Cape Town Part 4: Sea Point

One of the nice benefits of our slow travel philosophy is that we immerse ourselves more deeply into an area than if we were just passing through.  Our three months in Cape Town allowed us to explore the city fully and discover things that even our local friends were unaware of.IMG_8552After our last apartment in the “Mother City,” on Bree Street, we moved to the Sea Point neighborhood and as its name suggests, it hugs the coastline under Signal Hill and Lion’s Head Mountain.  Finding the ideal apartment for our last 30 days in Cape Town required a bit of detective work on our part though.  One of the draw backs of using Airbnb is that it does not provide the specific address of a property until you actually book it.  So, while the interior photos of a listing might be charming, its exact location could be anywhere within a five-block radius of a dot on the map, unless the host gives hints in the apartment description.IMG_1475 In Sea Point this could mean on the water or nowhere near it.  But with a little sleuthing regarding our final three choices, we were able to determine which one was right on the waterfront.  Our reconnaissance of the neighborhood paid off and we booked a sixth-floor one-bedroom apartment with a terrace, that had an ocean view for dramatic sunsets and inland views of the paragliders launching from Signal Hill. IMG_1596It was the perfect location across from the Sea Point promenade.  The lively Mojo Market, with numerous food stalls and live music seven nights a week, was just around the corner.  Here we enjoyed the best fresh oysters and mussels in sauce at The Mussel Monger & Oyster Bar while sipping South African wine or local craft beers as the nightly band played.IMG_2283It’s actually possible to walk along the promenade from the V&A Waterfront all the way to the Camps Bay Beach.  It’s a little over six miles in length, but it’s a popular stretch of sidewalk, which locals call the Prom.

It follows the coast past the iconic Cape Town Stadium, Green Point Lighthouse, multiple art installations and the Sea Point Pavilion Swimming Pools before passing the Clifton beaches and ending by the tidal pool in Camps Bay.

With surf crashing against the shore on one side and views of Signal Hill and Lion’s Head on the other it’s a dramatic and visually rewarding pathway that’s a destination for walkers, joggers, bicyclists and folks that just want to chill by the ocean.  There are numerous places to rest and grab some food along the way.  Timing our days to watch ships sailing into a setting sun or surfers catching the last waves of the day as the sun sank and set Camps Bay aglow were highlights of our time in Sea Point.IMG_0539Weather permitting, paragliders seemed to launch in rapid succession all day long from Signal Hill, first riding the thermals along the ridge towards Lion’s Head before turning back and gracefully spiraling down over the rooftops of Sea Point to land in a grassy park next to the promenade.IMG_2614We transitioned easily into our new neighborhood, finding three grocery stores and Bentley’s Bread, probably the best artisanal bakery in Cape Town, within easy walking distance on Main Road.  With Bentley’s, the key was to go early; otherwise we’d miss out on their sumptuous daily specials which would always sell out quickly.IMG_8657Cape Town artists will paint anywhere and the walls of the underground parking garage at the Pick ‘n Pay – Sea Point were the perfect canvases for some incredibly talented street muralists.  Sadly, we don’t think enough folks see these hidden works of art.

There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the abundance of stunning coastline around Cape Town.  And there’s definitely a shortage of scenic pullover spots, but we felt compelled to stop at each one we passed on day trips to Hout Bay, Chapman’s Peak, Simon’s Town and the Cape of Good Hope.  The views are just that awesome.  One of the best things about Cape Town is that there are so many interesting activities and places to go within an hour or two of the city.IMG_6562In Hout Bay, time flew by at the World of Birds Wildlife Sanctuary & Monkey Park where we spent a fantastic morning observing a wide variety of South African birds. If you are a bird photographer this is a wonderful place to hone your skills.

Afterwards we cruised cautiously along the breathtakingly twisting and beautiful Chapman’s Peak Drive, a toll road, before heading for dinner at one of the celebrated weekend markets on the other side of Hout Bay.IMG_6581Bay Harbour Market is a vibrant and lively mix of food stalls, shops, artists and musicians under the roof of what was once a fish factory, across from the harbor.

