Find philatelic gems at Simon's Town Post Office
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in the country to receive new stamp editions, and that on one or two occasions in the past when a new stamp has been withdrawn just prior to its intended issue date, Simon's Town has already sold some, making these 'rogue' stamps eminently collectable.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!
The glorious frontage of the British Hotel
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.
One of Simon's Town's few pre-Victorian buildings
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.
Gain a spectacular perspective from Red Hill Road
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.
The remains of the Red Hill cableway
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.
Watch the naval manoeuvres out in False Bay!
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 ...
Be inspired by the penguins!
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!
Mosey around Simon's Town's delightful harbour
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.
A family beach so good that locals hide the signs!
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 ...
Skirt the sea spray of the shoreline on the train!
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 ...
- Family Travel
- Whale Watching
Go sea kayaking amongst the penguins
Oh my word, can you imagine a better way to go penguin spotting than from a sea kayak?
Given the glorious coastline, it's no great surprise that Capetonians are bonkers about water sports, and in recent years, sea kayaking has become increasingly popular. Simon's Town is located on the comparatively calm False Bay side of the peninsula, so is a favourite spot for kayakers, and it is possible to hire kayaks from the jetty in the harbour (see the website below for details, although I must stress that I haven't personally used this service provider).
Sea kayaking is immensely rewarding as you can paddle along the coast of the neighbouring Boulders nature reserve, which will give you a very different perspective on the penguins.
Just a few words about safety. Firstly, if you're not familiar with these waters, it's probably wiser to join a guided tour, which will not only help you to find the best spots, but also lends an additional measure of safety should you get into trouble. Note that most service providers will not accommodate smaller kids due to safety considerations (the service provider listed below has a minimum age of 10).
Secondly, the Simon's Town naval docks and neighbouring marina are busy places, so give these a wide berth: if you find yourself in the path of an oncoming frigate, then you're bound to come off worst!
Thirdly, stay close to the shore, particularly in whale season (June-November), when the whales come in fairly close to this section of the coastline. The whales will not do you any deliberate harm, but neither will they necessarily sense your presence when they decide to surface or breach - in which case, the resident Great White shark population will probably be happy to welcome you into the water!
Lastly, however glorious it might be when you get onto the water, keep an eye on the weather: Cape weather is notorious for its changeability, and often delivers 'four seasons in one day'. Weather systems can move in from the ocean with startling speed, so make sure that this doesn't leave you exposed.
Say hello to Just Nuisance!
In a corner of Jubilee Square, Simonstown, you can say hello to the statue of Able Seaman Just Nuisance, a Great Dane who was the only dog ever to be officially enlisted in the Royal Navy! Kids love to clamber over his statue and are enchanted by his tale, which merits a room in the Simonstown Museum (see the following, adapted from Wikipedia)
Although the exact date of Just Nuisance's birth is not known, it is usually stated that he was born on 1 April 1937 in Rondebosch, a suburb of Cape Town. He was sold to Benjamin Chaney who later moved to Simon's Town to run the United Services Institute (USI). Just Nuisance quickly became popular with the patrons of the institute, mostly the ratings who would feed him snacks and take him for walks. He began to follow them back to the naval base and dockyards, where he would lie on the decks of ships that were moored up in dock, normally at the top of the gangplanks. Since he was a large dog even for a Great Dane (he was almost 2 metres (6.6 ft) tall when standing on his hind legs) he presented a sizable obstacle for those trying to board or disembark and he became affectionately known as Nuisance.
Nuisance was allowed to roam freely and, following the sailors, he began to take day trips by train as far afield as Cape Town, 22 miles (35 km) away. Despite the seamen's attempts to conceal him, the conductors would put him off the trains as soon as he was discovered. This did not cause him any problems, as he would wait for the next train or walk to another station where he would board the next train that came along. Amused travellers would occasionally offer to pay his fares, but the railway company eventually warned Chaney that Nuisance would have to be put down unless he was kept under control to prevent him boarding the trains or had his fares paid.
