Travel Review: Simon’s Town – S.A.’s Naval ‘Port of Call’

In early October 2014, I first had the pleasure of travelling to Simon’s Town, which is about an hour or
so from Cape Town, depending on traffic and which route you take to get there. This historic naval
town has a rich, multi-cultural history and offers visitors some wonderful travel opportunities, all of
which are within close proximity to the town.

These most notably include the internationally famous trio: the fiercely wild Cape Point, Cape of Good Hope and the tantalizingly beautiful Boulders Beach.

Although that was my first visit to the town (and it was pretty much love at first sight), I have since been back thrice, more recently for a peaceful, lazy weekend getaway. 🙂

Amble along the main road past the False Bay train tracks, which hug the road (you can also catch the train if you want a more unique experience in getting there, although Metrorail can be very often be a frustrating option…), with the ocean just beyond, before driving down the Historic Mile Walk* stretch. By this point, you might already find yourself entranced by this naval town, enclosed by impressive peaks.

* (This mile-long walk covers old buildings found along St George’s Street from the Simon’s Town
Train Station to the East Dockyard, opened in 1911.)

Historic Mile Walk

Simon’s Town (or Simonstown to some), was originally known as ‘Simon’s Vlek’, so named after
Dutch Governor (1677-1699), Simon van der Stel, decided in 1687 that it would be a safe winter
harbour from May through to September.

In 1741, it was finally proclaimed as such and it has served as a most important naval town to South Africa ever since. The British used it as a Royal Naval Base from 1801 and in 1957, it was handed over to the South African Government.

Today, it remains that self-same crucial base and you can see submarines, naval ships and other SA Navy-related
things moored just off-shore in the bay. (Sadly, due to disuse, many of these are
noticeably rusted and have seemingly fallen into disrepair.)

Furthermore, the town played a significant role in both World Wars. In the First World War, it was
responsible for sinking enemy ships and serving as a refuelling and refitting base for allied vessels;
something it would vitally do again come the Second World War. Additionally, during WWII, some
300 ships were repaired here.

Simon’s Town – which still feels like a quaint, modern-day version of the Victorian-esque seaside
town it once was – offers so many amazing places, indoors and outdoors alike, and I would like
to share some of its must-see spots with you.

I haven’t visited all of them myself yet, but they are definitely on my travel to-do list – and the ones I have enjoyed, have always quietly blown my mind and given me the most wonderful memories and life-changing experiences to take back home to the city with me.

If visiting for the first time (or almost any day in fair weather, in my estimation) you will want to try arrive early because your first ‘port of call’ should be: Boulders Beach.

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For those of you who don’t know it, Boulders is famed for its land-based colony of now-endangered African penguins*, who tamely inhabit both Boulders and neighbouring Foxy Beach, and who annually return here to breed – much as they have done since the first pair laid eggs here in 1985.

* (Formerly, they were called ‘Jackass’ penguins, due to the braying sounds they make that will have you
glancing around in wonder, half-expecting to see a donkey pop out of the surrounding lush
vegetation…).

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This is still the only place in the world where you can literally swim among/with penguins
and let me tell you, it’s a pretty amazing and humbling experience to say the least! 🙂

Word of caution: Don’t mistake their tameness for passiveness though, for if you chase or annoy
them, these little guys may bite and though they are relatively small in height and stature, they have
razor-like bills, which can give a nasty ‘peck’.

Also, whilst they may be rather ungraceful when waddling about on land, in the water they are mini
torpedoes and when swimming underwater, can reach speeds of up to 24 km per hour.

I have visited Boulders both when the penguins were nearing their moulting season (November to
December, when many looked decidedly shabby or else, in some instances, like self-pitying  fluff balls) and much later, in May, when the chicks were already hatched but still being safe-guarded by their parents… and I can tell you that, ither way, the penguins are, collectively, seriously cute and will have you transfixed from the moment you first clap eyes on them!

Because Boulders falls under the protection of SanParks and is one of Table Mountain National
Park’s Marine Protected Areas, you can expect to pay a conservation fee upon entry. At the most recent time of our visit, this was R70 per adult.

Also, depending on the tides and the fullness of the beach, you might have to wait your turn (parking is also slightly limited, although you can park near Seaforth Beach too) or even run the risk of being turned away entirely, if the beach gets closed. So try arrive early (around 9:00 a.m.) on weekends so you have about two to three hours of leisure time at the beach.

Boulders is hugely popular among locals and tourists alike and is (deservedly) hailed as one of Cape
Town’s finest beach offerings – what’s more, it’s the perfect ‘kiddies’ beach, with its sheltered
coves and calm waters, and there is much to keep young ones entertained.

Personally, I rate Boulders 10/10, as it is in every sense, a truly world-class beach.

Aside from the adorable black-and-white, tuxedo-donning dudes, you can also see rock hyraxes
(known locally as ‘dassies‘, these plump, rabbit-like animals are ever my weakness…) lazily ‘sun
tanning’ in the shrubbery.

Adding to the allure of Boulders overall, are strolls along the perfectly maintained board-walks to the penguin
viewing area, basking on the surrounding beaches, with their amazingly white sand and giant granite
boulders (when I visited the beach itself, we even had to duck and dive under one) – and above all, breathtaking aqua waters.

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The water at Boulders is somewhat warmer than those at Cape Town’s nippy Atlantic Ocean
beaches and this is because it’s on the Cape Peninsula’s Indian Ocean side. Considering that I managed to swim there
in early October once, without too much trepidation when it came to diving in, the water temperature must be
delightfully warm in summertime.

