by Keri Harvey
Fishermen still head out to sea in their brightly coloured wooden boats, just as they always have, while visitors from around the world enjoy the long white beaches, delectable seaside restaurants and fine accommodation – plus a myriad of enticing attractions within striking distance.
It’s breathless as shards of sunshine break through the thick cloud canopy on the West Coast. We’re aboard Sandpiper, a 39 foot, high performance catamaran docked in Port Owen near Velddrif. Seasoned skipper Alan Biesheuvel and his first mate Donovan Herselman are at work checking all is set for our departure. We’re in the best hands possible for our trip into open ocean; Alan has over 60 years sailing experience, and Donovan loves yachts so much he lives on his in the marina. But this level of dedication and experience is necessary in the rapidly changing weather conditions of the wild West Coast.
With silent motors, we ease out of the glassy marina into the Berg River, past the rugged fishing boats at Laaiplek harbour and sea birds crowded onto the harbour wall. Out in the Atlantic Ocean, the sail is hoisted and we cut quietly through the calm ocean. It’s meditative, hypnotic and you feel yourself exhale as diminutive coastal settlements come into view. Seeing the West Coast from the ocean is an enchanting experience; stopping en route in St Helena Bay for fish and chips wrapped in newsprint is also a thoroughly West Coast thing to do. We could just as easily sail from Paternoster to Seal Island and enjoy a catered seafood lunch or braai on board – or on shore – as Sandpiper specialises in bespoke itineraries for up to 12 people. Today we’re a handful of friends enjoying a different route to a fish and chips lunch – carefree and cocooned in comfort.
Heading back after two hours, the wind has whipped up and Sandpiper is in full flight under sail, cutting effortlessly through the water. But for the whoosh of water on hull, Sandpiper is silent. Penguins swim alongside for awhile and an endemic heaviside dolphin appears to greet us, but skipper Alan is laser focused. “This yacht won the Governor’s Cup race from Cape Town to St Helena island,” he says, his eyes fixed on the sea ahead. And I believe him, because in under an hour we are docked in Port Owen feeling invigorated and ready to do it all again.
Back in Paternoster, we’re headed for the laid back luxury and seclusion of Strandloper Ocean hotel. “Here you can completely leave the world behind,” says co-owner, Simone Jacke. Strandloper is a retreat, a place of calm and it has a philosophy of being in harmony with nature and blending in with the delicate beauty of the surroundings. So the interiors don’t compete with what’s outside, but instead showcase the natural splendour of the unique coastline.
At Strandloper, the 14 suites and rooms from vast King Nature suites at 80m2 with a full lounge and loft study area, to Ocean Suites all with lounges and sea views, to cosy Courtyard Rooms with private gardens, are all a study in calm. All are appointed with pared down furnishings that reflect the surrounding natural environment of wood, stone and washed colours. Understated and with clean lines, pure linens and a neutral palette of textures, Strandloper Ocean is uncluttered and soothing. Small splashes of accent colours and Nguni hide mats lend layered depth to the suites, which are surrounded by sweeping indigenous gardens of dancing purples and blues.
At the heart of Strandloper is Leeto Restaurant, a gastronomic experience with an unobstructed sea view. Chef Garth Almazan is a wizard and conjures unusual taste combinations that are symphonic. He uses fresh, seasonal ingredients to create innovative dishes with a regional influence. The Malay Spiced West Coast Mussels are deliciously served with a potato samoosa and the Springbok Loin is out of this world – accompanied by a pulled springbok tart, gooseberry compote, pickled shimeji mushrooms and sweet potato crisps. To finish, the Chefs Selection of artisan cheeses and preserves – and the world feels complete.
Next morning we awake to cool fog cloaking the coastline. The deserted white beach that runs for kilometres in front of Strandloper has been blotted out by mist, so after a delicious breakfast, we walk into the village to browse the unique collection of shops. Junk and Disorderly is housed in an original Paternoster stone building and serves delectable breakfasts and lunches that include the fine home-baked breads and charcuterie of the owners – and there’s also a spot of unusual shopping to be had here too. Across the road, The Trading Post has a bit of everything, from handcrafted clothing to local chilli sauce and crafts, while Jem and Pantoffels opposite is a sensual experience showcasing beautiful body products and choice gifts. Just behind them, is Stone Fish Gallery where resident artist and sculptor Diane Heesom-Green works in her sun-drenched stone studio and fine art gallery. She welcomes us with a smile and we browse at leisure, finally deciding on a tiny, intricate bowl as a keepsake.
