Where to stay
The Beach Hotel
An old-fashioned hotel popular with a cross-section of South African holidaymakers. Go for the newer ground-floor rooms, which are large and comfortable. It delivers what it says on the packet – the seafront and beach directly opposite Shark Rock Pier. Doubles from £107. Marine Drive, Summerstrand, 00 27 41 583 2161, thebeachhotel.co.za
Luxury hideaway in a spectacular rural location 75km from Port Elizabeth, it’s ringed by some of the best game reserves in the province. The price tag, which includes access to top reserve Shamwari, reflects what’s on offer. Doubles from £985. Sidbury, 01483 527 847, founderslodgebymantis.com
Hacklewood Hill Country House
In the PE suburb of Walmer, you could transplant this Victorian house to the stockbroker belt and barely know the difference. Only two minutes from the airport. Doubles from £154. 152 Prospect Road, Walmer, 00 27 41 581 1300, hacklewood.co.za
Art deco inside and out, it slots neatly into the palette of properties owned worldwide by the Mantis group: 10 suites and the kind of privacy that the very rich demand. Doubles from £132. Summerstrand, 00 27 41 502 6000, no5boutiquearthotel.com
Another Mantis property, this is more than a B&B, but not quite a boutique hotel. Expect all the extras – bath robes, nice toiletries, pool, well-appointed bar and room service – without obtrusive staff rushing around, offering to help. Doubles from £110. 35 Humewood Road, Humewood, 00 27 41 582 2245, thewindermere.co.za
Port Elizabeth is one of the largest cities in South Africa, located 755km south of Cape Town. Flights from the UK take around 15 hours and time is two hours ahead of GMT. Currency is the South African rand (ZAR). In May, the average high temperature is 21C and the average low is 12C.
British Airways has daily flights from London Heathrow Airport to Port Elizabeth with one stopover, from £747 return. britishairways.com
South African Airways also flies daily from London Heathrow to Port Elizabeth with one stop, from £859 return.flysaa.com
Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism is the official tourist board and its website is packed with inspiration and useful information. nmbt.co.za
South African National Parks owns Addo Elephant National Park. See their website for the latest on the organisation’s conservation efforts, both in the Eastern Cape and elsewhere in South Africa. sanparks.org
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to Port Elizabeth, visit climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London produce 2.9 tonnes of CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £21.52.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for two courses and a glass of wine or beer, unless otherwise stated
Owner Mark Oosterhuizen, inspired by Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann, has themed his restaurant around a fire pit and smokehouse. Lamb from the semi-desert karoo, oysters from the bay, the daily catch and years of braai know-how. Oosterhuizen’s first restaurant, Fushin, is just up the road, and serves an eclectic menu which includes tapas, a raw bar and poké. From £20. 24 Stanley Street, Richmond Hill, 00 27 41 582 1981, asadarestaurant.co.za
Overlooking Baakens Valley, open seven days a week, this popular hang-out shuts at four in the afternoon (2pm on Sundays). The bric-a-brac decorating the room is quirky and fun. Highlights include all-day breakfast dishes, pizza and cakes. From £8. 1 Bridge Street, South End, 00 27 76 437 6850
Multi-purpose organic restaurant and farm shop. It’s a place to come by day for a snack, a meal or a coffee. It’s also the place to come for everything you need for a picnic. From £7.50. 792 Heron Road, Lovemore Park, 00 27 41 366 2379, grassroof.co.za
Owned and run by married chef couple Allan and Simone Bezuidenhout, Muse offers relaxed fine dining with a sprinkling of molecular gastronomy. Think smoked snoek (fish) paté, pulled pork tacos or herb and mustard-crusted lamb rack. From £20. 1b Stanley Street, Richmond Hill, 00 27 41 582 1937, muserestaurant.co.za
One could dismiss Remo’s as just another Italian. In fact it’s much more than this. The cooking is excellent and it captures the mood of the moment in the city. It’s always busy and there are no compromises on the quality of ingredients. From £15. South End, Baakens Valley, 00 27 82 877 6411,remos.co.za
In the out-of-town suburb of Schoenmakerskop, this is a no-nonsense pit-stop eatery that’s enjoyed by all the community. From £10. 32 Marine Drive, Schoenmakerskop, 00 27 41 366 2312 Two Olives Definitely not two olives short of a martini, this lively Stanley Street watering hole starts as a tapas bar but graduates to some skilful, flavourful dishes. The oysters, roasted marrowbones and oxtail are all very good indeed. From £15. 1 Stanley Street, Richmond Hill, 00 27 41 585 0371, twoolives.co.za
Food and Travel Review
It’s Saturday night, Richmond Hill, Port Elizabeth. The ‘Meat on Stanley’ butcher’s has shut up shop. In its backroom The Supper Club is in full swing. A table of ten toys with a ‘snoek, charred prickly pear salsa, spekboom, potbroodje and coriander’ starter. While 90-kilo Thoko, gospel voice to match, rocks them with Don’t Stop the Music, Chef Ronald sears kudu filets mignons for the main course in the pop-up kitchen.
