Hermanus, South Africa: coastal charm, whales and wine

Hermanus, South Africa

Six free-annual-night Hyatt certificates first put Hermanus, South Africa, on my radar screen. David and I each had accumulated lots of hotel certificates over the pandemic and we each had three Hyatt nights that we needed to use. We get one certificate/year with certain credit cards and, although they usually expire within a year, Hyatt had extended the expiration due to the pandemic. This created a great opportunity to use those certificates for an extended stay. We often use these certificates for a 2-night stay, using each of our 1-night certificates, then calling the hotel to make sure we can stay in the same room, rather than checking out and then in again as the booking switches from one of our names to the other. So, we could have lumped our nights together for a 6-night free stay somewhere, but that really didn’t suit our plans on this trip.

With travel so restricted due to the pandemic, a lot of the usual best-use locations (like Asia) were closed to us. When the idea of a trip to Africa started to come together, I searched Kenya and South Africa for interesting-looking Hyatts. As luck would have it, Hyatt had just added three new Small Luxury Hotels (SLH) to its lineup in South Africa and two of them fell under the eligibility requirements for our certificates. (The certificates are good for hotels in Hyatt Categories 1-4. The idea is to use the certificate for the poshest Category 4 available in order to maximize the value of the certificate.) I decided to use my three certificates at The Marine Hermanus. What a great find that turned out to be!

We arrived just after dark at The Marine after our day exploring the Cape Peninsula. After a quick stop at the guard post, we were let into the gated parking lot and shown to the registration desk. The welcome was very friendly and, after confirming we were hungry, we were promised a table would be waiting in the dining room as soon as we settled into our room. I had reserved a standard king room and it was charming. On the side of the building facing away from the town of Hermanus, we had a very oblique view of the water, I think. It was dark and morning would tell. Or so I thought. After a quick wash-up, I went to put our valuables into the safe and discovered it to be old and not functioning. Oh well, I wasn’t overly concerned, but did want to lock things up so mentioned it to the man at Reception on our way to dinner. Midway through an excellent meal, he arrived, apologizing again and saying he was moving us to a suite and would escort us there with our luggage as soon as we were finished with dinner. Well, that called for a toast!

The Marine Hermanus

The suite turned out to be enormous, easily three times the size of our original, comfortably-sized room. Our new digs had a king-sized bed, sofa and coffee table, small dining table and two chairs, a minifridge stocked with free beer, soft drinks and snacks under the tv, a vanity, and enough open space for a rousing game of ping-pong. The bathroom sported a huge shower, a massive tub, a toilet, and three(!) sinks. To top it all off, we had one of the few balconies in the vintage hotel, and the biggest one at that. Our balcony sat atop the covered entrance to the hotel so, straight ahead, we looked down the street towards downtown Hermanus. The bay was just to the left, but since our balcony was so big we had a table and chairs and lots of room. Once the sun was up (and rain showers cleared), we could sit outside and watch whales any time of the day! [An internet search showed this suite was running about $560/night at the time, making this stay an excellent use of my Hyatt certificates.]

It’s always fun to survey your new surroundings after arriving in the dark. Morning revealed to us a picture-perfect waterside town with a paved walk meandering along the cliffs. The weather proved to be fickle, changing quickly from sunny with scattered clouds to squalls that moved through quickly. We nevertheless set out for a walk along the cliffs to the main town pier. We spied our first whales in no time and had fun watching them until the weather drove us to shelter. We explored semi-sheltered booths of local items for sale then moved on to indoor shops as rain came down in earnest. Our first day in Hermanus continued like that with us moving in and out-of-doors as the weather dictated. Fortunately, the town is small and The Marine was in easy walking distance. Our spacious suite wasn’t a shabby retreat either!

Whale breaching just off shore by The Marine

In addition to a view of the bay and of the town, we had a view of the modestly-sized parking in front of The Marine. We were impressed to see men washing every car in the lot… and repeating the wash after every frequent shower. Unemployment is high in South Africa and perhaps as a result there seem to be many such service jobs, making us feel very pampered, if a bit uncomfortably so.

Over the three nights we spent in Hermanus, we explored the cliff walk for long stretches in both directions. The cliffs along the town front invariably offered excellent whale watching, with several whales to be seen at almost any time, some very near the land. We saw mother whales with calves, whales breaching, spyhopping and fin waving. It was magical! Wandering past the main town pier we found lots of “dassies” (large brown-furred rodents also known as rock hyraxes) grazing among whimsical sculptures. Rounding a curve in the coastline, the water became less sheltered with big waves breaking on huge rock slabs. Wildflowers and birds, including a pheasant-like Cape Francolin mama with chicks, wandered the wildflower-laden greenery that decorated the upper portion of the rugged coast.

The rugged coast of Hermanus

In addition to two excellent meals at The Marine, we had seafood with a view of the water at Lemonicious and wood-fired pizza at Embers Wood Fired Oven which also offers a surprisingly good selection of Belgian beers, thanks to input from a Belgian couple who retired from their own restaurant in Hermanus a couple of years back. They were in Embers the night we ate there, visiting with the owner, and we were delighted to find they were Antwerpers by origin with a daughter still in school there. On a sunny weekend afternoon, we ate a tasty lunch outside at Pear Tree Bistro with a view of the bay while a talented local musician played with the aid of an amplifier set up beside his van.

The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley (“Heaven and Earth”), a popular and scenic wine region, is located a short drive from Hermanus and we drove one day to a wine tasting at Ataraxia, a pretty winery with a tasting room designed to look like a chapel. We were surprised to find our choice of wineries really limited on a weekend. For some bizarre reason, many of the wineries were either closed entirely on the weekend or only open from 9 or 10am to noon. Who wants wine for breakfast?! It seemed really crazy since it would seem their main source of steady businessduring the on-and-off travel bans due to Covid-19 would be daytrippers from Cape Town, most of whom would be presumably working during the week and free on weekends. In fact, we shared a table at Ataraxia with a group of women doing a girls’ weekend away from husbands and kids. (These ladies were tons of fun and apparently had no problem with breakfast-time drinking.) They told us they thought the weird winery hours were due to the pandemic. I’m not sure how that makes sense, but there you have it.

Ataraxia Winery in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley

All in all, we loved Hermanus. It’s not a big-event place, but a charming town to pass some days whale-and-wave watching and enjoying the local food and wine. I can’t say enough good things about The Marine or its parent group, The Liz McGrath Collection. We had to call them twice, once to ask to move our reservation at The Marine up a day and another time to advise them of a late arrival. Both times, the phone line was answered immediately by someone eager and able to help. Would that all customer service lines were like that!

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