Surf & Sand
The sweeping 30km (19-mile) curve of Grotto Beach can be seen from most vantage points of Walker Bay. This is a great family beach, made for long walks and swimming. Closer to town, Voëlklip is a popular swimming beach where the hip youth hang out; the closest beach, Langbaai (pronounced "lung-buy," meaning "Long Bay"), offers the best bodysurfing, though currents can render it hazardous.
The once-threatened Southern Right whale (a protected species since 1946) is enjoying a major comeback, with the population on the South African coastline nearly doubling every decade for the past 30 years. In recent years, as many as 2,000 whales have followed the annual migration from Antarctica to flirt, mate, and calve in the warmer waters off the southern Cape coast.
One can clearly view these playful, gentle giants -- sometimes at a distance of only 10m (33 ft.) -- from the craggy cliffs that run along the Hermanus shoreline. For the best sightings, take the 12km (7 1/2-mile) cliff path from New Harbour east to Grotto Beach and the lagoon. Beware of the waves -- a visitor was swept off the rocks in 2000 and drowned. Also recommended are the terraces above the Old Harbour, where a telescope and a plaque provide basic information about the bay and its whales.
Hermanus is very proud of the fact that it is the only town in the world to have a "whale crier": During whaling season, Pasika Noboba walks the town streets from 10am to 4pm, blowing a kelp horn in a sort of Morse code to alert the town's inhabitants to the presence and whereabouts of whales. If you don't understand the code, never mind; Pasika also wears a sandwich board and carries a mobile phone (tel. 079/854-0684). Contact him directly for reports of the latest whale sightings, or call the museum (tel. 028/312-1475).
For assured up-close encounters, consider boarding a boat with a license to approach the whales (up to 50m/164 ft.). Bank on paying between R550 and R720 per adult, children under 5 travel free, while older children are eligible for discounted rates. Some of the longest-running operators are Ivanhoe Sea Safaris (tel. 082/926-7977), boasting some 8,000 close approaches to Southern Right whales over the years, and Southern Right Charters (tel. 082/353-0550), who have 10 years of experience.
Note: The limestone cliffs of De Kelders, southeast along the R43, provide a superb view of Walker Bay and the whales, and are never as crowded as Hermanus in season.
Fancy coming face to face with a great white? Since the likes of Nicolas Cage, Ruby Wax, Richard E. Grant, and Andie MacDowell have (the latter trio for a reality-TV program called Celebrity Shark Bait), cage diving has become almost as mainstream as whale-watching. Boats leave from Gansbaai (a coastal town some 30km/19 miles east of Hermanus) and head out to Dyer Island Nature Reserve. This and nearby Geyser Island are favorites of the jackass penguin and seal breeding colonies, whose pups are an all-time favorite great white shark snack -- so much so that they call the channel between the islands Shark Alley. The sharks are baited (highly contentious, I might add), and you stand an excellent chance of seeing one from the cage (or the boat, if you prefer to keep your distance) -- the best time of the year is April to mid-June and July.
Eight licensed operators offer a similar service for more or less the same price: The rate is R1,500 per person and includes pickup from hotel or guesthouse (in Cape Town or Hermanus), a full buffet breakfast, a day at sea on a customized catamaran, dive equipment, a White Shark Lecture (given on board), lunch, tea, and return transfer. Note that you don't need to be a certified diver to descend in the cage.
Operators with the best eco-credentials are White Shark Projects (tel. 021/405-4537; www.whitesharkprojects.co.za), one of the longest-running and most respected (the company was instrumental in getting the white shark protected under South African law and was the recipient of the 2004 SKAL International Ecotourism Award), and Marine Dynamics (www.sharkwatchsa.com), also internationally recognized for responsible tourism; the latter also offers excellent whale-watching trips in which a marine biologist will take you within 50m (164 ft) of the Southern Right whales migrating along this coastline. The third operator worth noting is Sharklady (tel. 028/312-3287; www.sharklady.co.za). Equally committed to conservation and education, hers is the only commercial, hands-on, women-only operator in the industry -- and she doesn't feed the fish.