After you’ve finished relaxing on the pristine beaches or even the granite boulders themselves (if you visit Boulders Beach), walk along the board-walks and take in the pegnuins’ special ‘burrows’ (these are numbered
and covered by plastic ‘houses’), which safely lie behind high fencing (to protect them from humans, cats and dogs) and make your way over to the aforementioned main penguin viewing site.

Scene from main viewing site

If you have already paid an entry fee for Boulders, you don’t
have to pay here if I remember right, provided you can produce your proof of payment. But ask about this at Boulders Beach to be sure.

African penguin mother and chick

On both occasions that I’ve visited the colony, I was able to get the most wonderful photos of the penguins, who seem to almost happily pose for photos, and I particularly enjoyed seeing the younger chicks there.

Note: It can get very busy with tour groups and unfortunately, crowds of tourists don’t always make it easy to get closer for photos but, as we discovered in May when we visited late on a partly sunny autumn afternoon, if you wait a bit… you might almost have it entirely to yourself when the buses momentarily depart.2014-10-05 12.42.23

For more info, please contact the Boulders Visitor Centre on +27 (021) 786 2329 or visit:
http://www.sanparks.org or wwww.simonstown.com and for a more detailed breakdown of the
opening and closing times, see the SanParks site.

From Boulders, make a stop at one of the restaurants and cafés in town, particularly either at the charming Jubilee Square (completed in 1935) or near Seaforth Beach (free to visitors) for a meal.

Calamari and chicken combo at Seaforth Restaurant

At Jubilee Square, you can find craft stalls and above all, the famous statue of Just Nuisance, the first and only
dog to ever be enlisted into the Navy after a request was sent to British Parliament on his behalf. A
local resident and popular sailors’ companion, the Great Dane was a firm town favourite and later
became a local legend.

At the time of his death, Just Nuisance was awarded full military honours at Klaver Camp and was
apparently given a fitting send-off by the Royal Marines’ firing squad. Today, you can visit his
statue and hike to his final resting place on top of the scenic Red Hill, which I will elaborate on
further down.

Ash (7)
Photo credit: Ash Ryan

Stroll along the Simon’s Town pier and take in the sights before embarking on wonderfully scenic drive to the relatively close by Cape Point and in turn, the Cape of Good Hope. The drive there is positively stunning because you curl around the mountain road, with Simon’s Town fading behind you, as rugged cliffs loom up ahead.

Notable sights include: a view of Smitswinkel Bay – and, if you are lucky and the season is right, you
might even chance to see some of the whales, which annually visit the False Bay waters. These
include: Humpback-, Killer- (or Orca), Southern Right- and Bryde’s-Whales. We didn’t definitely
see any whales on the drive but we did see one below Cape Point’s Two Oceans Restaurant
sometime later. 🙂

You can read a full account of my visits to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope but I won’t go
into any further detail in this post other than to say they are places that I believe everyone
should visit at least once in the course of their lifetimes – especially if you are fortunate enough to permanently
reside in South Africa.

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Here is a list of notable places to visit and things to do in/near Simon’s Town:
• Visit Martello Tower, Jubilee Square or the old Simon’s Town Station.
• Test your courage by visiting the Admiralty House (which dates back to 1814), Wesleyan
Chapel
(built in 1828) and the 17th century Muslim Kramat (a holy burial site for Sheikhs) – all of which
are said to either be haunted by several different ghosts or be places of supernatural activity,
so to speak…
• Explore the Simon’s Town Museum, which highlights the town’s centuries-old, rich history
or nearby SA Navy Museum, found in Mast House. It offers a maritime history
account, as well as model ship displays.
• Visit the Heritage Museum, housed in Amlay House, which gives insight into the Muslim
community’s town history.
• Check out the False Bay Yacht Club near the Waterfront Centre. This offers: boat charters
and kayaking, as well as professional deep-sea diving and whale-watching charters.
• Another building of interest is the Dutch East India Company Hospital. Built in 1764, the
hospital once saw British crime writer and journalist, Edgar Wallace, serve as a medical orderly there in
the late 1890s.
• Visit Just Nuisance’s statue in Jubilee Square or take the easy, hour-long hike up Red Hill
to his grave.
• You can also hike up to Kleinplaas Dam (+/- two hours) or take the long, far more trying
hike from Swartkop to Smitswinkel, near Cape Point. This will apparently take roughly six
hours.
• Head along Dido Valley Road and treat the kids to a Scratch Patch excursion. Entry is free
but you will need to pay for any gem stones of your choice. There are 150 varieties of gem
stones to choose from and these are polished in the world’s biggest gemstone factory.
• Another excellent place for young and old alike to visit is the Warrior Toy Museum,
located next to the Town Hall. This vintage toy store offers, to name but a few things: 4,000
model cars, some 500 dolls, teddies and doll houses, fully operational rail roads and lead
soldier army displays etc. Again, entry is free.
• Finally, enjoy the amazing Boulders, Foxy and Seaforth Beaches when you visit Simon’s
Town and spend time with their penguin inhabitants.

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View of secluded Boulders from boardwalk

Whatever you decide to do when visiting Simon’s Town, once thing is certain: there’s no shortage of
fun activities for the whole family – and as such, the town always ranks high among my
favourite Western Cape towns… I hope you will enjoy it as much as I always do! 🙂

For more information on scenic Simon’s Town, please see: www.simonstown.com or
follow their Facebook pages: http://www.facebook.com/simonstowndotcom and
http://www.facebook.com/SimonsTownFalseBay.

Many thanks to the following sources for the additional information cited above:
www.simonstown.com, www.sanparks.orgwww.getawayguides.co.za, www.showme.co.za, the Simon’s Town Historical Society,  www.navy.mil.za, and www.simonstown.org.

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