Mossel Bay is known as the seaside town of ‘firsts’. Some 162 000 years ago, the first sign of modern human behaviour was discovered here. In 1488, the first explorers in Southern Africa landed in Mossel Bay, and in 1497 the first barter, or commercial transaction, took place when an ox was traded for a red cap.
Centuries later, the friendliest town in the Western Cape is holding on tight to its title of ‘firsts’ in a much more modern way. It is now home to the longest over-the-ocean zipline in the world, and more fascinating is it’s the only town in the Western Cape that hosts a historical ghost tour. It is also probably one of the most family-friendly places to visit in all of South Africa, and that in itself is a big claim to make, but I stand firmly by this statement.
The tourism model in Mossel Bay is structured around keeping everyone in the family thoroughly entertained. There are very few places you can stay, or activities you can partake in, that don’t consider children of all ages – and this is probably why they are a favourite holiday destination for locals. Affordability and warm seas are a key factor too – they cater to high-end, low-end and everything in-between budgets.
If you are looking at getting the very best out of the mystical town, here is how to do it…
Where to stay:
Pinnacle Point Estate
A treasure trove of discovery awaits you at the point of origin situated at Pinnacle Point Estate. The caves on the property have quite literally changed the course of history. It was previously believed that evolution commenced some 40 000 years ago in Euroasia, but the discovery of 14 vertical layers of sediment at a cave situated at Pinnacle Point changed this overnight. Archaeologists and scientists who have carefully studied the rock now believe first human behaviour dated back as far as 164 000 years ago – thus reshaping history as we know it.
There is something very intriguing about being so close, yet so far, from where it all began – and that is an experience in itself. If you prefer golf over history then this is definitely the place for you. With uninterrupted views of the Indian Ocean from almost every tee, it has earned the title of being one of the most beautiful courses in the world.
You can rent a golf lodge, golf villa or private house through the estate management. It feels like a home away from home, with every creature comfort in a setting unlike anything else in Mossel Bay. Relax at the spa, dine at the clubhouse or catch some rays by the pool, holiday is the key word here.
Betty’s is all about family and love, and love for family. But before I tell you about the exquisite afternoon tea or the colourful people you get to meet there, let me tell you about Shelby. He is a suave gentleman, who has adorned the very same black tuxedo since 1934. All these years later he still turns heads everywhere he goes and rightfully so. Shelby is a meticulously restored vintage Morris, who’s top speed is 40km p/h and is the town’s showstopper. If you want to complete your Betty’s Boutique Hotel experience, for a small fee you can hire Shelby to fetch you. The experience would be incomplete with him.
On arrival you will be greeted by the larger-than-life hosts, Dave and Wendy. Their daughter Daisy runs the kitchen and her husband Lewis is part of the family business too. Every piece of furniture, plate and picture on the wall is attached to a memory that has connected generations in the Clayphan family. Listening to the details of the life they have built together, is intriguing and heartwarming. The hotel is named after Dave’s mom, a woman who clearly left an indelible mark, and instilled the joy of life into her children. As the story unfolds, to the background music of Dave playing the organ, on a hot Spring day on the colourful stoep of the hotel, you are transported back to a time when life was less complicated, and afternoon tea was a celebration – every single day.
Daisy lays before us a High Tea fit for royalty, the aroma from three layers of delectable trays filled with English sandwiches, macarons, lemon sponges, salted chocolate brownies and fluffy scones, both sweet and savoury, fills the air. Tea is served in beautiful mismatched English-patterned crockery which completes the experience.
The hotel rooms are uniquely decorated and fit right into the aesthetic of a bygone era. It is a space to lose yourself for the afternoon, and we did just that.
This piece of the Western Cape caters to every type of holiday-maker, and everything is within a stone’s throw of each other. Garden Route Safari Camp is a 10-minute drive outside the town, tucked next to the Matjiespoort River. Abram and Nanette Knoetze are the hosts, and their nature-loving son Stephan and his fiancé Unelle Snyman are game rangers who will whisk you away into the wilderness on the most memorable drive.
Stephan’s love for animals and nature is bewildering, he has a way with the animals that almost makes him one of them. Lockdown and being in such close proximity with them has catapulted his relationship with them to one of complete trust. He never crosses the line and lives in symbiosis alongside all these wild and wonderful creatures. As we head out on our game drive we are met with a dazzle of zebra, they inspect us from afar then come a little closer to catch a glimpse of us. It is always good to remember that we are the guests here, not them.
