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The industrial city of Port Elizabeth is the centre of the Eastern Cape region. The city was founded by shiploads of British settler families who arrived in the Eastern Cape in the early 19th century, hoping to improve their prospects after suffering economic hardship because of the industrial revolution at home.
The settlers also intended to strengthen defences against the local Xhosa people, who had been pushed back beyond the Fish River frontier. The settlers came ashore at Algoa Bay, where there was nothing more than the small British Fort Frederick to welcome them.
From its humble beginnings, the city has grown into a principal port and manufacturing centre. Although it is very much a working town with a large portion of the population living in the outlying township areas, Port Elizabeth draws plenty of tourists because of its proximity to the east coast's attractions, and the historically interesting interior. The city is justifiably known as 'the friendly city' and Algoa Bay boasts 25 miles (40km) of beautiful sandy beaches lapped by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.
The beachfront features a long promenade and pier, decked out with tourist facilities. Port Elizabeth has a few museums and a small oceanarium, as well as the Nelson Mandela Stadium, which was built for the 2010 World Cup and dominates the cityscape.
The nearby Donkin Reserve provides a pleasant day trip, as do Seaview Game and Lion Park and the Kragga Kamma Game Park. Slightly further afield, visitors can see the Big Five at Shamwari Game Reserve, Amakhala Game Reserve, and Addo Elephant Park.
Port Elizabeth is generally a transfer point for travellers, as opposed to a destination in itself, but the city is worth a day or two of exploration.
Port Elizabeth's most popular attraction consists of a complex on the beachfront that includes the Oceanarium, a museum, and a snake park. The Bayworld Oceanarium features an aquarium tank where visitors can watch a vast array of marine life through glass portholes as they glide by. This includes sharks, turtles, and rays. The penguins and seals are particularly entertaining while the snake park contains an impressive variety of indigenous reptiles in natural-looking enclosures. The PE Museum focuses on cultural and natural history with a wide variety of exhibits, from models of sailing ships and period costumes to giant replicas of dinosaurs that roamed the area in prehistoric times. It is the third-oldest museum in the country. Port Elizabeth has a lovely beachfront area, which is the main draw for visitors. But the city is generally just a stop-over point for tourists on their way to one of the nearby game reserves. If tourists are travelling through Port Elizabeth with kids and have a bit of time to spare, visiting Bayworld is a great option.
Port Elizabeth's architectural heritage can be traced by taking a walk around the city's central Market Square, which features several historic buildings. The centrepiece of the square is the aesthetically pleasing City Hall, dating from 1858 and topped with an attractive clock tower. Also in the square is a replica of the Diaz Cross that commemorates the first European to set foot in Algoa Bay in 1488, when Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz stopped over on his way east. Alongside the city hall is the Prester John Memorial, which is dedicated to the Portuguese explorers who landed in South Africa. On the northwest flank of the square is the city's public library. Built in 1835, it was originally used as a courthouse. The beautiful building is regarded as an excellent example of Victorian Gothic architecture and is interesting in that its façade was manufactured in England and shipped to Port Elizabeth to be recreated piece by piece. In front of the library stands a marble statue of Queen Victoria, which was unveiled in 1903.
Slightly downhill from the square, at the entrance to the harbour, stands the Campanile, containing one of the biggest carillons of bells (23) in the country. Visitors can climb 204 steps to enjoy the view from the top of this monument, which commemorates the landing of the 1820 settlers.
St George's Park has been a recreational centre for the city of Port Elizabeth for more than 150 years, boasting well-landscaped gardens covering 73 hectares. On site is the world famous Port Elizabeth Cricket Club, the second oldest cricket club in South Africa and the scene of many an exciting test match series, and the oldest bowling green in the country, established in 1884. The historic sporting venue was also the site of South Africa's first rugby test match. The love of cricket was brought to Port Elizabeth by British settlers and local myths tell of one of the settlers wading through the waters of Algoa Bay towards his new homeland with his cricket bat held safely above his head to keep it dry. The park also features the 1882 Edwardian Pearson Conservatory: a national monument filled with orchids, water lilies, and other exotic plants. Apart from being good for strolls and picnics, to say nothing of sporting events, the park hosts a vibrant arts and crafts fair every second Sunday of the month.
The other major park in Port Elizabeth is Settler's Park. It's set in the Baakens River valley, which boasts indigenous flora and fauna and offers a delightful stroll along the riverbank.
