Surf & sand: 10 of the best South African beaches

South Africa has over 1,600 miles of coast, from its border with Namibia in the west to its Indian Ocean border with Mozambique in the east. We pick out the best beaches en route.

By Amelia Duggan
photographs by Getty Images
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:19 BST
Cape Agulhas, Garden Route.
Cape Agulhas, Garden Route.
Photograph by Getty Images

End of the trail: Nature’s Valley, Western Cape
This resort and village is a Garden Route favourite, overlooking the clear blue Indian Ocean, with the postcard-perfect Groot River Lagoon and Tsitsikamma foothills at its rear. It’s also the terminus of the five-day Otter Trail, which starts at Storms River Mouth and winds for 27 miles through gallery forest, fynbos and wildflower meadows. When completed, it’s customary for hikers to tie a walking boot to a branch of a village tree.

Paddle with penguins: Boulders Beach, Cape Town
See endangered African penguins at their colony in Simon’s Town. The three pristine beaches are sheltered from wind and waves by the eponymous boulders, so it’s great for kids. Penguins glide around in the shallows — just watch out for their razor-sharp beaks.

River meets ocean: Kenton-on-Sea, Eastern Cape
Set between the mouths of the Bushmans and Kariega Rivers, this Sunshine Coast town is home to a reserve that attracts copious bird species. In summer, the rivers are a veritable playground, with water skiing, fishing, kite surfing and horse-riding all on offer. Kariega Beach and Middle Beach are wild and undeveloped, with rock formations and pools at low tide. Wilder and more remote, Shelley Beach is a short hike across the dunes.

Under milkwood: Mdumbi Beach, Eastern Cape
Seven miles from the Wild Coast’s beloved Coffee Bay, little-known Mdumbi is a hidden Transkei region treasure. It’s an unspoilt spot, protected by milkwood trees and often empty but for the odd bobbing surfer. Living in mudbrick houses around Mdumbi are the Pondo people, who offer fishing and braai (barbecue) trips on the Mdumbi River, as well as village tours.

Escape the crowds: Llandudno Beach, Cape Town
Like nearby Clifton 4th Beach, Llandudno has Blue Flag status but attracts a fraction of the crowds (it’s fiddly to find with scant parking). Persevere — its striking boulders, powdery sand and lush backdrop make it ideal for secluded sunbathing. Follow the footpath beneath the Twelve Apostles to the sheltered Sandy Bay — Cape Town’s only (albeit unofficial) nudist beach.

Swim with the fishes: Sodwana Bay, KwaZulu-Natal
South Africa’s finest scuba diving site lies within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park on the Elephant Coast, a shoreline stretching for 110 from the Mozambique border in the north to St Lucia village in the south. The reefs just offshore are home to around 1,200 fish species (10 times the size, the Great Barrier Reef has approximately 1,800), with turtles, whales and sharks all seasonal visitors.

Surfing (U)SA: Jeffreys Bay, Eastern Cape
An hour’s drive west of Port Elizabeth, the town of Jeffreys Bay is one of the world’s premier surf spots. The 6ft barrels rolling in on Supertubes Beach can be fierce and the locals territorial, so beginners prefer gentler Dolphin Beach. The bay’s après-surf bars and hippy handicraft shops are a draw, too.

Retro seaside getaway: Golden Mile, Durban
Durban has one of the world’s finest urban beaches, backed by seaside attractions including quaint Mini Town, a model village full of city landmarks, and Fun World, a faded amusement park with spinning rides and an original aerial cableway from the 1970s. Adding some glamour at the northern end of the strip is art deco Suncoast Casino, which underwent a facelift last year, and is illuminated by neon at night.

Cleaning surfboards on Durban’s Golden Mile.
Photograph by Alamy

Whale of a time: Grotto Beach, Western Cape
Wide, tranquil and running unbroken for 11 miles along the Atlantic coast, this is a stellar whale-watching spot. It’s common to see humpbacks and southern right whales breaching and spouting near the shore from the comfort of a beach towel, especially between July and December. From Grotto Beach, head into Hermanus for a cruise to see these creatures up close, or head out on a three-hour coastal hike to De Kelders.

Grotto Beach, Hermanus.
Photograph by Alamy

Diamonds aren’t forever: Port Nolloth, Northern Cape
For many years, the cliffs around Port Nolloth yielded diamonds; today, the sleepy town gets its money from rock lobster fishing, and there are some characterful mariners to be met in the local pubs. Over a spit lies McDougall’s Bay, a rugged beach with frigid Atlantic waters that’s popular with windsurfers. December is a good time to visit: the water is at its warmest and, on the last day of the year, the old-timey Sand Festival takes place, kicking off with a beauty competition and ending with fireworks.

Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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