The news that Nuisance may be put down spurred many of the sailors and locals to write to the Navy pleading for something to be done. Although somebody offered to buy him a season ticket, the Navy instead decided to officially enlist him; as a member of the armed forces he would receive free rail travel, so the fare-dodging would no longer be a problem. It was a good idea: for the next years, he would be a morale booster for the troops serving in World War II.
He was enlisted on 25 August 1939: his surname was entered as "Nuisance" and rather than leaving the forename blank he was christened "Just". His trade was listed as "Bonecrusher" and his religious affiliation as "Scrounger", although it was later altered to the more charitable "Canine Divinity League (Anti-Vivisection)". To allow him to receive rations and because of his longstanding unofficial service he was promoted from Ordinary Seaman to Able Seaman.
He never went to sea, but fulfilled a number of roles ashore. He continued to accompany sailors on train journeys and escorted them back to base when the pubs closed. While many of his functions were of his own choosing, he also appeared at many promotional events, including his own "wedding" to another Great Dane, Adinda. Adinda produced five pups as a result, two of which were auctioned off in Cape Town to raise funds for the war effort.
Nuisance's service record was not exemplary. Aside from the offenses of travelling on the trains without his free pass, being absent without leave, losing his collar and refusing to leave the pub at closing time, his record shows that he was sentenced to have all bones removed for seven days for sleeping in an improper place: one of the Petty Officer's beds. He also fought with the mascots of ships that put in at Simon's Town, resulting in the deaths of at least two of them.
Discharge and death
Nuisance had been involved in a car accident which had caused thrombosis which was gradually paralysing him, so on 1 January 1944 he was discharged from the Navy. His condition continued to deteriorate, on 1 April 1944 he was taken to Simon's Town Naval Hospital where on the advice of the naval veterinary surgeon, he was put to sleep. The next day he was taken to Klaver Camp, where his body was draped with a Royal Naval White Ensign and he was buried with full naval honours, including a gun salute and the playing of the Last Post. A simple granite headstone marks his grave which is on the top of the hill at the former signals centre. A statue was erected in Jubilee Square in Simon's Town to commemorate his life.
- Budget Travel
- Family Travel
- Historical Travel
An idyllic Enid Blyton sort of location
However often we visit Cape Town, we never tire of Boulders Beach.
The main visitor centre with the wooden boardwalks down into the penguin colony are great, and lots of other tourists have written excellent accounts of this. However, for us, the bigger attraction is the tiny Boulders Beach about 750m south, where you are actually allowed on the beach - this is also less well known, so less busy and fortunately largely spared the coach tour parties.
In good weather, it is such a ridiculously idyllic setting that it might as well be out of an Enid Blyton book! The beach is tiny and shaped like a horseshoe, and the sand is strewn with enormous granite boulders. The penguins park off on and between the boulders and are pretty unfazed by the tourists except when they get exceedingly close. The cove is very protected and the beach slopes very gently, so it is a perfect swimming spot for kids and yourself, provided that you have a polar bear in your ancestry and thus relish icy water - mind you, you'll forget all that as you see the penguins zipping around underwater like torpedoes, so close that you can almost touch them.
For obvious reasons, the best time to visit is during the day on weekdays and out of school holidays, but any time - and regardless of the crowds - it's a magical place that I would defy anyone not to have a marvellous time in! Then repair to the excellent Boulders Beach Cafe for an excellent lunch and a view out over False Bay to die for!
The main reason why most visitors come to this area is to see the penguins at Boulders. Well I have to admitt it is a lovely sight and an excursion enjoyed by young and old alike especially on a hot day when you can even swim with the penguins!
Although I personally loved seeing the whales, Simon's Town is mostly known for its penguin colony. Yes, you read that right, penguins!! They live on their own beach outside of town, approximately 2 kilometers south of Simon's Town towards the Cape Point Nature Reserve.