By Bevan Pank

While attending a conference in Paris, a businesswoman from Simon's Town was asked by a French participant whereabouts in South Africa she lived. Presuming that the name would be meaningless to him, she replied: "Cape Town." Whereupon he inquired: "is that near Simon's Town?"

On rounding the Cape Peninsula in 1580, Sir Francis Drake remarked: "this Cape is a most stately thing, and the fairest Cape we saw in the whole circumference of the Earth." Simon's Bay only became better known 107 years later, when Commander Simon van der Stel surveyed it for a safe winter anchorage. In 1743, Baron van Imhoff - governor general of the Dutch East Indies - selected a suitable site for the first buildings in Simon's Town. With a mountainous backdrop and panoramic views across False Bay, it has since become what one of countless foreign visitors described as "the highlight of his South African tour!"

There was a time when most tourists dashed blindly through Simon's Town by bus. They were only interested in observing the large penguin colony from an elevated board-walk at a nearby National Park. This all changed as the fabulous waterfront complex, the arts and crafts route, cobbled lanes, historic buildings, pubs, restaurants and delightful accommodation away from city crowds became better known. A large number of visitors now use the town as a base to explore further afield between relaxing breaks. It is within easy reach of other attractions, such as the world-famous Kirstenbosch Gardens and barely a 35-minute drive to the wine lands. Furthermore, thanks to a special police "bike squad" and "Bobby On The Beat", it has a very good record for safety.

To arrive in style on the one hour's scenic trip by train from Cape Town, reservations can be made to wine and dine aboard its popular "Biggsy's" coach. When wanting to travel further along a 30 kilometre road via the Nature Reserve to Cape Point, tourists need only to hail a passing "Rikki's" taxi. The fees are reasonable and particularly for back-packers, who are always most welcome. Visitors requiring a guided tour of the "Historic Mile" or "Cobbled Lanes" should telephone the Simon's Town Museum and make the necessary booking. Both commence from the station at 10 o'clock on Tuesdays and Saturdays. They help to demonstrate the proud architectural heritage from the Dutch, as well as from the British occupations in 1795 and 1806 which led to the establishment of a great naval base.

The Royal Navy's influence is faithfully recorded at the Simon's Town Museum, which was originally built in 1777 as a winter residence for the governor of the Dutch East India Company at the Cape. Situated in Court Road, it is only a short distance from the station just past Admiralty House - which dates back to before 1730. An adjacent building with an impressive clock tower - the SA Navy Museum - was built in 1815 as a sail loft and mast house. The latter was big enough to store the 117 feet long and 39 inch diameter main mast of a 100-gun British man-o'-war! Part of the loft has since become the magnificent Dockyard Church. Its beauty is enhanced by stained glass windows above the altar. This is the work of James Hogan, who also constructed those in Liverpool Cathedral - after damage during World War II.

Close to the church's side windows stands one of many steel towers, which were built to support an aerial "ropeway". This was used to transport men and materials up the mountain to naval hospitals beyond the influence of the town's numerous pubs. After a visit in misty weather, the padre - dressed in flapping robes - must have sobered many drunk churchgoers when descending past the windows from such "heavenly" heights! Incidentally, the original 365 stone steps at the highest point are now mostly climbed by super-fit Navy divers.

Aye, this be Navy Country! From the church windows can be heard the roar of guided-missile strike craft and guns of the Lower North Battery. Also often heard and seen are divers on some or other course. After exercising on the lowest sea-anchored ropeway tower, they head for their "wet space" to change into scuba gear. One of the tamest verses they chant while jogging barefooted is as follows.
Have you ever heard the Divers' war cry? Have you ever heard it fill the sky? Sounds like rumbling of the mountain. Come and listen how it fills the sky. We are the best in the Navy - Navy! We are the best around - around!

The mountain mentioned refers to the majestic Simonsberg after which the Simon's Town naval training establishment (including the advanced Dive School) - SAS Simonsberg - is named. Although the Naval Dockyard is now open to tour buses by appointment with its Visits Section, the boarding of ships and submarines is not permitted. Such restrictions should not worry visitors on foot, who - in any case - would be hard pressed to cover the numerous other attractions and especially on central Jubilee Square.

Overlooking the Yacht Basin, cobbled and tree-lined Jubilee Square is a tourist's delight. It is watched over by twin cannon and a bronze statue of Able Seaman Just Nuisance, who hungrily eyes patrons of the well-designed Quarterdeck Restaurant. This sea dog - a Great Dane - became famous in World War II for "escorting" Royal Navy personnel back to barracks after a night on the town and did much to boost their morale. On his death in April of 1944, he was buried with full military honours. His name still lives on in the town wherever one looks. Although small by comparison with the city's famed Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, Simon's Town Waterfront boasts a 28-room luxury lodge and a huge restaurant complex. Furthermore, there is an anchorage for facilities ranging from kayaking to pleasure cruising and big game fishing.

Many facilities are also available beyond Jubilee Square. One is the Country Club, which welcomes visitors for a round of golf followed by an excellent meal. Fees are surprising low, because the Committee members are volunteers with other jobs. In hot summer weather, visitors will be pleased to know that the course is bordered by two fabulous bathing areas - Windmill and Fisherman's Beach. Since the former is all too often the only one discovered by visiting divers, it should be noted that popular sites continue for several kilometres. Opportunities for underwater photography and wreck exploration are endless, but visibility is best during winter. However, summer visitors with transport have no problem. They can simply drive over a mountain pass to the Peninsula's other side and experience the magic of its famous Coral Gardens under different wind conditions. Although the shallows are deceptively warm, a wetsuit of at least five millimetres in thickness is imperative. Furthermore, those with a permit to harvest abalone or rock lobster in season need to be careful not to poach the many marine reserves.

The waters around Simon's Town are home to some 2000 marine species, of which 60% are endemic to the country and 14% of these to only False Bay. The land also has its share of over 2800 plant species indigenous to the Cape, which makes this region richer for its size than any other world-wide. Furthermore, a nearby wetland at Glencairn boasts over 100 bird species and even the Cape clawless otter - Aonyx capensis. Although a map of the five major hiking trails is readily available from the Tourist Information Centre on Jubilee Square, enthusiasts are best guided by the Simon's Town Flora Conservation Group. Two other good contacts are the Alien Vegetation Eradication Group and Friends of the Simon's Town Coastline. Since the Information Centre can also arrange accommodation, overseas visitors can email, fax or phone its very efficient staff.

Besides the more obvious attractions, Simon's Town has some known to few visitors. For example, on looking at the lush mountain vegetation above Admiralty House, who would suspect that - in winter months - it conceals a spectacular waterfall? Another little known item of interest is a mounted 230mm 12 ton rifled muzzle-loader, which was cast in 1865 and is still in good condition. It can be seen up a zigzag road opposite the Lower North Battery at Mackerel Bay. Many tourists leave the train at this point to buy or photograph fish being dragged in nets up the beach. They also visit nearby the largest gemstone tumbling factory in the world, if only to literally scratch among rejects for a bargain!

Of all the outdoor places to visit, several fabulous beaches draw most people. This is particularly the case with visitors wanting to escape harsh winter conditions in parts of the northern hemisphere. The largest stretch - Long Beach - is conveniently located directly opposite the station, but others are more sheltered from the prevailing summer wind. Since December to March is very hot, many tourists prefer the cooler months from April to June and from September to the whale-watching month of October. July brings good rain and the welcome "Cape Doctor" blows in November. For these reasons, residents of Simon's Town from around the world regard it as a place for all seasons and the jewel of South Africa!

Copyright 2014