One simply can’t visit Paternoster without peeping into the famous Panty Bar at the Paternoster Hotel. The ceiling is festooned with lingerie in a rainbow of colours, so we stop in to taste a Paternoster Pilsener – possibly the only craft beer with a label crowded with sea creatures. It’s fantastically refreshing, and as we sip we consider our options for the afternoon. We can go biking on the beach or kayaking in the bay, enjoy a pampering at Elements Wellness Suite at Strandloper or walk the long white beaches and play Scrabble with dried kelp letters, and there is Cape Columbine lighthouse overlooking the village too. Or we could lunch in one of the handful of excellent restaurants each offering something quite special and memorable.
Then just a short hop away is the West Coast Fossil Park at Langebaanweg, where the fossils of the ancient Big Five along with myriad marine animals have been found, and the dig site can be visited on an informative guided tour. Nearby, the watery West Coast National Park wraps around Langebaan lagoon and protects fynbos, wildlife and a rugged and historic coastline. Here you can walk or cycle as there are no large predators, and in springtime the park hosts vast daisy carpets in dazzling colours. There’s also the irreverent shops and quaint galleries and eateries of Bokkom Laan along the Berg River in Velddrift, and boat trips down the river to see prolific birdlife, plus a smattering of little nook restaurants along the water’s edge.
The fog has cleared when we step out of the Panty Bar, so the evocative Cape Columbine lighthouse is the choice for today. There are so few lighthouses that are still manned along the South African coastline, and this is one of them. We head along the coast and onto a sand road in the Columbine reserve, winding up the hill to the lighthouse. It’s built on Castle Rock and the lighthouse building vaguely resembles a fort too. Japie Greef, the friendly lighthouse keeper is there to welcome us and he chats animatedly about the sea, sinking ships and strong winds. Japie has been minding lighthouses along the coast all his life and has thrilling stories to tell. As we head up the first staircase into the tower, he reminds us not to touch the light when we get to the top. The prisms are highly polished by hand to reflect the light.
From the top of Cape Columbine lighthouse it feels like you can see eternity. The views up and down the coastline are majestic, like looking down on a massive watercolour painting with people living in it. We stay a while and then slowly descend backwards down the ladder stairs. The lighthouse is magnificently maintained and the brass is gleaming. Japie takes great pride in Columbine and says he’s going nowhere until he retires.
We head down the sand road back into Paternoster village and onto the main fishing beach of Voorstrand. It’s late afternoon and fishermen are heading out to sea through tiny waves to catch their supper. Their boats have names like Wikkel and Troubles and one soccer lover called his boat Zenidine. Life is lived simply here, close to the sea and according to tides. The coastline may be stark but the ocean is bountiful and seafood is their staple, as it can be yours if you visit. And so we also think of dinner and which of the smorgasbord of restaurants to try. Tonight it will be De See Kat for its panoramic sea views and artistic sushi. And tomorrow we’ll stretch our legs a little more and imbibe the vibrant energy of the West Coast through its friendly people and beautiful places. This place just has to be experienced to be believed.
Uniquely West Coast Offerings:
Sail on Sandpiper – www.sandpipercharters.co.za
Strandloper Ocean Boutique Hotel – www.strandloperocean.com
De See Kat – a la carte and sushi with sea views – 072 343 9793
Gaaitjie Saltwater Restaurant – seafood on the beach – 022 752 2242
Leeto at Strandloper Ocean with sea views– 061 426 3338
The Noisy Oyster – international in a garden setting – 022 752 2196
The Square Spoon – Portuguese and vegan in the village – 072 208 2047
Voorstrandt – casual on the beach – 022 752 2038
Wolfgat – foraging menu, by appointment only, in the village – book online www.wolfgat.co.za