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Great Cape Escapes: Whale Tales in Hermanus, South Africa

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Tail of a whaleYou won’t need to hunt as hard as Captain Ahab to find whales in and around the South African seaport of Hermanus; in fact, you won’t even have to leave dry land.

This picturesque town, located about 69 miles southeast of Cape Town, is the center of South Africa’s well-named Whale Coast, which draws hundreds of the magnificent mammals each year between July and November.

The Southern Right Whales migrate from Antarctica to the sheltered waters of Walker Bay to mate, give birth, and raise their calves in deep waters that run near the shore, making Hermanus one of the world’s best places to see the leviathans without getting wet.

Southern Rights are huge (up to 50 feet and 70 tons), frisky and so friendly that they were easily harpooned to the edge of extinction in the 20th century. Now protected, they’ve staged a major comeback—and you can enjoy the show all over town.

On an October visit, my husband and I spotted our first whale waving his tail about 30 feet offshore minutes after we’d parked on Market Square. We saw two more spouting off as we hiked the Cliff Trail that skirts the town. And at dinnertime, one young male whale seemed to breach so close to our window table at Lemon Butta restaurant that we feared we might have to share our tasty curried prawns.

Whale crierIn the unlikely even that you fail to locate a whale, consult the town’s official whale crier, who patrols the town and blows his kelp horn to signal sightings. You can also call his cell: 079 854-0684.

Our most exciting close-ups were waterborne, aboard the sturdy catamaran run by Southern Right Charters.

We watched a dozen different whales cavort, including our very own “Great White,” a rare albino who led us out into the wild South Atlantic for a few thrilling rides up and down the 9-to-15 foot waves. About 14 of us on the foredeck clutched the ropes and railings and screamed with delight—and, ok, maybe a little bit of terror. Our “Moby Dick” was kinder than the original, though; after blowing a few bubbles, he guided us back to safe harbor.

Looking for things to do in Cape Town proper? Don’t miss the Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Cape Town, South Africa.

The Whale Coast offers plenty of non-cetacean pleasures, as well. The drive down along the curvy coast road, Route 44, is truly spectacular: think Amalfi Drive plus African Penguins.

Penguins - photo by Jerry EdgertonBe sure to turn off at the “Penguins” sign on the right just before the little town of Betty’s Bay, to see between 1500 and 4,000 of the adorable creatures carrying on in the lively colony at Stony Point. Hang out on the boardwalk and spy as they fish, flirt and squabble; when they break into a heehaw chorus, you’ll know why they used to be called “Jackass Penguins.”

Also in Betty’s Bay is another must-see, the enchanting Harold Porter National Botanical Gardens. Take a short walk to the lower waterfall and admire the bright daisies and other indigenous flowers silhouetted against the brooding Hottentots Mountains.

Hermanus itself bustles with galleries, boutiques, cafes, swimming beaches and nature preserves. Several notable wineries cluster at the western edge of town. Try the tasty pinot noirs and chardonnays at Whalehaven, Hamilton Russell, and Bouchard Finlayson.

And if you’re a major adrenaline junkie, some of South Africa’s best shark-cage diving is nearby in Gansbaai: www.sharkcagediving.net or www.sharklady.co.za.

Don’t miss Tips for Traveling By Car in South Africa.

Whale watchingHermanus offers a wide range of comfortable lodgings, from modest guesthouses to big-ticket resorts. But the town of 25,000 can grow crowded over the Christmas holidays and during the annual whale festival in late September. We opted to stay about 25 minutes away at the Blue Gum Country Estate near Stanford, a luxurious retreat on 130 verdant acres of lavender, grapes, and wildflowers that overlooks the Klein River.

We appreciated the nature trails just beyond the vineyard, where we worked off some of the extraordinary dinners, breakfasts and wines served here (outside guests welcome.) Bird geeks that we are, we were also wild about the huge Blue Cranes that trumpeted overhead, and the bright Red Bishop that flitted just beyond our verandah.

Just down the road, the Klein River Cheese factory & shop packed perfect ham-and-gruyere sandwiches on fresh-baked rolls for our hikes; if you’d prefer to linger, the celebrated Birkenhead Micro-Brewery is right next door.

By Lynn Langway for PeterGreenberg.com. Lynn Langway is an award-winning editor, writer and journalism teacher. Her articles about travel, business and lifestyle topics have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, Money, The Nation and other publications. Visit Lynn on the Web at www.lynnlangway.com.

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