Port Elizabeth enjoys a moderate, oceanic climate, and is known to have the most sunshine and fewest rainy days among South Africa's seaside cities. However, it is also sometimes known as 'the windy city', as the weather is not always idyllic.
Winters include mild, cool months, while summers are warm, remaining less hot than the northern parts of the east coast. In summer, between December and February, the average temperatures range between 64°F (18°C) and 77°F (25°C), and in winter, between June and August, they range between 48°F (9°C) and 68°F (20°C).
December and January are the most popular months for a holiday in Port Elizabeth, when the city comes alive with all sorts of fun-in-the-sun activities. The best time to travel to Port Elizabeth, however, is just before or after the height of this season, when beaches are less crowded and the weather is just as good. Winters in Port Elizabeth are very mild and those from northern climes will still find it warm enough to enjoy the sun. Winter is also a good time for game viewing in the many reserves near Port Elizabeth.
The Grahamstown National Arts Festival is one of the most important cultural events on the South African calendar. It's also Africa's biggest annual celebration of the arts, attracting more than 50,000 people. Many art forms are represented in over 500 shows, from street theatre, exhibitions, dance and comedy to opera, drama, and ballet. Attendees can spend time in lectures and workshops too, meaning there's something to delight everybody.
The vibrant little university town comes alive with parties, live music and big social events. Restaurants, bars, pubs and clubs do a booming trade. The sprawling craft markets are another big attraction. Visitors will find an official festival market on the Great Field of Rhodes University, and numerous unofficial markets throughout the town's streets and thoroughfares.
Visitors are advised to book accommodation for the festival as early as possible, as Grahamstown is small and good accommodation tends to fill up fast. The destination is indeed an interesting stop at any time of year, though the National Arts Festival showcases it in the best possible light.
Hiring a car is considered the best way to get around in Port Elizabeth. The road system is good and traffic is light. Port Elizabeth is sometimes referred to as the '15-minute city' due to the ease of getting around. Municipal buses offer limited service around the city from the Market Square Bus Station.
Many locals get around in minibus taxis. However, these can be cramped and have high accident rates. Metered taxis are also available, but they are not frequently found on the street and must be booked by phone. Private transport services such as Uber also operate in the city.
Though Port Elizabeth is the Eastern Cape's primary travel hub, its popularity with travellers is based on its proximity to some amazing national parks and historic sites, rather than to the charm of the place itself. Port Elizabeth is a little grubby and industrial but it does have a friendly, welcoming character and a lovely coastline.
The numerous worthwhile excursions out of the city far overshadow anything the urban area has to offer, and places like Grahamstown, Nieu-Bethesda, and Jeffrey's Bay are big drawcards nearby. Port Elizabeth is also close to some world-class game reserves. However, the city itself does have some fun attractions, particularly for those travelling with children.
On a hill above the centre of the city stands a stone pyramid with an adjacent lighthouse. This open public space was proclaimed in perpetuity by Sir Rufane Donkin, acting British Governor of the Cape, when the 1820 Settlers arrived in Algoa Bay.
Donkin named the new settlement after his wife, Elizabeth, who had died in India two years previously, and erected the pyramid to her memory. The lighthouse was built in 1861, and today houses the city's Tourist Information Centre.
Maps are available from the centre describing a three-mile (5km) discovery trail through the hill area and central city, taking in 47 historic sites and architectural delights. This is the perfect place to start a spot of sightseeing in Port Elizabeth.
Addo Elephant Park is the most popular game reserve in the Port Elizabeth area, and is a 45-minute drive from the city. The park is situated in the ruggedly beautiful Eastern Cape region, and offers an authentic safari experience. Addo was founded in 1931 to save the area's remaining 11 indigenous elephants, and has been a remarkable success since then. It is now the third largest game reserve in South Africa, and one of the most popular with tourists and locals. The elephants are drawn to watering holes at certain times and sightings are virtually guaranteed all year round. There are other animals in the park too, including lion, leopard, black rhino, buffalo, zebra, warthog, hyena, and several types of buck. Guided game drives are available or visitors can do a self-drive tour using the map issued at the entrance. The roads are in good condition.
A variety of accommodation is available and there is a restaurant and picnic site. Horse riding and walking safaris are also available. Addo is a great destination year-round but the best months for game viewing are April and May, when it is dry and warm.
