white horses galloping towards Gansbaai and De Kelders. It’s worth braving the wind on the town’s famous cliff path though, for the whales have arrived. Not 50m from shore, waves wash over the back of a large adult, as the telltale V-shaped spout is whisked away by the stiff northerly. 

But come summer the southern right whales that bring so many visitors to Hermanus will – bar a few stragglers – have made their way south to Antarctica, replaced by the holidaymakers that flock to the waters of Walker Bay.

Though it’s whales that have put Hermanus on the map, they’re far from the only attraction of this corner of the Overberg. From art to gastronomy adventure, Hermanus is firmly established as one of South Africa’s bucket-list destinations. And in 2020, with international travel curtailed, there’s never been a better time to go local.

If you’re new in town, the best place to start exploring is on the cliff path, which runs for 12km between New Harbour and the mouth of the Klein River at the far eastern end of Grotto Beach. In season, the path provides the ideal vantage point for whale watching but it’s also a delightful walk year-round. It officially forms part of the Fernkloof Nature Reserve, which conserves a vast tract of pristine mountain fynbos and Afromontane forest in the Klein River Mountains. Stretching from the coast to nearly a kilometre above sea level, the reserve has more than 60km of hiking trails to explore, from family-friendly meanders to longer ascents up to Galpin Hut high above town. The trails are clearly marked, with informative maps available from the visitor centre in the reserve. 

Sea-kayak adventures take you up close to the natural beauty of Walker Bay.

Pedal power

If you’d rather explore on two wheels, stop in at the Wine Village on the R43 into town, where you’ll find maps of the four challenging trails that stretch up into the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. The shortest is a kid-friendly 7km loop, while the longest ‘black’ route is a lung-busting 65km pedal with 1,750m of ascent and plenty of challenging singletrack. Don’t forget to purchase a permit before setting off. 

To be honest though, I’m more a fan of two courses than two wheels. Happily, Hermanus is a fine place for a foodie. 

While the Stellenbosch Winelands certainly claims its share of the limelight when it comes to fine food, Hermanus is no slouch and, in 2019, was inscribed as a Creative City of Gastronomy by the United Nations’ cultural agency Unesco. 

At Burgundy, a few steps from the Old Harbour, the menu covers a wide selection of surf and turf. Look out for daily chalkboard specials that dish up delicious options such as ostrich fillet with port jus and blueberries; a fine foil for a bottle of Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir. At Lizette’s Kitchen, on the road out towards Stanford, you’ll find a contemporary take on pan-Asian cuisine, with a dollop of the Levant thrown in for good measure. 

Need your coffee fix? Tulip Coffee Roasting on Hope Street is your go-to and proved a firm favourite for Hollywood star Penelope Cruz when she was in town. Also leave time to stop in at the zero-waste store Victoria’s Yard, in an adjoining room.

For brunch, try Biga Artisan Bakery Café near the Wine Village, where new owners Johan Smit and Arthur Coulson have injected a burst of energy into this charming space. Fresh breads, pies and pastries are baked on site, while a compact menu is best enjoyed in the courtyard garden out back. Across the road, The Brewery has become the place in town for craft brews and a beer-friendly bite. Though it’s been going since late 2018, brewing began on site only this year. Today, it features a range of delicious beers, pizzas and flame-grilled cuisine that’s well suited to the convivial outdoor beer garden.

Explore the public art of the iconic Cliff Path, a world-famous walking route that will lead you to the oceanfront tables and Spanish-inspired cuisine of Fick’s.

Sip and savour at the seaside

If there’s one restaurant to add to your Overberg bucket list it’s Fick’s, where tables cling to the rocky shore overlooking historic Fick’s Pool. The pool is still open to the public and there’s easy access to the water for a dip between courses.

Under the same owners as Dutchie’s on Grotto Beach, Fick’s offers a creative take on the Spanish pincho, or ‘small plate’ that’s common in the Basque region of northern Spain. The menu is built for sharing, from flash-fried calamari to classic patatas bravas or spiced lamb meatballs in yoghurt spiced with mint and garlic. The selection of Alsace-style flammkuchen presents a lighter, summery alternative to pizza.

As you’d expect from this waterside hangout, the cocktail menu is extensive and with an Aperol spritz in hand you can easily imagine yourself somewhere along the Amalfi Coast. Fick’s doesn’t accept reservations, so get there early if you want a table for lunch or sundowners.

Another fine spot for sundowners is the terrace of The Marine, an iconic hotel in this seaside town that has long been synonymous with gracious service and elegant accommodation. Though the history of the hotel stretches back to 1902, today the property feels light, bright and refreshed. While a night in one of its 40 rooms and suites is the best way to experience this grande dame of the Overberg, non-staying guests are welcome to enjoy afternoon tea and cocktails in the Sun Lounge or book a table for dinner in The Pavilion, where terrace tables offer stunning sea views.

Take a dip

Just below The Marine is one of the best swimming spots along this coastline. At low tide the sea wall of The Marine tidal pool – open to the public – keeps the waves at bay, with a shingle beach and calm waters that make it ideal for kids.

Even though the famed cliff path meanders along dramatic rocky shorelines, Hermanus boasts its fair share of idyllic beaches. The cove at Voëlklip feels like a local secret, even if the car park throngs in summer. Low tide is best, when there’s a bit more sand to spread out on. Otherwise head east to Grotto Beach, one of three – along with Kleinmond and Hawston – on this stretch of coastline to win coveted Blue Flag status. 

If the wind is up and the beach is off limits, there’s plenty of culture to soak up instead. Hermanus boasts more than a dozen art galleries, with the likes of Rossouw Modern, Walker Bay Modern and the Geta Finlayson Studio all worth a wander. Taking a leaf from Cape Town’s inner-city art scene, the ‘First Fridays’ initiative sees art galleries stay open late and includes wine tastings and canapés.

My favourite art exhibition is found not in a chic gallery, though, but out in the wind and sun. At Gearing’s Point, overlooking the picturesque Old Harbour, the Sculpture on the Cliffs exhibition is a project of the annual FynArts Festival. Curated this year by artist Gavin Younge on the theme ‘Vertical Animal’, it features a dozen works by some of the most respected sculptors in the country: the likes of Guy du Toit, Jaco Sieberhagen and David Griessel.

Out at sea, Walker Bay is quiet again on the cetacean front but nobody here seems to mind. There’s so much more to this seaside escape. 

Head to market

The Hermanus Country Market is a weekly highlight in town, with dozens of vendors setting up shop at the Hermanus Cricket Club on Saturday mornings. You’ll find fresh produce, jewellery, clothing and artworks for sale, with a range of kid-friendly activities to keep young ones entertained.