On the seafront at The Beach Hotel, holidaying guests wander into the bar and out onto the veranda. A shy girl with half a lounge voice, laptop balanced on the piano, gentles her wobbly way through A Lighter Shade of Pale. It comes heavy with emotion.
That’s what PE is like: thin skin on top, bubbling under the surface. Those living here pooh-pooh neighbouring Cape Town (a mere 755km hop by road in South African parlance) for being nine parts tourism to one part real life. ‘We’re the opposite,’ they say. It wears its Nelson Mandela Bay beach robe lightly. Tourists come here for sun, sea and sand. They only catch glimpses of a city emerging from its industrial port heritage.
Its ‘ten-minute airport’ is both a hub and a terminus. Summerstrand and the hotels clustered around Shark Rock Pier, all within reach, validate its claim. Step off a plane and the shifting dunes of Sardinia Bay are a couple of kilometres off piste. On another scale, it’s a jumping-off point for the spectacular land and seascapes of the Garden Route. To the east lies the Wild Coast, home of the Xhosa people and Nelson Mandela’s birthplace, Mvezo. Game reserves packed with the Big Five – lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros and elephant – are under an hour outside town.
Christine Simpson is a freelancing chef who left South Africa six years ago, went to England and ended up spending three years working at Leith’s cookery school. ‘Food in PE was cheap back then and it wasn’t really a priority, but when I came back I was pleasantly surprised. There were night markets, weekend markets and there’s so much amazing farming around here.’
She could have added Knysna Oyster Company. Farmed in concertina nets a few hundred metres offshore, the Pacific oysters can reach market size in six months. Seawater here is relatively unpolluted, rich in the phytoplankton they feed on. Unlike their European sisters they don’t require ultraviolet treatment before being sold. Sweet and creamy, they feature cooked and raw at Asada, a seafood, grill and smokehouse bar.
Chef-owner Mark Oosterhuizen smokes them, fries and devils them. He dresses them raw with Tabasco, black pepper and lime, or coriander and papaya. Using an Argentinian fire pit, he bakes fish whole. If he’s in luck, he may have a few red rockfish known locally as Miss Lucy. A plump, line-caught species with a hump on its head, it’s sweet and meaty and catching it is strictly controlled. A white wine from the Western Cape bears its name. The semillon/ sauvignon blanc/pinot gris blend complements it or any other rich, firm-fleshed fish like the easy-to-find yellowtail.
Christine Simpson makes the point that much of the change is down to a younger generation brought up in Eastern Cape which embarked on his or her personal odyssey, saw the world and then returned. Oosterhuizen spent eight years working for Japanese chefs before returning here to set up shop. Fred Heydenrych is an exception. His Afrikaans family first started producing meat products in 1905 – his great-grandfather slaughtered cattle for beef under a tree at Jansenville. He and wife Anna treat their burger and boeries bar, Frederick and Son, next door to a craft brewer’s tap room, as slow rather than fast food. ‘Our beef is one hundred per cent beef and our lamb patties are deboned lamb that we then mince. We use very basic seasoning and spices. The plants that the cattle graze on are very peppery and spicy. That flavour comes through in the meat.’
Heydenrych’s burgers have a texture that veers towards crumbly. ‘We don’t,’ he insists ‘want densely packed pieces of meat that you can bounce off the wall.’ Anna, the ‘creative’, serves up the 150g patties with a range of tempting embellishments. Fred’s favourite comes with hoisin mayo, but the ‘Hansie’, with goat’s cheese, beetroot, rocket and fried sage, and the double lamb burger, with chimichurri, herb butter and red onion are unadulterated urban chic. Boeries are barbecued beef hot dogs. Here they come with caramelised onions and jalapeño, blue cheese, tomato relish or feta sauce. Frederick and Son shares its Baakens Valley address with a clutch of innovative businesses, ranging from ice cream company, Han-Made, to a rum distiller. In a kraal of converted warehouses, it’s only a few hundred metres from the harbour but almost cut off from it.
