Mossel Bay – more than mussels and a bay

Mossel Bay hugs a swathe of Indian Ocean with the moody blue Outentiqua mountains as its backdrop. Temperate weather conditions prevail almost year-round, and there are many unique attractions and plenty of history to savour here too.

diving off a rock

“This is actually where the human race started,” explains Fred Orban with a twinkle in his eye. “The oldest evidence has been found just around the corner at Pinnacle Point, and few people know about it.” Fred guides the Point of Human Origin tours near Mossel Bay, and carefully explains, “This is not the cradle of humankind’ because that was pre-human and they all went extinct. This is the birthplace of modern humans, much like you and me.” More startlingly, Fred says: “DNA studies show that all humans alive on the planet today can trace their origins back to Africa.”

Mossel Bay

There are caves, beaches, boat trips, whales, sandstone buildings, history, art, hikes, the Dias Museum and of course plenty of seafood – which are all good reasons to visit Mossel Bay. There is really a lot to do here without leaving town, be it for a day or a week, whether you are a family or travelling solo. Attractions are diverse and unusual, and there’s a little bit of everything. Within striking distance for a day trip from Mossel Bay is also a Big Five safari at Gondwana Game Reserve, Percheron horses at Outeniqua Moon or the wine cellar at Jakkalsvlei.

game drive giraffe

We’ve just boarded the Romonza and are heading out to Seal Island in the bay. The boat departs on the hour from the harbour at the bottom of Church Street in town, for a 60-minute trip. It’s an evocative wooden boat that was built by the skipper’s grandfather and launched about 40 years ago. His intention then was to sail around the world, but when the time came to depart Grandma didn’t want to go. So the Romonza became a tour boat to take guests around Seal Island and to see southern right and humpback whales between June and October, and for daily Mossel Bay sunsets from the sea. We don’t see whales today, but we do see over 3 000 Cape fur seals flip-flopping around the rocky island that’s fringed with mussels.

seal island

From the sea, looking back over Mossel Bay, the town’s sprawl is rather enchanting and quite different to the views of massive fuel storage tanks seen when passing through on the N2 highway. We see the stoic Cape St Blaize lighthouse dominating the headland as it has since 1864, and the Victorian era pavilion on Santos Beach is also clearly visible. It’s a replica of the one at Brighton Pier, and has stood on this unusual north-facing beach for over a century. Also iconic on Santos Beach is the Santos Express train, but this one resides on the tracks and never leaves the station. It’s a unique accommodation option in the town, and with various ‘classes’ too – from budget, to luxurious in the Royal Suites, which are decadent ex-Rovos Rail carriages. Waking up in your cosy carriage, right on the beach and to the sound of the ocean, is rather unusual. The more you explore Mossel Bay, the more you’ll be amazed at the unusual offerings.

Mossel Bay, South Africa

South Africa is one of the few countries in the world that still has manned lighthouses, and Cape St Blaize in Mossel Bay is one of them. Its name is derived from the area’s original name of São Bras, courtesy of Bartolomeu Dias who landed here on the festival day of St Blaize. There’s some doubt and confusion around how the area was renamed Mossel Bay, but the popular version is that a Dutch navigator, Paulus van Caerden, entered the bay in 1601 and saw nothing but mussels to supplement his ship’s provisions.

Nowadays the town has plenty of options for replenishment, and if you love seafood there’s an abundance of that too. Café Gannet has a genteel setting right at the Dias Museum Complex, while down at the harbour Sea Gypsy Café is a favourite hangout for relaxed locals to enjoy fresh seafood within casting distance of the ocean. Café Havana, located in a historic building in the heart of town, has meaty options like ribs, steaks and burgers, and a deep veranda for lazy lunches.

Cafe Gannet

Truly excellent coffee is usually difficult to find, but not in Mossel Bay.  It’s easy if you head to Voorbaai and follow your nose to Baruch’s. The coffeehouse is a local legend and is colourful and eclectic, and a vibrant gathering place from early morning until late afternoon. “I just couldn’t find coffee I really enjoyed drinking,” says Aaron Baruch, “so I started roasting and brewing it myself.” Baruch still brews coffee daily, in the back corner of the shop and the aroma wafts through. “It’s my passion,” he says, “and it makes people smile.”

Cafe Gannet

At The Township Angels, it’s smiles all round. The artists and crafters here are doing what they love most: creating art. Visitors to Mossel Bay buy their unique pieces, which now decorate homes around the world. From vibrantly painted papier mâché giraffes with wings, to angels made entirely from recycled items, it’s therapy for both artists and buyers. Hein Marais started the initiative, in Church Street just opposite the Dias Museum Complex, and mentors budding township artists too.

In Market Street, at the Craft Art Workshop, you can meet artists and crafters as they work. This collaboration of working artists is a popular stop for visitors, as is The Goods Shed a block away in Bland Street – an indoor flea market and innovative shopping spot for everything from fishing equipment to biltong.

Actually, many of Mossel Bay’s renowned attractions are all clustered together on the town’s slope overlooking the harbour.  There are so many historical sites and buildings here that a self-guided walking tour will take you to 69 of them – if you’re fit enough.

From the old Mossel Bay Boating Company Offices, marked by a huge concrete dolos, to historic cemeteries, churches and pubs are all on the route.  Even the funky Café Havana is housed in a building circa 1880, but magnificent and stone buildings with brookie-lace verandas are sprinkled across the middle of town – so there’s little escape from history here.

beautiful buildings

Attractions all seem to radiate out from the renowned Bartolomeu Dias Museum Complex, which houses a full-size replica of the Dias Caravel which he sailed to this shore in 1488. There’s also a Maritime Museum, Aquarium and a magnificent Shell Museum to explore. The oldest South African Post Office is here too. Dating back to 1501, it was originally just a boot hanging in a milkwood tree which was a repository for letters from passing ships. But today you can still mail a postcard from here and it will have a special keepsake stamp on it too.

Now, though, it’s lunchtime and the very thing for which the town is named holds greatest appeal. Maybe we’ll step out of the Dias Complex and into CaféGannet next door – or somewhere else that mussels definitely feature on the menu.

Story by: Keri Harvey

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