Hermanus is a picture-postcard destination in every sense of the word: just 122km from Cape Town, this gorgeous town boasts incredible scenery, astounding views, one of South Africa’s greatest national parks and a surfeit of excellent bars and restaurants guaranteed to satisfy even the fussiest of gastronomes. Not to mention the nearby Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, the source of South Africa’s finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Today Hermanus is a thriving and universally popular resort town, yet its history is relatively short by the standards of the Western Cape. The wider region was first discovered in the 15th century when the Portuguese explorer Bartholomeu Dias sailed to the Cape from West Africa. His successor Vasco de Gama sailed past what we today know as Cape Town, although the Portuguese explorer, Antonio de Saldanha, was the first person who actually coined the name Table Mountain in the 16th century.
In the 17th century, the Western Cape was rapidly becoming a magnet for European settlers and indeed religious groups, such as Huguenots (protestants) looking to escape persecution in their native France. They were welcomed to the Cape with open arms, particularly as they boasted valuable viticultural expertise that was largely responsible for kick-starting the thriving wine industry South Africa enjoys today.
In the early 19th century the British (as one of the key groups involved in colonizing the Cape) annexed the region in 1806. Of course, this immediately caused escalating tensions with the Boers (descendants of the Dutch settlers) and the native Zulu tribes, who eventually went to war in 1880.
However, earlier that century a Dutch teacher, Hermanus Pieters, arrived in what we today know as Hermanus in 1815 and settled in the town of Caledon. He was recruited by Dutch farmers, concerned that the English language was taking over the local culture, to teach Dutch to the next generation of farmers and their children.
Pieters is also credited with ‘discovering’ the Hemel-en-Aarde valley – known then as Elephant’s pass – as the perfect site for farmers to graze their livestock in the summer months. Thereafter, a growing number of farmers took his lead, including fishermen who helped to turn Hermanus into a permanent settlement in the 19th century.
The settlement was originally named Hermanuspietersfontein, until 1902 when the postmaster decided to shorten the name to just Hermanus – the thriving fishing village subsequently received official municipality status in 1904. Yet its future prosperity would not derive from fishing, but rather tourism and its reputation as an ideal location for rest and recuperation spread by doctors in London. In 1902 the town’s first hotel, The Victoria, opened and soon became a massive hit with the British upper-classes looking to escape the dreaded winter back home.
Meanwhile, after the defeat of the Boers in the Second Boer War, a new era dawned for Cape Town after the Union of South Africa was created in 1910. Sadly, much of the 20th century in South Africa would subsequently be defined by apartheid, a political movement to divide the nation based on color and ethnicity.
Thankfully in the early 1990s, recently elected president FW de Klerk set about dismantling apartheid and Nelson Mandela became president of a newly united and optimistic South Africa in 1994. Since that day Hermanus has prospered as both a major tourist destination and as a gateway to the magnificent Hemel-en-Aarde wine region – perhaps the greatest source of Pinot Noir outside of Burgundy, one might argue. Indeed, the region’s beautiful wineries and vineyards are a fitting introduction to Hermanus itself; prosperous, proud and inviting, they are a fitting poster-child for South Africa today.
Gastronomy and Wine
Former president Nelson Mandela said it best: “Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.” Diversity is the main strength of South Africa, whether it describes its people, landscapes or indeed cuisine; fresh seafood, intensely scented curries, meat feasts – everything is up for grabs in Mandela’s aptly titled “Rainbow Nation.”
In this regard Hermanus does not disappoint – as a key tourist destination, there are excellent restaurants and tasting rooms aplenty, everything from upmarket to delightfully relaxed and unfussy. The town’s proximity to the Indian Ocean ensures that only the freshest seafood is available daily, while the region’s highly fertile soils provide an incredible abundance of local produce, everything from zucchini to every type of fresh fruit imaginable.
Today, both Hermanus and the surrounding area offer a plethora of good restaurants – Seafood at the Marine, situated at the Marine Hotel, probably does the best fish and is easily accessible from Hermanus itself. Meanwhile, Burgundy restaurant situated opposite the old harbor is housed in the oldest building in Hermanus (built in 1875) and boasts a gorgeous terrace overlooking the Bay. The food is no less impressive – try the calamari!
However, for truly spectacular views head to the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, where a growing number of wineries also run world-class restaurants. The Restaurant at Newton Johnson Winery is top of our list, maestro chef Rickey Broekhove serves up some of the most imaginative cuisines in the region, effortlessly paired with stunning wines and, of course, even better views. La Vierge estate and restaurant is another firm favorite, not least because of the eclectic culinary offering and dreamy outdoor terrace.
Which brings us to the vital subject of wine in this part of the world. The Hemel-en-Aarde Valley is today considered one of the Western Cape’s most important wine regions, renowned for producing elegant, Burgundian-style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Indeed, benefiting from the cooling influence of Walker Bay, this is the part of South Africa to come searching for elegance and finesse, with excellent Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Syrah available in generous abundance.
The jewel in the crown of the magnificent Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, Hamilton Russell is producing some of the finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in South Africa today. Run by the congenial Anthony Hamilton Russell, this superstar winery welcomes visitors with open arms.
The Western Cape’s most beautiful national park, Fernkloof is famous for the variety of its flora and fauna, not to mention the stunning views of Walker Bay. A must-visit for any nature lover.
Hermanus is the Western Cape’s whale-watching capital; September and October are the best months for spotting the world’s most majestic animals, with regular trips from Hermanus.