There are countless herds of healthy grazers, lanky awkward giraffe and even a dancing ostrich affectionately named Fiona. It is a dream location if you love the bush, and even more appealing that the beach is a few kilometres away. The lion on the reserve are curious, as cats generally area. They stayed at a safe distance while stalking us. Makhulu, the only male in the pride, is a burgeoning specimen. He is but an adolescent even though his size is deceiving. Lions are the most lazy of all mammals, yet oh so photogenic.
The accommodation looks out onto the reserve so you are guaranteed incredible sightings all day. There is a lodge as well as tented camps that cater to guests. It is perfect for a romantic getaway or a family holiday, it is versatile for any type of stay.
Where to eat:
Cafe Gannet is the place where everybody knows your name. Not really. But, if you have ever watched Cheers then you understand there will always be that one place you want to keep returning to because of the warm welcome. And as much as I love their hospitality, I would rate their food higher, which is indeed huge praise. The award-winning restaurant has been run by husband and wife duo Gareth and Janine Shippen since 2008. It has grown into a space that is revered for its scrumptious food by the locals themselves. The Blue Oyster Bar is right next to the Gannet, it is more of a cocktail vibe with melodic music, if that’s what you prefer. Gannet also includes a private dining room and an event space to celebrate special occasions.
You can’t go wrong with anything you order off the menu, but the prawns or the seafood platter are highly recommended. Gareth prides himself on using seasonal vegetables and the freshest fish and ingredients. His genius, however, is all the preparation and the accompaniments that compliment the star ingredient – whether it is a beautifully aged steak or line fish. His understanding of flavours, and how to use them technically and cohesively is impressive.
I have yet to eat at another restaurant with a menu that has considered the fussiest of all eaters – children! An entire menu is dedicated to the little ones and best of all is the side dishes of apple, carrots, fruit or chips. If you don’t get any food in them, you might get the fruit in.
The restaurant is situated in the heart of the town, a stone’s throw away from the beach, so when the sun goes down you get to enjoy mesmerising skies and matching colours in your cocktail that mimic its beauty.
Add a sublime and masterfully curated wine collection to their cuisine, plus beach views, and you have a perfect trifecta. The hospitality sector has suffered immeasurably due to lockdown, it is great to see that there are restaurants who have upped their offering to give guests an unforgettable food experience.
Around the corner from Cafe Gannet is a quaint eatery called Carola Ann’s – which is made from sugar and spice and everything nice. A picnic lunch was delivered to us for an outing and every last morsel was delightful. A picnic for four – with freshly baked ciabatta and mini-quiches, authentic hummus, meatballs, beetroot tzatziki, chicken skewers and a selection of summer fruit – could very well have fed eight.
We laid out a blanket and watched the waves crash nearby while oohhing and aaahhhing over every bite. Freshly-squeezed juices with no preservative washed down our lunch, healthy and great-tasting, not much more you can ask for from a picnic. When it was time to dig in to the dessert box, Carola Ann’s stole my heart with their pastéis de nata or Portuguese custard tarts – sweet, rich and creamy in the centre with a crispy-like shell pastry casing – it is what dessert dreams are made of.
You can expect homemade specialities created with love, and a playful twist, for good measure. If you don’t feel like ordering a picnic then pop into their shop for breakfast or lunch, from the food we experienced, you are definitely guaranteed a great spread.
The only way to describe De Vette Mossel in Grootbrak is to liken it to an authentic Afrikaans seafood braai with family. The concept is centred around sharing a hearty seaside meal, in the sand and on the beach, with music blaring and family around you. It is rooted in Afrikaans culture with good old fashion values and regte kos. There are no frills or whistles, but there is a bell that sounds when the next course is ready. Mussels, prepared two ways, are served at the table and you have to use a mussel shell as a scoop to lather it onto your fresh bread. When the bell rings, there is a rush to the next course which is fresh snoek with a delicious apricot glazing, and golden brown sweet patat – you will never understand a coastal feast until you have devoured snoek and sweet potatoes – this is as wholesome as it gets.
