The Royal Mile is the name given to the main street that runs through Simon's Town and is the most common route used by tourists travelling from Cape Town to see the penguins at The Boulders. Fuelled by their enthusiasm to visit these wonderful birds, unfortunately many tourists are in too much of a rush to appreciate Simon's Town's gorgeous architecture - myself included on my first few trips here - which is a great pity, as this is a stunning example of a Victorian street that has remained virtually unchanged for the last century.
The charm of the Royal Mile is not so much in any one particular building - although there are buildings such as the British Hotel that are so gorgeous that they would be worth visiting here for in their own right - but rather the harmonious splendour of the street as a whole. The businesses in the buildings may have changed over the decades, but there has been thankfully little alteration to the structures themselves, and especially in the evening, when the day visitors have gone and the town quietens down, it's not hard to conjur up the spirits of yesteryear.
Simon's Town - and indeed, most of the little towns along the False Bay coastline of the peninsula - is a narrow ribbon of development that clings to the eastern slope of the mountain, so as soon as you venture inland of the main road, you start to climb steeply.
Your reward for this strenous exercise is the opportunity to stroll along the backstreets of the town, which are far removed from the bustle of the Royal Mile. The architecture is amazing, with one bijou Victorian building after another, all lovingly restored to their former glory. Although the gardens are very small, they inject unexpected splashes of colour into the densely built up streets, and the vibrant jewel tones of bougainevillea in particular are a spectacular counterpoint to the white buildings.
If this is exercise, then bring it on!
I'm all for functional buildings, but when functionality comes in such a downright ugly form in an otherwise beautiful town, it really makes my hackles rise.
This architectural carbuncle is the Naval headquarters in Simon's Town, located on the southern fringe of town on the way to Seaforth and Boulders Beach. I can't quite decide whether it's more hideous in good or bad weather (the stark battleship greyness is at least in keeping with the stormy Cape weather, and, with any luck, the driving rain and mist will help to conceal it from view), but it doesn't really matter, as you'll have no option but to drive past it if you intend to travel this route.
Utterly hideous and sady impossible to avoid.
Simon's Town has such a Victorian atmosphere, redolent of Empire and firm conviction that God is an Englishman (and probably an Anglican to boot) that it comes as a surprise to see a signpost for a mosque off the Historic Mile.
Most people wouldn't associate South Africa with Muslim culture, but in fact Islam is the second most popular religion in South Africa after Christianity (well, third if you count those who declared themselves as having 'no religion' in the last census) and comprise a very visible 1.5% of the population. South African Muslims are usually Sunni and are drawn from the Cape Coloured community (the descendents of slaves imported from South East Asia) and a proportion of the Indian community.
The picturesque little mosque is tucked away up one of the little staircases that characterise the towns of the False Bay coastline and is all but invisible from the Historic Mile. It is signposted from the main road if you are travelling south, but not if you're travelling north.
There are a multitude of trips that you can do from Simon's Town harbour, from whale watching tours (in the whale season between April and November) to trips to Sea Island.
This is also the point of departure for the water taxi to Kalk Bay.
Other more energetic pursuits which depart from the harbour include sea kayaking.
When I fell desperately in love with my husband well over a decade ago, little did I suspect that he would turn out to be a tweezer-wielding nerd!
In case this conjurs up wholly unrealistic metrosexual images, I should add that he is a third generation philatalist, and that he has assured the next generation of stamp collecters by getting our daughter hooked!
I know nothing about stamps, but I am reliably informed that Simon's Town post office is one of the first in the country to receive new stamp editions, and that on one or two occasions in the past when a new stamp has been withdrawn just prior to its intended issue date, Simon's Town has already sold some, making these 'rogue' stamps eminently collectable. Can't say that it excites me much, but each to their own!
Of all the gorgeous buildings in Simon's Town, I think that the British Hotel is my absolute favourite.