For the longest time the Cape of Good Hope was thought to be the African continent’s farthest point south.  That distinction belongs to Cape Agulhas, 136 miles to the east.  Feared by ancient sailors for the turbulent seas that surround it, the allure of this dramatic spit of cliff-faced peninsula jutting into the ocean still stands.  Entering the park, it’s a beautiful drive through a rolling fynbos landscape that hides a small number of elands, zebras, and ostriches, to the lighthouse that commands the cape’s point at 860 feet above sea level.

From the parking lot we took the Flying Dutchman, a funicular named after a 1680 shipwreck, to its upper station where a final set of steep stairs met us.  It took every ounce of our strength to plow through the roaring winds that ripped around us, but it was worthwhile for the views at the top. IMG_6839The wind was so strong it made it impossible to hold the camera steady.  We soaked in the views as long as we could before the buffeting winds forced our retreat.  Sitting outside at the snack bar we were astonished to witness a baboon snatch an ice-cream cone from a young boy and then gobble it up with great delight.IMG_6870We revisited the Simon’s Town area several times, because to see all the spots that interested us required more than one day.  The big draw to Simon’s Town was the Boulders Penguin Colony.  This is a restricted reserve where visitors must stay on the boardwalk in the viewing areas. Our timing was perfect as penguin chicks had recently hatched and could be seen at the nests snuggling against their parents for warmth.  The beach was full of activity, with different groups of penguins doing their best Charlie Chaplin struts into or out of the turquoise waters of the bay.

The boulders along the coastline here create beautiful seascapes and secluded coves where smaller colonies of penguins live.IMG_5875One morning in late July we opted to try a whale watching tour again, this time from the Simon’s Town waterfront, hoping to see some tail slapping or breaching action that was elusive in Hermanus earlier.  Alas, we only viewed one tail slap on this trip.  As much as the tour operators want you to believe July is a good month for viewing whales, based on our disappointing experiences we’d suggest waiting till later in August or September for more certainty when larger whale pods return to the waters of False Bay.  But it was a smooth day at sea, cruising along a dramatic coast and we did get to view a large colony of sea lions on some offshore rocks.

Most of the waterfront in town is devoted to Naval Base Simon’s Town which is the South African Navy’s largest base. The country’s frigate and submarine fleets sail from this port and it also serves as a training base for navy deep sea divers.  Surrounding the pier from which the tour boats depart are several restaurants, with outside dining that overlooks the water. At the end of the pier there is a commemorative statue to the South African Navy “Standby Diver,” a rescue diver that keeps watch over those in the water.

In the small plaza above the restaurants there is an interesting sculpture of a dog, Able Seaman Just Nuisance, a beloved Great Dane and the only canine “to be officially enlisted in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy” during WWII.  Sailors gave him the name Nuisance because he used to block the gangplanks to the ships.  Surprisingly, his grave on the mountain above Simon’s Town, at the old SAN Signal School, is marked on Google Maps.  The drive there offers some impressive views of the coast.

Several of the best seafood dinners we had in South Africa were at the Harbour House in Kalk Bay.  A couple we met at the Bastille Day Festival in Franschhoek gave us this tip and they were right on target with this recommendation.  Located dramatically on the edge of the ocean, great waves crashed against the rocks under the restaurant and the spray reached the windows of the dining room on the second floor.  The seafood was excellent with a myriad of complex flavoring that was truly delicious, and which encouraged us to return a second time later in the month.

Dozens of colorful fishing trawlers lined the piers of the working harbor, just outside the restaurant.  And dockside fish mongers had an eager audience of very large, well fed sea lions waiting for scraps to be thrown their way.

