Downtown Delights in Mossel Bay
Written by Laurie Sullivan (Africa Media)
Do great white sharks swim in shallow waters? I wondered as I looked over Santos beach inhabited by surfers, sunbathers, and swimmers. Not too far out from the beach was a small island with about 3000 Cape fur seals as its only occupants. Boats anchored off the island reminded me of the predators possibly circling below. How crazy are these people? I would never get in the water so close to an apex like a great white. The shark cage diving company, White Shark Africa, is just five minutes’ walk from the harbor – seems like a much safer choice.
(My killer shot of a great white after cage diving with White Shark Africa)
Mossel Bay is a coastal town located off the N2 in the Garden Route of South Africa. The town as a whole might be small in size, but its downtown area alone is a destination within itself. The sea is an important part of this town, as the harbor is one of the primary economic sources for the area. It’s also from the sea that the first European explorers, like Vasco da Gama and Bartolomeu Dias, came to discover the town as a port in the 1400s. My favorite aspect of this town is the closeness to marine life and seaside activities.
I turned away from Santos beach and walked the hidden back route towards the harbor and yacht club – now known as the Mossel Bay Waterfront – where the Garden Route Scuba shop resides. There are boat dives available as well as a shore dive, which I’ve been on. Between the different varieties of marine life as well as a sunken Ford bakkie, there are plenty of fascinating submerged views to capture.
(Hannah and I getting ready for our shore dive. I’m glad we had the boots and hood)
The harbor also houses an impressive selection of restaurants. For a fancy dinner out, there’s the Oyster Bar for sushi and cocktails. You can sit on the deck overlooking the bay while sampling gin and enjoying good seafood. Kaai 4 has a laid back, eclectic vibe and specializes in braai meat and roosterkoek. They even brew their coffee over the open fire.
(Kaai 4’s gnome garden)
The Sea Gypsy Cafe was the first restaurant at the harbor and offers great views and a large seafood menu. Down the road from that, the best fish and chips in town is served at The London Bus, a quirky restaurant converted from a red double-decker bus. If you walk halfway up the hill towards town, you’ll find La Peron, which has won TripAdvisor’s badge for the best food in Mossel Bay for the last three years in a row. La Peron has a tiki vibe with its sand floor, palm-covered beach bar, and blue harbor views. The staff recommends the seafood platter or prawns.
(My candlelit fish and chips dinner from La Peron)
Overlooking Santos beach and the harbor is the Dias Museum Complex. My original intent was only to stop by the Shell Museum located in the complex, to learn some more about the town’s marine species and history. However, there were too many other wonderful things on offer not to explore the other exhibits – one ticket gives you access to the whole complex. The museum opened on February 3, 1989. It’s easy for me to remember, seeing as it’s my exact birth date.
The Post Office Tree, a large twisted milkwood over 500 years old, forms a canopy over a bronze shoe postbox. If you mail something from here, you can get the special post office tree frank. It might take a little longer to get delivered than normal post, but in my opinion, receiving a postcard from a tree is something quite special.
The Maritime Museum holds a life-size replica of Bartolomeu Dias’ caravel ship, along with the history surrounding early Portuguese, Dutch and English navigators. You can walk around the towering ship around which the whole building was constructed, viewing the beautifully detailed paintings along the way, and if you’re keen, you can also board the ship.
(Bartolomeu Dias’ replica ship)
My last stop was the shell museum, which houses a massive collection of shells donated over decades from all over the world. Besides the large number of shells, there are live fish tanks and an interactive shellfish touch tank. “We think we have a very important role. We teach the children how to handle animals and to understand that they are animals. They are not just playthings,” explained Belinda von Schütz. When asked about the top-floor “exhibit” of plastic and other pollution in the ocean, which shows the lifespan of each material, she said: “We teach children and even adults to respect sea life and, of course, to talk about pollution.”
(You can spend hours in the Shell Museum)
Up the street from the historic museum complex, an unexpected and well-established coffee community thrives in downtown Mossel Bay. At the top of Bland Street sits an unsuspecting cobalt-blue building, The Blue Shed Coffee Roastery. The Blue Shed’s coffee is rich and their mocha is delicious. You can either sit on comfy couches or sit outside for an ocean view. Located on Marsh Street is the airy Object Cafe. They pride themselves on local homemade food and invite customers to visit their kitchen. Fearless Cafe, a quaint corner coffee shop on Marsh Street, resides in the same historical building of the Green Door Guesthouse. Loretta de Moor, the owner, is a vivacious powerhouse of positive energy. Her motto, ‘Love conquers all,’ shows in the details of her menu. She has more traditional choices (filtered coffee or lattes) but also adds a twist with options such as french press or Aeropress coffee. On Bland Street next to De Jagers, what used to be an old mechanic shop is now The Merchant: an eclectic coffee shop with knowledgeable baristas and quirky artwork. You can sit outside or in their quieter upstairs lounge.
(The vibrant Blue Shed)
Not a coffee person? More of a beer person? Further down Marsh Street, you’ll find a cluster of bars, each with its own personality. Patrick’s Pub and Restaurant has a large selection of beers as well as pizza and Irish cuisine. Across the road at Friends Pub and Grill, you can play pool, chill at the bar, or even sit by a fire depending on the night. If you’re looking for live music, the artsy Zeppelins is the place to be. They serve burgers, pizza, tapas, and are vegetarian-friendly.
If you wander onwards, you end up at The Point. Looking up, I could see the St. Blaize lighthouse perched atop the cave where the St. Blaize hiking trail starts. Below that, The Point Hotel and Spa overlooks the water as well as the campground at the bottom of the hill.
(The St. Blaize lighthouse beams over the moon rising)
Nestled in between The Point Hotel and the boardwalk lining the rocky shores lies a small, interactive aquarium owned by Alan Jardine. As you walk into The Shark Lab Aquarium, you’ll find a few fish greeting you to your right and receptionist Creshanda Austen, who I sat down with, warmly welcoming you. “It’s very unique,” she describes the aquarium. “It has an eccentric, cave-like raw atmosphere to it. There’s nothing plastic about this place.”
(Betty Blue followed me as I walked by)
Although small, there’s plenty to see and learn. The aquarium has various local and tropical species, including pinktail triggerfish (which Creshanda calls the Barbie dolls of the sea). You will also spot starfish, an octopus named Betty Blue, two smoothhound sharks, anemones, and rosy goatfish. “When people visit our aquarium, they realize that fish are not just fish. You learn to love them because it’s not just a creature. They’re so much more,” says Creshanda.
After leaving the aquarium, I browsed the large selection of food trucks and ice cream carts at the tip of the Point. The caramel-coated vanilla cone from Ice Cream World comes highly recommended. I sat with my cone on a bench as a flock of pigeons fought for my attention.
(The impressive mountain-lined horizon paired with the aqua water make it hard to leave)
As you wander around Mossel Bay’s downtown sidewalks with its stunning sea view, it’s easy to see why one would want to live the rest of their lives here. Too many coffee shops to count, plenty of restaurants, antique shops and museums all contribute to the traveler’s experience when visiting. While I ate my ice cream from The Point and watched a seal playfully swimming through the waves, I realized: I’d definitely swim here, probably more than once. Sharks and all.