So much of the Cape's west coast charm is the absence of things. The lack of crowds. The absence of pollution. Traffic jams? Forget about it. In their place you’ll find the unfiltered joy of open horizons. Empty beaches washed by icy Atlantic waves. Rugged shores at Jacobsbaai. Undisturbed, and impossibly blue, waters in Langebaan lagoon. Regionally inspired cooking in Paternoster. The edge of SA may look empty, but there’s plenty to discover if you know where to look.
GO BACK IN TIME
Looking over the scrub-covered plains that define the west coast it’s hard to imagine the forests and lush savannah that existed here five million years ago. But a visit to the West Coast Fossil Park — now a National Heritage Site — is an excellent way to imagine what these hills looked like in the Pliocene era, when sabre-toothed cats, short-necked giraffes and African bears roamed here.
Aside from the informative exhibitions, the park is home to four mountain bike trails and a restaurant. Closer to Cape Town, the !Khwa ttu San Heritage Centre offers an immersive deep-dive into the culture and heritage of the indigenous San people of the Cape.
SPRING IN YOUR STEP
In the spring flower season (August-September) the west coast delivers remarkable wild flower displays just an hour or two north of the Mother City. Near Darling the Tienie Versfeld Wildflower Reserve is famed for its Sandveld flowers and bulbs, or cruise north through the glorious West Coast National Park for a rare chance to explore the Posberg section of the park, which is only open in flower season.
GET YOUR TWITCH ON
Pack your binoculars and bird books, as the west coast is also a haven for all things feathered. The Langebaan lagoon in the West Coast National Park is a designated Ramsar site, meaning it’s a wetland of global importance. Children will especially love the over-water hides that allow you up close to the flocks of flamingos found here.
Rocherpan Nature Reserve offers both wetlands and wild beaches, else head up to Lambert’s Bay and Bird Island. Connected to the mainland by a narrow breakwater, the lookout here offers a front-row seat to the breeding colony of endangered Cape Gannets; one of just six breeding sites worldwide, and the only one accessible to the public.
The wild seas out west are what bring surfers from across the world to Elands Bay. It’s cold and kelpy, but when the swell lines up around Baboon Point it transforms into one of the world’s finest left-hand point breaks. Remember, when the swell is working, be especially polite to the locals in the water.
Paternoster makes an excellent base for overnighting on your West Coast wanders. Strandloper Ocean Boutique Hotel delivers all the five-star luxe you could ask for, with glorious airy suites set just off the beach. If you’d prefer your own private space, the colourfully quirky Sugar Shack is a marvellous option. Much less luxurious, but with plenty of charm, the Sea Shack a few kilometres outside town is the answer to your rustic Robinson Crusoe fantasies. These tiny wooden cabins sit right on the shoreline, with coastal décor courtesy of local artist (and owner) Dianne Heesom-Green.
If there’s one west coast eatery that everyone wants a booking at, it’s Wolfgat. In 2019 it was named the Restaurant of the Year at the World Restaurant Awards, so it's seriously top-notch.
Here, chef Kobus van der Merwe dishes up his memorable interpretation of Strandveld cuisine, much of it foraged wild from the nearby shore and fields. Tables fill up months in advance, so get organised.
But it’s certainly not the only kitchen on the coast worth discovering. Also in Paternoster, Garth Almazan offers superb west coast cuisine at LEETO, and you’d be foolish not to order his unforgettable risotto. Set right on the sands, Gaaitjie is another excellent choice. For more rustic regional cuisine, head for Velddrif’s Bokkom Lane to sample the region’s famous bokkoms; salted mullet (the fishy kind) air-dried in the whipping winds of the west coast. They are, let’s say, an acquired taste.
Need to wash away the taste of those bokkoms? Head for the Darling Brew Tasteroom — in the village of Darling – and order a tasting flight of their excellent range of beers.
A few hardy winemakers are also making the most of the west coast’s unique climate. The Pentz family has been farming here for generations, and at Groote Post their charming tasting room offers a sip and a swirl of this coastal terroir. After a tasting, take a moment to admire the classical Cape Dutch homestead built in 1808.
Listen to a local
Julian Melck (@kingofthewestcoast) stakes his claim on the region. His family has farmed Kersefontein, on the banks of the Berg River near Hopefield, for eight generations since the 1700s and today he still runs cattle, sheep and wheat on the land. When he’s not flying a Cessna up the coast, or regaling guests at his elegant farm guesthouse, that is.
The cellar at Fryer’s Cove is also worth the visit, with this pioneering winery situated in an old crayfish-packing factory right on the quayside of Doringbaai. Stock up on their superb Bamboes Bay sauvignon blanc.
DON'T LEAVE WITHOUT ...
Indulging in a west coast feast at one of the region’s open-air restaurants, famed for their hunger-busting set menus that stretch from fresh fish to farm bread to rock lobster doused in garlic butter.
Though damaged by a fire during lockdown, Die Strandloper in Langebaan is a perennial favourite, and an easy day trip from Cape Town, but the icon is Muisbosskerm outside Lambert’s Bay. The Turner family has welcomed guests here since 1986, and they are justifiably famous for their fresh fish, waterblommetjie bredie and potato-yeast bread slathered with farm butter and hanepootkorrelkonfyt. Arrive hungry.
Hopefield is rather overlooked but it’s wonderful. It’s only an hour from Cape Town but it’s very affordable; full of pretty Edwardian and Victorian houses.
The church is also lovely. I give monthly organ recitals during the Hopefield village market, which usually happens every Saturday.
Then there’s the Plaasmol Padstal, between Hopefield and Langebaanweg air force base. There’s a bar and a restaurant and a farm stall, and we’ll often go there for breakfast.
It’s quite an eccentric spot. They’ve even acquired the Dakota that stood at Ratanga Junction [theme park] and put it up there!