After a prolonged drought in the Cape, the river running through it has dried to a trickle. When Dutch sailors first landed here it was an estuary. The British built Fort Frederick on the cliff above it to protect the then port and the harbour master had his house and office (now the Friendly Stranger café) on the hill opposite. Links to the sea have all but vanished. Landfill, urban planning and the construction of a coastal flyover severed the area from the coast. Converted into an industrial estate, it declined into rundown units that became ‘the dregs of PE’ before its revival transformed it.
Customers don’t book; they just flock to Remo’s in Chicky’s
Yard, which has the kind of immigrant backstory that could have
been lifted straight from a Tony Soprano storyline. Michelle Puggia
is at the helm. She belongs to the Scribante family, which
opened a Durban trattoria called Remo’s. Dante Cicognini is the
PE owner. His builder father, also called Remo, owned
the hangar which houses the restaurant.
Between them they deliver what the on-trend Valley folk want to eat: sott’olio antipasti (vegetables in oil) made on site, ciabatta and pizza (the crust outstanding) baked in a wood-fired oven (South Africans prefer a kind of hard thorn wood, kameeldoring, which delivers an intense heat) and ravioli stuffed with butternut squash. If there aren’t fine-dining restaurants with Michelin-star pretensions, it’s because nobody here wants them. Several have tried; they all quickly closed.
What they want is fresh food when hungry, never more so than when they’ve been basking beachside. If the grockles stay close to their Summerstrand billets, those living here head for Blue Horizon Bay, Sardinia Bay or Schoenmakerskop, an uninterrupted stretch of rocks and white sand beyond the university and Cape Recife. Coastal walkers drop by Sacramento for a bite, which is named after a Portuguese galleon that ran aground. Relics line the walls.
Grass Roof café’s name is no mystery. Deli, bakery and farm shop, it’s the kind of place where you can pack a picnic hamper. The restaurant dishes up comfort foods, juices, milk shakes, a mountainous vegetable and beef stack or an outrageous portion of lemon meringue pie. Nor does it overlook its coffee, sourced from James Masterton, the oldest coffee roaster in South Africa.
If it isn’t for sunbathing or for gambling in The Boardwalk Casino, then it’s odds-on that visitors are heading for the game reserves peppering the province. A short trek along the N2 highway takes them to Addo Elephant National Park. A few minutes further down the road they reach Amakhala. Still less than an hour from Port Elizabeth, Schotia has 1,600 hectares of rolling bushveldt where Justin Bean, the sixth generation to live on the farm, takes guests within sniffing distance of lion or bull elephants. Staying at the reserves can be basic or luxurious. Schotia’s range from a tented camp to a honeymoon suite. Overnighters gather at a lapa, an enclosure made of reed and sneezewood for breakfast or an evening braai (barbecue). In contrast, Shamwari, its near neighbour, upgrades the accommodation to lodges fit for the cream of Hollywood superstars, with prices to match.
Adrian Gardiner, the man who launched Shamwari, and now owns a string of luxury boutique hotels around the world, makes Port Elizabeth his home of choice. His exceptional art hotel, No5, features a sinuous art deco exterior while, inside, guests have the run of a Jazz Age champagne lounge, dining room and salon privé bar, plus a small private cinema, modelled on Prince Charles’ personal one at Clarence House. The hotel’s breakfasts rival those served in Paris: think French toast topped with banana and dripping with honey, and dark yellow-yolked poached eggs on a muffin with tomato compote and slices of chorizo.
Yet, away from the glitz, it is Port Elizabeth’s home-grown
pleasures that shine. Try the snoek, a big, scary game fish, the
spekboom (a small succulent plant) and the potbroodje, a loaf
baked in a cast-iron pot. Sample the oysters. Treat yourself to rock
lobster on Stanley Street. Drink lots of beer – Ben Koppen’s cold
fermented brew is probably the best. Take in a Twenty20 cricket
match at St George’s Park, and soak up the real South Africa.
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