Itching to see more of the Western Cape, early one morning we embarked on the two-hour drive to Paternoster and the Cape Columbine Lighthouse.  But first we had to detour to Sunset Beach for an iconic view of the city.IMG_4437Once outside of Cape Town the R27 cut a desolate track through a rolling landscape of open fynbos with scarcely a tree to be seen.  Every so often the head of an antelope or ostrich could be seen emerging above the bushes on either side of the road.  The heather clad landscape eventually gave way to pastureland speckled with sheep and wheat fields.IMG_5533Paternoster is one of the Western Cape’s oldest fishing villages, dating from the early 1800s, and is said to have gotten its name from Portuguese sailors who evoked the Lord’s Prayer to save themselves from shipwreck off its coast.  The area was first explored when Vasco da Gama landed nearby in Helena Bay, in 1497.  By then the area had been inhabited by the indigenous Khoisan for thousands of years.  Hunter-gatherers, they harvested dune spinach, an local vegetable, from the beaches, and shellfish from the area waters, and they left behind middens that have been estimated to be 3,000-4,000 years old.  The harvesting of the ocean’s bounty continues, with fishermen still launching their small boats into the sea from the beach and returning with fish and lobsters.  As you pull into the village it’s not unusual to see fishermen selling their day’s catch from five- gallon buckets at the town’s intersections, where they hoist live lobsters aloft and yell “kry hier kreef!”, Afrikaans for “get some lobster here.”  Aside from the picturesque whitewashed and thatched roofed fisherman’s cottages along a white sand beach dotted with boulders, there’s not much to this sleepy fishing village, except for some reportedly excellent seafood restaurants that were unfortunately closed the winter day we visited.IMG_5494A short way out of town we followed a dirt road to the Cape Columbine Lighthouse.  Built in 1936, on an outcropping of boulders called Castle Rock, it’s one of the last manned lighthouses in South Africa.  “Seniors are free,” the lighthouse keeper, a senior himself, announced, as he pointed us to a set of stairs that eventually led to a very tall, steep wooden ladder.  The panoramic view from the top was brilliant and, as expected, breathtaking.  Getting down was a little more challenging than getting up.  It was a kind of “make it or break every bone in your body if you don’t” situation.  We’ve found in our travels around the world that folks in other countries can do all sorts of risky things, that in the states wouldn’t be allowed for safety concerns.  Overseas it’s all about being responsible for your own safety.  “See you at the bottom,” Donna said as she agilely maneuvered on to the ladder.  “One way or another,” I grimaced in response.  For me, with a fearful respect for height, it was all about that first step down.

There was a wonderful remote campground on the ocean’s edge at the end of the dirt track in Birthday Bay that’s popular with folks overlanding across Africa.  Signs of early spring were beginning to show with colorful wildflowers dotting the dunes.

We finished the day in Saldanha with a late lunch on the water at the Blue Bay Lodge and a walk around its gardens and a visit to the Hoedjieskop Museum, a small cultural museum with an interesting display of photographs and memorabilia from the surrounding coastal fishing communities explaining the area’s history.

The setting sun filled our rear-view mirror and cast a warm glow across the fynbos as we headed home to Cape Town.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

 

 

 

 

Olon – A Beach Paradise – Head Here Before it’s too Late!

IMG_0157Our quest for eternal Spring-like weather has brought us to Olon, a rustic beach town on Ecuador’s southern Pacific coast with a wide, flat sandy beach that stretches for nearly five miles without a high-rise to been seen. Think San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua fifteen years ago, before it was discovered, or Costa Rica thirty years before it became a top tourist destination.

It’s ideal for long solitary walks along the beach collecting shells, especially near the Mirador del Olon cliffs that rise dramatically from the ocean.  On the other end of town, the Rio Olon runs through a nature preserve, where we have entertained ourselves photographing various birds and listening to their calls. It’s amazing how small birds seem to have such loud songs that carry for a long distance.  The river doesn’t have enough flow to reach the sea this time of year and is separated from it by a berm of sand, but one night after a heavy rain the river breached the sand dune and carved its way into the sea.

Change is coming slowly to Olon. The roads in town were only bricked three years ago. So, there is still a wonderful, authentic undeveloped rawness to the town, with a small number of hotels and surf schools mixed in amongst local homes, many in an unfinished state.

It’s off season now in October, mostly cloudy with a light mist every morning, but the water is still warm, perfect conditions for the handful of surfers and us. Although the waves can reach 12ft at times, beginning surfers prefer the less crowded, smaller wave conditions in Olon over those of Montañita, which can be more treacherous.

The seafood cabanas along the beach are only open on the weekend this time of year, when it seems to get slightly busier. Our favorite is the last one down by the fishing boats, Mar del Sol, run by Rosa.  You can’t beat her stuffed calamari, ceviche or various seafood salads.

At times teams of fishermen can still be seen setting seine nets from the shore and hauling their catch in by hand. Other fishermen fight the waves to launch skiffs through the rough surf from the beach.

