On the south coast of South Africa’s Western Cape province lies Hermanus, a tourist hotspot that’s part luxury holiday resort, part old-fashioned fishermen’s village. The town overlooks Walker Bay, where southern right whales congregate every year between June and December. Consequently, Hermanus has earned a reputation as the best land-based whale-watching destination in Africa; if not the world. Whales aren’t the only reason to visit, however. Hermanus is also known for its gourmet restaurants, fertile winelands, and impressive selection of boutique shops and galleries. All of its many charms combine to make it one of the highlights on the road between Cape Town and the start of the Garden Route in Mossel Bay.
Whale Watching in Hermanus
The number one reason to visit Hermanus is to catch a glimpse of the southern right whales that populate Walker Bay from June to early December. The whales migrate annually to South Africa’s Cape Whale Coast from their feeding grounds in Antarctica, and spend their time here mating, calving, and raising their young. The Hermanus Cliff Path and Gearing’s Point both provide elevated vantage points where spectators watch as whales play just a few hundred feet from shore. The town even has its own Whale Crier, who alerts locals and tourists whenever a whale is spotted by blowing into a kelp horn.
Land-based whale watching is both rewarding and free, but if you want to get even closer to the whales it’s worth paying for a boat tour with a licensed company like Southern Right Charters. As well as the southern right whales, you’ll also have the opportunity to look for other South African marine life including humpback and Bryde’s whales, two species of dolphin, Cape fur seals, and the endangered African penguin. Aerial whale watching is another unforgettable option.
Every September, the Hermanus Whale Festival celebrates the town’s most famous residents with three days of environmental talks, film presentations, beach clean-ups, street parades, food stalls, and performers. There are also plenty of fun activities for kids, including the Pirates & Mermaids Treasure Hunt. If your visit doesn’t coincide with the festival, you can learn more about the whales and the whaling industry that once operated out of nearby Betty’s Bay either at the Old Harbour Museum or the Whale House Museum. The latter includes a full-size southern right whale skeleton.
Other Things to Do in Hermanus
Hermanus also has more than its fair share of beautiful beaches. The largest and most visited is Grotto Beach, which stretches for over 11 miles. Part of the beach has earned Blue Flag status for its superior cleanliness and facilities, which include easy parking, lifeguards, and braai (barbecue) facilities around the lagoon mouth. The lagoon is an ideal spot for families, providing a safe space for children to swim and play. Other top options include Onrus Beach and Voelklip Beach, both of which are great for surfers. In December, Onrus Beach hosts the annual Onrus Classic Surfing and Bodyboarding Competition.
There are many other ways to make the most of Hermanus’ awe-inspiring location in between mountains and sea. The Hermanus Cliff Path is a 7.5-mile coastal trail that runs from New Harbour to Grotto Beach, offering astonishing views of Walker Bay and its whales along the way. Hikers will also love Fernkloof Nature Reserve, which has 37 miles of hiking trails. As part of the Cape Floristic Region, the reserve is a botanist’s paradise with more than 1,250 species of plant including many different types of endemic fynbos. Keep an eye out for wildlife ranging from grey rhebok and Cape grysbok antelope to baboons and rock hyraxes.
Walker Bay Nature Reserve offers a plethora of different outdoor activities like whale watching, birding, hiking, 4x4 trails, and angling. If you want to fish, you will need a permit; these can be purchased from any South African post office. Other options for watersports lovers include canoeing and kayaking tours on Klein River Lagoon, or sea kayaking on Walker Bay. For golf enthusiasts, Hermanus Golf Course boasts 27 holes interspersed with panoramic coastal and mountain vistas.
Where to Eat
If you love good food, you’ll love Hermanus. The town is full of gourmet restaurants, most of which focus on farm-to-table dining that showcases South Africa’s bountiful produce. Often, dishes are paired with local wines from the nearby Hemel en Aarde valley, which fittingly translates to "Heaven and Earth." For breakfast, try the specialty sweet and savory pancakes at Betty Blue Bistro, a light-filled, minimalist space on Main Road. For lunch and dinner, The Wine Glass and Pear Tree are tried-and-true favorites. The former serves artisanal small plates and close to 100 local wines sold by the glass. The latter is known for its seafood dishes, served al fresco.
Both restaurants are very close to Gearing’s Point, so if the Whale Crier’s horn sounds, you can go and watch whales in between courses. If you’re in Hermanus over the weekend, head to the Hermanus Country Market (held every Saturday morning) to stock up on organic, gourmet treats and local wines ahead of a picnic on the Cliff Path.
Where to Stay
Accommodation options in Hermanus are dominated by boutique hotels and luxury guesthouses. Of them all, One Marine Drive Boutique Hotel is a fan-favorite. It has five exquisitely decorated guest rooms (all with sea-facing private balconies), a roaring fireplace in the living room and a full homemade breakfast every morning. 5-star Birkenhead House is another excellent choice. It perches atop the cliffs and boasts jaw-dropping views from all 11 rooms, the infinity pool and the fine-dining restaurant. This hotel offers spa treatments and all-inclusive rates.
For a more affordable place to rest your head, consider Hermanus Backpackers. This budget pick enjoys an exceptional location in the town center, just 15 minutes’ walk from Gearing’s Point. You can choose from a range of dormitories and private rooms, some with en-suite bathrooms; while other amenities include a welcoming living room, a communal kitchen, and a garden with a swimming pool.
Weather and When to Go
Hermanus is a year-round destination and no matter when you travel, there’s always something to see and do. If you want to see whales, you’ll need to time your visit to coincide with the June to December whale season. Activity typically peaks in August and September. Weather-wise, Hermanus has a mild Mediterranean climate and follows the same weather patterns as the rest of the Western Cape. Winter (June to August) is the coldest and wettest time of year, with an average of six rainy days per month and temperatures that range from 50 to 66 degrees F (10 to 19 degrees C). Summer (November to January) is the hottest and driest time of year, with just two days of rain per month and temperatures that range from 59 to 77 degrees F (15 to 25 degrees C).
Therefore, even though winter is the best time for spotting whales, summer brings plenty of sunshine and is the best season for basking on the beach. For the best of both worlds, plan your trip for November. Note that accommodation and tours book up quickly during the Hermanus Whale Festival (in September) and during the December holidays.
Hermanus is located approximately 75 miles (120 kilometers) southeast of Cape Town. The quickest way to get there from the Mother City is on the N2 motorway, a journey of just over 1.5 hours. The more scenic route detours along the coastal R44 highway and takes just over 2 hours. If you’re traveling west from the Garden Route, Hermanus is 3.5 hours from Mossel Bay, 1 hour and 45 minutes from Cape Agulhas (the most southerly point in Africa), and 40 minutes from Gansbaai, the great white shark diving capital.
Most tourists travel to Hermanus using a rental car. However, if you don’t have your own wheels, there are other options. The Baz Bus is a hop-on/hop-off backpacker bus that stops in Hermanus en route from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth (and vice versa). Local tour company Hotspots2c offers highly recommended, small-group itineraries, many of which include a visit to Hermanus.