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Let the whales come to you

Do you love the idea of seeing whales close up, but hate the thought of going on a boat? The South African town of Hermanus is the best place on earth to go whale watching while keeping your feet firmly on the ground.

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Everyone knows that South Africa is the place for safaris. But that's not all. Although most people visit the far end of the continent driven by the desire to visit the Kruger National Park and spot the mythical Big Five - elephant, buffalo, lion, rhino and leopard, South Africa is home to a host of ecosystems and each offers something of interest.

You can see seal colonies on Duiker Island and penguins at Boulders Beach or have a meal in a smart restaurant in cosmopolitan Cape Town. Why not spend the day at one of the wineries set among beautiful vineyards, established by the Dutch when they started making wine here in the seventeenth century, set off from Gansbaai in search of the great white shark or visit Hermanus and see the whales? And it's possible to do practically all of this in a single day without leaving the Cape peninsula.

If you want to see the whales, you don't even need to leave terra firma, as the town of Hermanus, just an hour and a half from Cape Town, is reputed to be the best place for sighting these magnificent behemoths of the sea.

From May to December, around 200 southern right whales from the Antarctic gather in Walker Bay to find mates and give birth to their young. They come so close to the coast that the crags and cliffs surrounding the town offer a wonderful dry-land vantage point. The creatures are tremendously inquisitive and aware that they are not in any danger here, so they seem determined to show off to the spectators who come to Hermanus just to watch the magnificent display of water spouts and acrobatics which include the typical 'fluking' when the whale's tail is raised out of the water before it begins a dive. The sight of one of these 80 ton beasts 'breaching' - leaping clear of the water - is not something you'll forget in a hurry.

The main activity in Hermanus, a town with some 45,000 inhabitants set on the shores of the bay, used to be fishing. Today, though, whale tourism is more important, attracting thousands of visitors each year. Everything in Hermanus is focused on the magnificent marine visitors, with viewing platforms, hiking trails in the best sighting areas, boat excursions and even an alarm that advises when there are whales in sight.

The beginning of spring in the southern hemisphere - that is, our autumn - is the best time for whale watching. At the end of September there's a festival with music, theatre and all kinds of events dedicated to the whales. In October the town returns to normal and offers a much more pleasant atmosphere to admire them: then, with fewer observers, the great animals bask and play in complete freedom, and you have the chance of a more private encounter with these giants of the deep.

Tips and suggestions

Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic offer non-stop flights from London direct to Cape Town from around £750 return.

If your visit to Hermanus is in celebration of something extra special - your honeymoon, perhaps, or an important anniversary - or if you can simply afford to pay almost £400 a night, there's no doubt that the hotel to stay in is the stunning Birkenhead House. This exclusive villa, with just a dozen exquisitely decorated rooms and suites is perched on a clifftop and offers the ideal viewpoint to watch the whales in total privacy.

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South African Tourism and Tourism in Hermanus

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