Sometimes the beach is a corridor of commerce with freshly caught fish being delivered by motorcycle from small villages further up the coast. Fathers can be seen taking their kids to school on the handlebars of their motorcycles, gently splashing through the incoming tide, hurrying to get there.  Outside of the small school every morning it’s like New York’s Times Square for ten minutes, with all the coming and going of motorbikes.  One morning a parade of open bed, stake trucks carrying school children dressed in different team colors honked and cheered its way, through town, to the school for a day of field activities.  Every evening there is a well-attended, robust soccer game on the beach. Just imagine the memories these kids will have!  Outside our hotel, a group of young men play marbles in the dirt road under a dim streetlight, using the light from their cell phones to help find stray ones hidden in the foliage along the road. In the morning we passed our neighbor, singing softly to herself as she gardened.

Our budget friendly and relaxing short-term rental at Rincon d’Olon included a very nice breakfast on the rooftop terrace prepared by the gregarious innkeeper, Chris.  He emigrated from the Netherlands to Ecuador six years ago after volunteering in the Andes and vacationing on the coast.  He is a great source of information for all things local and arranged several transfers and an excursion for us.

By ten o’clock each evening the streets are empty.  From our apartment at night we can hear the waves crashing onto the beach, along with roosters crowing – they start at one in the morning, seemingly on a campaign to discourage tourism – and dogs barking to each other. There is no traffic in this tiny four block square village.  Everyone walks in the middle of the road, roosters, dogs and cats included.  Restaurant owners and musicians will wave to you if they remember your visit from the day before.  Every day pushcart vendors wheel their offerings of fruit, eggs, cheese, clothing, kitchen supplies, etc. through town, each peddler singing out a different sales pitch. Sometimes the loudspeakers around the usually sleepy plaza blare: community news, music or appeals for donations to help a family pay funeral expenses.  One Saturday, families gathered to pay their respects at a memorial service on the plaza.  Later, the pallbearers hoisted the casket onto their shoulders, and solemnly carried it through town to the cemetery. A small marching band followed the coffin, playing El Condor Pasa, If I Could, by Simon and Garfunkle.

For a change of scenery, we took a day cruise out of Puerto Lopez to Isla de la Plata, an uninhabited island twenty-three miles off the coast, which is part of Machalilla National Park.  It is also referred to as the “budget Galapagos,” where we had a chance to see nesting blue-footed boobies and frigate birds.   Fifty dollars per person included shuttle transportation, boat ride, snorkeling gear, lunch, a three-hour hike with a licensed guide, and most importantly, the chance to see humpback whales. IMG_7650 Puerto Lopez hosts the largest fishing fleet on this part of the Ecuadorian coast.  Lacking a protected harbor, all the fishing boats beach on the shoreline to unload their fresh catch.  It is a hectic scene of never-ending activity that is reminiscent of an earlier era.

At Olon’s outdoor fish market, vendors sell a wonderful selection of fresh seafood caught locally at stalls set up along Ruta del Spondylus, named after a thorny shell used by the Incas in religious ceremonies.  The stalls are closed by noon, so we try to get there early for the best choices.  Two kilos of fresh large shrimp set us back six dollars.  After dark small tiendas fire up their street-side charcoal grills, offering chicken, pork or sausage shish-kababs to go, or you can stay and eat at tables set up in the street.  Several doors down from our hotel, at a little house with a barbeque made from an old fifty-gallon oil drum, two plates of fresh grilled fish with a beer cost five dollars for dinner.

For a tiny place, this village also has a surprising number of refined, small niche eateries, most of them created by foreign surfers, (Swedish, Dutch, Brazilian, Argentinian, Venezuelan, Austrian, Russian) who fell in love with the waves here and never left. Wonderful and inexpensive empanadas ($1.00) along with the best papas fritas (French fries) can be consumed at Bahio which offers Argentinian fast food.  Next door, La Churreria has good coffee and desserts which rival any French bakery in Paris.  For more refined though still very casual dining, try the eclectic menus at Momo or Cotinga’s across the main road.  Cotinga’s might be the only restaurant in Ecuador where you can get home-made borscht accompanied by a shot of vodka, prepared by Olga, a Russian expat.

The only thing Olon really needs is a French inspired chef whose specialty is Coq au Vin.  Roosters, you’ve been warned!

Till later,

Craig & Donna