In the centre is a large bonfire that burns throughout the evening and behind it a stage that plays hosts to entertainment some Saturday nights. There is a wedding party on the beach taking pictures, it doubles as a wedding venue too, thanks to the spectacular sea views. It’s clearly a place where memories are created and shared.
The bell sound pierces the air. It’s time for the seafood potjie with savoury rice and salad, then the meat course of denningvleis. The meat is tender and deeply flavourful from being cooked for hours over coals. As the evening moves along the sun turns the sky into pale colours of peach and you are left intoxicated by the food, the salty sweet air, warm weather and groups of people who are basking in it all, just as much as we are.
You can also supplement your meal option with crayfish and calamari, at an additional cost. If not, you finish your meal off with sweet and sticky koeksusters and tea, as you would at a family gathering. It is a place you are unlikely to forget because it is so very different from any other dinner outing. You walk away feeling like you should have eaten less but you’re all the more richer from the thoroughly enjoyable wholesome experience.
What to do:
Mossel Bay Zipline
There are exhilarating zipline adventures, and then there is Mossel Bay zipline. The crème de la crème of them all. Here, you get to leave behind adulthood for a little while, let go of your inhibitions and pretend to be a bird. Patient instructors, who also double as your hype-team, give you a breakdown on how the adventure unfolds. With careful protocols in place, lots of sanitising, and disposable gloves to wear inside the belay gloves for the zipline, they take the necessary precautions to ensure the safety for all visitors.
In the distance a pod of whales are frolicking in the break, the more cheerleaders the better. The ocean looks a little rough but that’s not a concern. We are driven to the point at the top of a nearby cliff. After a short briefing it’s go time. Did I mention that this particular line is the longest over-the-ocean zipline in the world? Another first for Mossel Bay. When you take that final step off the ledge, everything goes quiet and you are left with the wondrous view around you, the waves crashing under you and the air cutting through. It is invigorating and refreshing, a memory you won’t quickly forget.
My children were completely enthralled with the experience and it is highly recommended for those aged eight and above. My only complaint is that is is way too short, I could have gone up and down on that zipline all day, if they permitted me to.
There are two sides to this personable town, in the day it is a playground for the adventurous but when twilight fades into night, a walk through the CBD becomes a historical tour – with tall bulky churches, buildings that still bare open scars of the past and ghosts who linger in the streets. It truly is a tale of two cities, and no one brings it to life quite like Leon van der Walt.
He has devoted countless hours pouring over archives at the Mossel Bay Advertiser to dig up real life stories that reveals a very unique story of the people who lived and worked here decades ago.
Van der Walt’s story-telling keeps you gripped for the entire two hour excursion through the deserted streets, which eventually leads to the graveyard. More than the drab old dates and history of settlers, he takes you to places where real accidents and incidents changed the course of history. There are a few restless spirits that haunt certain homes and if you are a non-believer he might just change your mind.
You really don’t expect to enjoy it has much as you do, my children were completely fascinated and I wasn’t sure at first if this was the right activity to include them. They were even sad when it was over. The glimpses into homes, churches, roads and people is something so usual to experience and yet now it makes me wonder why all towns and cities don’t offer these informative tours.
The blue train that could, and did – bring tons of joy to our short holiday in Mossel Bay. If you haven’t heard about the Diaz Express pay close attention. The three carriage miniature train is how you should explore the Garden Route between Mossel Bay, Groot Brak and Wilderness. It is the most unassuming, yet fascinating, train adventure. Each carriage is playfully named after the three musketeers, adding to the allure of the unknown. It chugs along from an unassuming station in Mossel Bay through winding tracks next to the roadway until it is out of sight and high above the coast – showing you views of the sea and land you are unlikely to sight any other way. As the train glides along slowly the views get better and you are astounded by how much more of this country you are missing out on because you don’t get to be a tourist enough.
At each intersection the train horn blares loudly to warn road users to be aware. Every child along the road gets a wave from the driver, passersby are as fascinated with the train as they are with the people on board. Half way through your journey you can jump off to enjoy a deck lunch or an ice-cold beer at Groot Brak. Or wonder around the area for an hour then make your way back to finish the second-half of the journey. In total the Diaz Express is a four hour activity, it is very relaxing and you can imagine how excited children are to hop about and meander their way through the area.
Pictures: Nidha Narrandes