This glorious building dates back to 1871 and, for me, epitomises the very best of Victorian colonial architecture. The balance and proportion of the building is just exquisite, and the three level arrangement of verandah and balconies, whose balustrades are garnished with 'broekie lace' wrought iron detail is simply lovely.
It has now been converted into self catering holiday apartments (from family friendly units to loft apartments), some of which offer sea views from their balconies. I haven't stayed here myself, so can't provide a review of this accommodation, but if the interior facilities are anywhere near as wonderful as the external appearance of the building, it must be a tremendous place to stay.
The Prince Alfred building is one of the few surviving pre-Victorian buildings in Simon's Town and dates back to 1802, which means that it predates the transfer of the Cape Colony from Dutch to British control in 1814.
Interestingly, although the architecture is much simpler than the ornate Victorian style of most other buildings on the Royal Mile, it still contains many of the same components - particularly the shady verandahs - whereas the Dutch influence is apparent in the simple curved gable.
It is now a 'boutique' backpackers' hostel - I'm not quite sure how this differs from a standard backpackers' place, but then I haven't stayed there and so can't comment.
By far the best view of Simon's Town is from the Red Hill Road, which is a left turn from the coastal road heading north, located about 1km out of town.
In order to accommodate the steep gradient, this section of the road incorporates a series of hairpin bends (switchbacks) and also carries quite a lot of traffic. There is a vantage point just below the top of the pass, so fortunately there is no need to stop on the road further down in order to take advantage of the amazing photo opportunity.
If you follow this road further, it takes you over the ridge that forms the 'spine' of the peninsula. From here, you can either turn south towards Cape Point or keep going until you hit the Atlantic coast at Scarborough, from where you can take the beautifully scenic drive north to Kommetjie.
I had always assumed that the remains of the aerial cableway that are still visible on the mountain behind Simon's Town was a precaution to ensure the safe storage of munitions for the dock yard away from the dense settlement of the narrow coastal strip.
However, in researching this tip, it appears that I was entirely mistaken. The cableway (more commonly known as the 'aerial ropeway') was developed to transfer supplies and persons between the Western Dockyard and the Royal Naval Hospital and the Sanitorium which were located on Red Hill behind Simon's Town, a precariously steep climb from the coast. The aerial ropeway operated between 1904 and 1934 but became obsolete when a road passable by vehicle was completed in 1932.
Simon's Town is the home base of the South African navy, which is often in evidence conducting its routine manoeuvres in False Bay.
The photo shows three vessels (the corvettes, I think?) that we watched from the vantage point at the top of Red Hill up the mountain from Simon's Town on our last trip. These are pretty big ships, so the fact that they are dwarfed by False Bay gives some indication of how very large it is.
But, better still, as we then drove north along the coast back to Cape Town along Boyes Drive, we spotted a navy submarine that was cruising along the surface. Unfortunately as I was driving, so couldn't take a photo, it it was quite a thrill and of course conjured up delicious images of Sean Connery (and his hair piece) in 'The Hunt for Red October', but then that doesn't take much ...
I was taught never to play with my food, but inspired by an e-mail link sent to me by Gerald_D in response to a forum discussion, I couldn't resist!
My kids and I spent a hilarious half hour constructing these little darlings from boiled eggs, slivers of raw carrot and black olives, held together by bits of toothpick. Not only fun and aesthetically pleasing, but also nutritionally balanced to boot - what more could you ask for??? (and - as ever, thinking like someone's mother - just make sure you retrieve the toothpicks if you're serving these to small kids)
I plan to garnish the buffet for our annual Easter Egg Hunt with a parade of these delightful chaps ... but then our friends have long since worked out that I'm a nutter!
Simon's Town harbour is a small but lovely place where you won't struggle to spend a couple of leisurely hours.
The Simon's Town naval dockyard and marina are a couple of kilometres further north up the coast and the town no longer has a fishing fleet to speak of, leaving the Simon's Town harbour mostly for tourist activity. However, the development has been tasteful, and I would class this as a 'tourist amenity' rather than a 'tourist trap'.