The multi-award winning private game reserve of Shamwari lies less than an hour's drive from Port Elizabeth. It is responsible for re-introducing numerous species into the Eastern Cape plains, including all of the Big Five (lion, elephant, rhino, leopard, and buffalo). The reserve offers phenomenal luxury accommodation, but also hosts visitors on day trips from the city. Day tours include a visit to an art and culture village to sample Xhosa culture and traditionally brewed beer, and a trip to one of the Born Free centres for abused animals. There are two Born Free Big Cat Sanctuaries in Shamwari, where visitors can learn about how wildlife is abused in captivity and can see some of the rescued animals. The Ian Player Rhino Awareness Centre opened in 2012, and is available to educate guests about the terrible epidemic of rhino poaching in South Africa. At the Shamwari Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, guests can usually meet whatever animals are currently being cared for.
Those lucky enough to stay in one of the luxury game lodges can enjoy game drives, game walks, spa treatments and gorgeous restaurants. Groups of between six and 10 people will be assigned a personal game ranger by the lodges and daily programmes will be designed to suit guests.
The historic settler town of Grahamstown lies 78 miles (125km) northeast of Port Elizabeth. Many visitors become acquainted with its 1820 Settlers' National Monument. Sitting atop Gunfire Hill, the arts and theatre complex is home to the town's internationally recognised Arts Festival. Grahamstown was founded in 1812 as a garrison to drive the Xhosa people eastwards across the Fish River frontier, giving rise to a century of frontier war. The town has retained an English colonial flavour, and is home to the renowned Rhodes University and some top private boarding schools. Visitors will find several museums, including the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology, where two stuffed specimens of the coelacanth are on display. The town also boasts the only Victorian camera obscura in the southern hemisphere. Grahamstown is a quaint and picturesque town with a rich history and a famously active student population, making it a wonderful travel base in the ruggedly beautiful 'frontier country' of the Eastern Cape.
The Arts Festival is the highlight of Grahamstown annual calendar, when the little town comes alive with the best theatre, music, and dance that South Africa has to offer. Sprawling craft markets take over the streets and fields as well.
Known colloquially as J-Bay, the surfing paradise of Jeffrey's Bay is a short drive west of Port Elizabeth. This determinedly laid-back seaside town is most famous for Supertubes, one of the best right-hand point breaks in the world. Many consider it South Africa's perfect wave. The town lives and breathes surfing and has several glorious surf spots that are gentler and more accommodating than the celebrated Supertubes. The waters of J-Bay are also frequented by dolphins, seals, and whales, and surfers are often lucky enough to mingle with these sea creatures. J-Bay has many surf stores, including factory outlets selling cheap, branded clothes, and surf gear. The long stretches of picturesque sandy beach surrounding the town and are renowned for their shells and bright orange aloes. Rivers and nature reserves border the town on both sides. The region has a wide range of accommodation, including luxury game farms just out of town and cheap backpackers for budget travellers. The town itself is not particularly attractive but the natural setting more than compensates.
Although J-Bay is a famously friendly place, surfers should note that localism can be a problem in the water. Visitors should be friendly and respectful with local surfers, and should abide by proper surfing etiquette.
Tourists looking to take an adventure to a legitimately weird and wonderful South African town should head to the interior of the Eastern Cape and check out Nieu-Bethesda. Located about 32 miles (50km) from Graaff Reinet in the Karoo Heartland, Nieu-Bethesda is a tiny, sleepy place that seems to exist in blissful ignorance of modern life. Devoid of banks, paved roads, and even streetlights, Nieu-Bethesda nonetheless still boasts several excellent and one-of-a-kind tourist attractions. The pick of these is the Owl House: a bizarre and unsettling sculpture garden created by reclusive artist Helen Martins. She was a frustrated visionary who suffered under the apartheid system and who took her own life in 1976. The Owl House is cluttered with cement and wire sculptures of a religious nature, painstakingly decorated with crushed glass, and gives a fascinating insight into a tortured and singular artistic personality. Other sights in Nieu-Bethesda include a great archaeological museum and tour, where visitors are shown fossils that date back 160 million years. Present too is the Kompasberg, the Eastern Cape's highest peak and a wonderful place to hike on agathosma-scented slopes.
Finally, all visitors to Nieu-Bethesda are strongly encouraged to have lunch at the Two Goats Deli, a family-run establishment that specialises in home-made goat's cheese and home-brewed beer.
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