A recent fatal shark attack off Fish Hoek Beach shows how sharks are posing an increasing danger on the False Bay side of Cape Town. Don't let that put you off, it really is a great place to hang out
The Great White Shark
During my husband's childhood family holidays to Cape Town, sharks were completely unknown. Whether visiting Fish Hoek beach on the warmer False Bay side, or braving the chilly Atlantic breakers at Clifton, he hadn't a fear in the world. Swimmers around Durban may have been protected by shark nets, but in the Western Cape there was absolutely no need.
But alas, they have arrived, and I wonder why, every time I am about to embark on a journey to Cape Town, another fatal shark attack hits the international news? There is nothing I enjoy more than swimming in the ocean, but with sharks around I am easily intimidated. Fortunately False Bay is full of great places to visit, and safe places to swim.
Two great ways to get to False Bay
Take the M4 out of the city and follow Boyes Drive, for panoramic views over the Indian ocean from the top of the pass. Below lies the colourful harbour of Kalk Bay, whilst the vast wave swept sands of Muizenberg extend northwards, dotted with tiny "Lowry like" figures. South towards Cape Point, lies the popular beach of Fish Hoek and beyond, the naval base of Simon's Town.
You can also take a spectacular train journey between Cape Town and Simon's Town. Lasting just over an hour, the train follows the coast between Muizenberg, Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek and James Town, before reaching its destination. Buy a metro plus (first class) all day ticket for 25 Rand, and hop on and off as you wish 9www.capemetrorail.co.za). It is probably best to avoid travelling on this train at night.
On Boyes Drive you probably noticed some people with binoculars trained on the sea. They are official shark spotters. Equipped with a radio, they send messages down to the beach, so swimmers can be warned with flags and sirens. On the day of the most recent tragedy in January 2010, a black flag was flying. That meant that visibility was too poor to spot sharks. Green is just fine; it means visibility is good but no sharks have been spotted. If you see a white flag with a black shark, don't linger...get out of the water!
People are swimming again from the beaches around False Bay, while shark spotters continue their vigilance. But I shall be a little choosy where I swim.
Places to visit
I just love this little fishing port, with its colourful fishing boats, and ever-hopeful seals turning somersaults in the water. It‘s infinitely more personal than Cape Town's vast modern waterfront. Some of the day's catch is displayed along the harbour walls. Try negotiating the price of some yellow-tail, kingklip or snoek. It will be the freshest fish you have ever eaten. If you're staying in a hotel, then ask a nearby filleter to clean it (for a small fee) and have a braai. There are free barbecue sites at Silvermine and Tokai Forest..
Kalk Bay was once reserved as an area for "coloureds only." Perhaps that's why I prefer this side of Cape Town. Whilst certain beaches on the Atlantic side still retain something of that old feeling of white privilege, along False Bay, the new "Rainbow Nation" is very much in evidence.
With its long history as a whaling and fishing port, it's no surprise that Kalk Bay is full of antique shops. It’s great fun rifling through the bric a brac at The Railway House (23 Main Road) or at Quagga Trading (83 Main Road) for holiday souvenirs with a difference. The village also offers art galleries and craft stores, as well as some of the most exciting places to eat in Cape Town (see below).
Jamestown Tidal Pool
Jamestown is just north of Kalk Bay. Its multi-coloured wooden bathing huts feature on many postcards. I shall be heading here along with lots of Cape Town families to swim in its large emerald green tidal pool...not a shark in sight!
Fish Hoek lies a little further south. It’s a busy town, but worth a visit for the footpath that runs around the headland. If you are there in winter (July - November) it provides a fine grandstand for viewing the Southern Right whales. There are information boards and benches along the track. Given that quite a few people spotted a shark from this path, not long after the fatality, I won't be swimming from Fish Hoek's busy beach. Yes, I know the odds are very small, but there are other places to swim.
