The adage “Do as the locals do” is a sensible way to travel abroad without embarrassing yourself. In many ways, it’s sound advice, particularly when it comes to finding good food that’s not overpriced or discovering the pulse of an unfamiliar place.

Locals know the beaches that aren’t overcrowded and which roads to take when the traffic hits a standstill. They also know the best places to go for a proper summer holiday. In South Africa, that often means descending on the stunning coastal towns that dot our shores.

Image: Unsplash | Tobias Reich

Towns swell with up-country visitors eager to pack in enough sun and sand to last them a year. These towns often have good restaurants and plenty of activities on offer for families such as taking boats up the river, golfing, good waves, hiking and more adventurous activities too.

In South Africa, these are the destinations locals flock to over the summer:

1. Hermanus

Image: Getty Images | SamChad

This dynamic town has it all, so much so that I sometimes think of it as a mini Cape Town. It has beaches, mountains, wine farms, great restaurants, fantastic markets, a massive lagoon and all the incredible and fun activities that come with them. Hermanus is most famous for its fantastic whale watching but there’s so much more to this slice of town wedged between an ocean and mountain. Take its cliff path, for example. It hugs the coastline and offers a 12km path for walkers and hikers alike with many benches to sit and watch the whales (June to November) or to enjoy ocean views.

The town exudes a laid-back atmosphere, with art galleries, boutique shops, and seafood restaurants hugging the shoreline. Outdoor enthusiasts can explore the fynbos-covered landscapes and indulge in activities like shark cage diving. The nearby Hemel-en-Aarde wine valley is home to a string of world-class vineyards with Creation Wines recently named the fourth best vineyard in the world in a prestigious competition.

2. Knysna

With a lagoon framed by two towering headlands and hills that boast thick indigenous forests, the nature surrounding Knysna helps it cast its spell. Famous for its secretive forest elephants, oyster festival and stunning ocean estuary, Knysna is a much-loved destination for many South Africans.

Image: Getty Images | Nattrass

Nestled along South Africa’s iconic Garden Route, Knysna’s waterfront, while bustling, draws in hordes of tourists in season, but the congestion is worth it. Authentic seafood options dot the streets, while laidback open-air restaurants are the norm. Outdoor activities abound, from hiking trails to water adventures, but popularity sometimes means sharing the experience with fellow travellers. With its inviting climate and diverse offerings, Knysna beckons travellers seeking a harmonious blend of tranquillity and exploration.

3. Plettenberg Bay

Just a short drive up the coast from Knysna lies an equally popular and beautiful destination – Plettenberg Bay. During the 15th century, Plettenberg Bay was then named Bahia Formosa (‘Beautiful Bay’) by Portuguese navigator and cartographer, Manuel de Mesquita Ptrestrélo (Christopher Columbus married into this famous family of seafarers). Not much has changed since then with regards to its beauty, although a small town has sprung up that is growing each year.

Image: Getty Images

Its pristine beaches, like Robberg and Keurbooms, allure sun-seekers, while lush indigenous forests provide a serene escape. The town exudes a relaxed coastal vibe, offering a blend of upscale resorts and budget-friendly accommodations. Plett, as locals call it, hosts a vibrant arts and culture scene, with galleries and events showcasing local talent. Adventure enthusiasts find satisfaction in activities like kayaking, hiking, and wildlife encounters.

4. St. Francis Bay

We continue our road trip up the coast and get to the unique and iconic holiday destination of St. Francis Bay. What sets this otherwise quiet town apart is that many of the thatched-roof houses look out over an intricate canal system reminiscent of Venice. The nearby Cape St. Francis has some world-class beaches kissed by the Indian Ocean, which cater to both surf enthusiasts, drawn to the legendary Bruce’s Beauties surf break, and those seeking sun-soaked tranquillity. Jeffrey’s Bay, a short drive away, is known around the world for its fantastic waves – famously appearing in the iconic surf movie Endless Summer.

Image: Getty Images

The village centre is a bustling hub adorned with boutique shops, galleries, and gourmet eateries, offering a delightful fusion of local and international flavours. The maritime atmosphere is enhanced by the harbour’s vibrant energy and the distinct, charming architecture. For those seeking a refined coastal experience, St. Francis Bay delivers a memorable blend of leisure, water activities, and distinctive charm, creating an idyllic retreat on the South African coast.

5. Drakensberg

And now for something completely different and utterly magnificent – the Drakensberg mountain range in the east of South Africa. This South African gem, a sanctuary for nature enthusiasts, beckons with rolling emerald hills, dramatic cliffs, and cascading waterfalls. The warm summer months paint the region in a vibrant palette, coaxing wildflowers to bloom along its hiking trails. The Drakensberg, adorned with UNESCO-listed peaks, invites adventurers to explore its panoramic vistas, where every crest reveals a new masterpiece of rugged beauty.

Image: Unsplash | Danni Coughlan

As the sun bathes the mountain range in golden hues, outdoor pursuits abound— from exhilarating hikes to serene horseback rides. The Berg, as locals affectionately call it, becomes a haven for birdwatchers, with its skies hosting a kaleidoscope of feathered wonders. Quaint villages dotted along the foothills offer a glimpse into local culture, while charming guesthouses and lodges provide a cosy retreat after days of exploration.

6. Umhlanga

Home to the warmest waters of all the destinations on this list, Umhlanga is a seaside destination found on the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal. This South African favourite, nestled along the Indian Ocean, epitomizes the essence of a tropical getaway. The golden beaches stretch like ribbons, enticing sun worshippers and surf aficionados alike. Umhlanga’s iconic lighthouse stands sentinel against a backdrop of changing skies, an emblem of the town’s maritime allure.

Image: Getty Images

The pulse of Umhlanga’s summer lies in its vibrant beachfront promenade, adorned with palm trees and dotted with chic cafes offering refreshing sea views. As the sun dips into the horizon, the town transforms into a culinary haven, with seafood restaurants serving delectable catches of the day. Luxury resorts and boutique hotels fringe the shoreline, offering a retreat where the lullaby of ocean waves serenades guests into blissful repose.

The summer energy in Umhlanga is contagious—alive with beach volleyball, water sports, and a kaleidoscope of colourful umbrellas. Dotted with trendy boutiques and buzzing with a cosmopolitan atmosphere, Umhlanga is a coastal sanctuary that seamlessly blends relaxation with a vibrant coastal lifestyle. 

So, do you feel like an insider? Sometimes it takes a little more to really get to know a place. And sometimes, you just need to ask. Why not reach out to our travel specialists to find out exactly what you want to know about travelling in Southern Africa?

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