So what is there to do at the harbour? Well, the quay is the departure point for a variety of water based activities, including whale watching trips in season (April - November), trips to Seal Island and sea kayaking. You'll also find Just Nuisance's statue overlooking the harbour (even if he's facing the other way) on the corner where the harbour meets Jubilee Square and the Simon's Town tourist office is also located on the square. There is also a selection of cafes and restaurants catering for a range of tastes and budgets, which command stupendous views out over massive False Bay to the mountains around Gordon's Bay on the other side.
To my mind, Seaforth beach in Simon's Town is the perfect family beach in the Cape Town area ... sheltered, with limited wave action and located on the warm(er) False Bay side of the peninsula, with some reasonable snorkelling and interesting rock pools to explore. It's very similar to Boulders Beach (about 1km walk further down the coast) but, unlike Boulders Beach - which is a nature reserve for which you have to pay an entrance fee - Seaforth is a public beach.
The southern edge of the beach abuts The Boulders penguin reserve, and particularly in the late afternoon, you can see penguins congregating on the rocks, preparing for a hard evening's fishing. And if you're here very early in the morning, chances are that there will be a penguin or two wandering on the beach ...
So why do most visitors - even those that visit the penguins a few tens of metres away - not know about it? Well, mysteriously in recent years, the sign board indicating the entrance to the beach has disappeared, and rumour has it that it has been swiped by locals keen to keep the beach for themselves! Is this true? Well, I couldn't possibly comment, but it's not beyond the realms of possibility, and certainly nobody seems to be in a particular rush to reinstate it!
So how do you find it? Well about 100m north from the entrance to The Boulders penguin reserve, there is a small cul de sac on the seaward (eastern) side of the road, limited by a slightly weatherbeaten high fence made of wooden planks. The beach is accessed through the gate in this (which is unlocked during daylight hours).
Just don't tell anyone that I told you ...
The Muizenberg-Simonstown railway is probably one of the most picturesque sections of coastal railway line in the world, and if you're lucky, you can watch whales frolicking in False Bay. The line skirts perilously close to the high water mark for most of its route, and it's safe to say that it would never have been granted planning permission today!
This is the southernmost extent of the Cape Town rail commuter network, and certainly isn't luxury rail travel! The carriages are battered and graffitied and the windows are so scratched that it's often difficult to see out, but it's still a blast to clatter along through the sea spray - and at less than R10 for a return trip (2010), it's a bargain that's hard to beat!
There are quite a few stops along the way, so consider getting off somewhere like Kalk Bay for a bite to eat, or stopping off at one of the little beaches along the way. Check out my transport tip for some further details on options for one and two day rail passes that may be of interest.
It is possible to travel on this route right into the heart of Cape Town. I can't honestly say that it's worth it for the scenery, as the inland section is rather dull - still, if you don't have a hire car, it's a practical way to get to explore the False Bay coastline. There is a visible security presence on the train itself (since the Cape Town trains have a reputation for crime) - last time we took the train, we had 4 policemen in our carriage alone!
It used to be possible to travel between Cape Town and Simonstown in a more upmarket restaurant car called Biggsie's, which we did in 2006/07, but I'm not sure whether this service still runs. If it does, it's well worth doing, as the dining car was far more comfortable and well maintained (and you could see out the windows!) but I do recall that the set menu that we opted for was somewhat grim - the toasted sandwiches that our carriagemates had looked a lot tastier and were doubtless much cheaper!
Update (September 2010): clearly I wasn't understating the matter when I said that the rail line was just above the high water mark, as the final section of this line between Fishhoek and Simonstown has been closed since last (Southern hemisphere) spring to repair wave damage to the retaining wall and foundations of the line! Metrorail assure me that repairs are underway and that in the interim there is a bus service operating between Fishhoek and Simonstown.
Further update (March 2011): I am reliably informed by my "Cape Town correspondent' Gerald_D that the repair work is complete and that the section of rail between Fishhoek and Simonstown has been reopened. Oh, and Biggsies seems to have bitten the dust ...