An elegant town, sheltering in the southern curve of False Bay, this natural harbour was once a British naval base. Nowadays young men and women dazzle everyone in their smart white South African naval uniforms. There is a lovely sheltered bay here for swimming and families like to spread out over the grassy headland. This is where I come to buy African curios. Look out for beautiful soap stone carvings from Zimbabwe. There is a fine museum housed in the beautiful Residency, admission 5 Rand. It's also a great place to have a drink at one of the bars overlooking the busy harbour, although food here is not great.
I shall certainly be heading here with my swimming costume. People generally visit Boulder’s Bay to view the colony of more than 2,000 African penguins from specially constructed boardwalks. Once known as "jackass" penguins because of their bray, I like to think that they congregate here because the giant boulders afford excellent protection from sharks, although I think the abundance of fish may have something to do with it. I would walk beyond the crowded viewing area to where tiny bays of white sand make an ideal spot to while away the day in the shade of giant rocks. Swimming here does feel safe, even if the penguins crowd you in as the tide rises. This area is now part of Cape Peninsula National Park, and admission is 15 Rand (www.sanparks.co.za).
Shark encounters of the safe kind
Meeting a shark face to face in the water may sound terrifying, but some people actually do this for pleasure; protected by a cage of course. Needless to say I do not personally recommend this. Many people believe that the chum thrown out to attract sharks is causing Cape Town' s shark problem. A day trip costs around 900 Rand (www.greatwhitesharkdiving.co.za).
Other marine life
You can also see Great White Sharks in their winter hunting ground, by taking a boat trip from Simon's town to "Seal Island". You will almost certainly spot Southern Right Whales too.
Fur Seals, dolphins, Humpback and Bryde Whales can be seen all year round.
This is something I DO RECOMMEND. There is nothing more inspiring or humbling than seeing a whale close to. Boat trip costs 750/500 Rand (www.boatcompany.co.za).
Where to eat
I have written in earlier guides about the wonderful Cape Town cuisine. Naturally False Bay is especially good for locally caught fish. Here are some places I have enjoyed:
Harbour House Restaurant (Kalk Bay Harbour; 021 788-41330) - we actually felt the sea spray while eating here. It's a great spot. I loved my Mozambiquan prawns. An average three course meal costs 240 Rand.
Olympia Cafe and Deli (134 Main Road, Kalk Bay; 021 788-6396) - you'll wonder what all the fuss is about when you first hit this bohemian café, but once you've eaten you'll definitely return. Try the fritata and home-baked croissants for a relaxed breakfast and, if you've got room, the yoghurt with wild honey. Prices are very reasonable.
The Black Marlin (Miller's Point, Simon's Town; 021 786-1621) - another great spot for sea food, and for whale watching too in season. I enjoyed some excellent local mussels here. An average three course meal costs 210 Rand.
The Cellars at Hohenort is surrounded by beautiful gardens in the Constantia Valley. It's a very peaceful and gracious place to stay, and if you have a meal at the restaurant you will get the "full treatment". A three course dinner in the beautiful Greenhouse Restaurant costs from c250 Rand. The service is impeccable, but the waiting staff are so friendly that it's very relaxed.
Rooms with a view
The Simon's Town Quayside Hotel looks out over the busy harbour, with the mountains of Cape Agulhas beyond. Wake up to sunrise over the ocean.
Whale View Manor Guest House, just outside Simon's Town, is situated along my favourite stretch of coast, where white sandy coves nestle between huge boulders. There is even a secluded beach beneath the house (double rooms from R1050 with breakfast).
The Steenberg Hotel on the Steenberg wine estate is situated near the beginning of Boyes Drive. This is an exclusive place to stay, with a gracious old time feel. Indulge yourself in the spa, or play 18 holes on the adjacent golf course. Try one of their very fine wines with dinner (double rooms from R2050)
You can also taste Steenburg wines at the winery at the top of the estate, alongside the exciting new "Bistro sixteen82". Be sure to book a table if you are eating, as it is all the rage amongst Capetonians