Several miles of white sands, backed by the blue-gray outline of the Tsitsikamma Mountains and lapped by an endless succession of gentle waves, curve languidly to create Bahia Formosa (Beautiful Bay), as the Portuguese sailors who first set eyes on it named it. Over the years, its beauty has inevitably drawn an ever-increasing string of admirers; some 50,000 of Jo'burg's wealthiest individuals descend on the seaside town of Plettenberg Bay every December, augmented by British socialites here to play the Kurland International Polo Match. But in the off-season, when most of the holiday homes stand empty, a far more laid-back atmosphere prevails. Though some find the ghost town unsettling, the empty beaches certainly make up for it.
There's not much to do in town itself but laze on the beach (though The Crags, to the east of Plett, offers a wide range of activities, from wine tasting to a variety of animal sanctuaries and craft stores). Lookout beach is on the eastern side and was the most popular, where bathers relished in its Blue Flag status, but most of it has been washed away in some of the fiercest storms to pound this otherwise genteel coast. The much smaller Central Beach, dominated by the timeshare hotel Beacon Isle, is the area from which most of the boats launch, leaving Robberg, on the west, as the current favorite, or Keurbooms, to the far east. Sadly, money and taste seem to enjoy an inverse relationship in Plettenberg Bay; huge monstrosities line most of the beachfront, particularly Robberg Beach, with the exception being the less-developed far-western edge, bordering the reserve. Robberg Nature Reserve (tel. 044/533-2125), the rocky peninsula on the western side of the bay, offers fantastic whale-watching opportunities during the course of a 9km (5.5-mile) trail. The going gets very rocky, so wear sun protection and good shoes, and try not to time your visit with high tide. There are shorter 2 1/2-hour versions; pick up a map from the reserve gate when you pay your R25 to get in. To find it, follow signs off airport road; the gate is 8km (5 miles) southeast of town. The reserve is open from 7am to 8pm daily.
Plettenberg Bay (or Plett, as the locals call it) is blessed with two estuaries, with the Keurbooms River in the east by far the larger and least spoiled. You can access the Keurbooms River Nature Reserve (tel. 044/533-2125; daily 6am-7:30pm in summer, 7:30am-5:30pm in winter; R25 picnic fee) only by water -- it's definitely worth paddling upstream to view the lush vegetated banks and bird life; keep an eye out for Knysna loeries, kingfishers, and fish eagles. A canoe and permit will run you R60 (R90 for a double canoe); both are available at the gate kiosk at the slipway. There is also a highly recommended overnight canoe trail in the reserve. For R110 per adult (R50 children under 12), you can head upstream without lifting a finger by boarding the Keurbooms River Ferry (tel. 044/532-7876; departs from slipway). Daily scheduled trips, which last approximately 2 1/2 hours, take place at 11am, 2pm, and 5pm, and include an optional 30-minute walk or picnic (bring your own food or preorder and pack a bathing suit). Beach lovers who find Plett's urbanization depressing should consider spending a day on the relatively unspoiled Keurbooms Beach (follow signs off N2). This wide beach shares the same bay and has rock arches and pools to explore, but the swimming is not quite as safe, so take care.
If Plett's views aren't enough to take your breath away, remember that the world's highest bungee jump is only a 15-minute drive east on the N2. For R620, you can have the rare privilege of free-falling for 216m (708 ft.) off the Bloukrans Bridge, and then watch yourself doing it all over again on video. Booking for this and other adventure activities in the region can be made through Face Adrenalin (tel. 042/281-1458).
The inland area from Keurbooms River to the Bloukrans River is known as the Crags. If you don't mind not being on the beach, you may appreciate its lovely lodgings options, as well as Monkeyland (signposted off N2, 16km/10 miles east of Plett; tel. 044/534-8906; daily 8am-5pm), a primate sanctuary situated in an indigenous forest that houses 13 different species. Saved from laboratories or the illegal pet trade, the majority of these free-roaming primates are either endangered or critically vulnerable. Basic admission is free, while foot safaris, guided by knowledgeable rangers cost R120 adults, R60 children. Next door is Birds of Eden (tel. 044/534-8906; www.birdsofeden.co.za; R120 adults, R60 children under 12; daily 8am-5pm), a 2-hectare (5-acre) enclosed dome full of birds and marmosets, with its own canopy walk. The largest free-flight bird sanctuary in the world, it can simulate thunderstorms, and you can wander through without a guide. As the two sanctuaries are sister organizations, tickets to visit both for a reduced fee are available (R184 adults, R92 kids 3-12).
If you'd really like to make a day of it, drive a little farther down Forest Hall Road to reach Tenikwa (tel. 044/534-8174; www.tenikwa.co.za; daily 9am-4:30pm). Len and Mandy Freeman's wildlife awareness center offers a rare opportunity to meet South Africa's seldom-seen smaller cats, from caracal and black-footed cats to cheetah. A tour takes you into enclosures where the animals live, and if they are in the mood, you can interact with them. The guides' respect for the animals is palpable, and this helps the encounters feel really special; tours (R130 adults, R60 children) pay for the rehabilitation side of the project. Cheetah sunrise and sunset walks are also available (R300 adults). Another Crags local is Bramon Wine Estate (tel. 044/534-8007; www.bramonwines.co.za). Despite its distance from the traditional grape-growing areas, Bramon has produced an interesting sauvignon blanc Cap Classique sparkling wine. You can try this (and down fresh oysters) at the on-site restaurant.
Farther east lies Nature's Valley, a tiny hamlet on a wide, deserted sweep of beach, and beyond this Storms River Mouth, both in the Tsitsikamma National Park -- a must on any Garden Route itinerary .
For more information, you could visit Plett's Tourism Bureau, located in Melville's Corner Shopping Centre (tel. 044/533-4065; www.plettenbergbay.co.za; Mon-Fri 9am-5 or 6pm, Sat 9am-2pm, Sun 9am-1pm); staff members, however, are well meaning but not very switched on, and service can be poor.