The delights of Durban

By | Category: Travel destinations

Lark Ellen Gould reveals why Durban – aka South Africa’s seaside playground – repays a visit

Durban is an oft-overlooked city in a country where wildlife and wine manage to curry most of the tourism attention. But as the jumping off point to the cultural tourism offerings – if not Big Five sighting opportunities – of KwaZulu Natal, and as South Africa’s second largest city, Durban deserves its dollop of attention.

The city packs a population of 3.5 million with boundaries marked by a relaxing golden beachwalk on one side, Africa’s busiest port on the other and a lot of writhing city in between. Laid out on a map Durban is a quite walkable three or four square kilometers and that may be one of its most redeeming qualities. Within that terrain you will move from family-focused beach front to quaint colonial parks and tea houses to loud and colorful sidewalks of commerce where you can get a manicure for US$8, a haircut for US$5; you can buy a treasure trove of fine African beadwork and carvings for less than the cost of a newsstand magazine, and you can find the strange powers of the local magic at the muti market at the edge of town.

A walking tour would start at the beach promenade, on the north side of the city. The Golden Mile, as it is known here, stretches from the Suncoast Casino on the north side to the uShaka Marine World in the south. Between the two points are cafes, restaurants, and lots of colorful entertainment.

The days here are warm in all seasons but most pleasant in the ‘winter’ months of May to October. It’s not unusual to see bands of local village mothers cackling as they collect plastic bottles on the beach or surfer dudes catching the southern swells. The walk from north to south runs by stands of lower and mid-tier hotels and ends at the uShaka Marine World – a complex of shops and restaurants and an aquarium that is the fifth largest in the world. Waterborne attractions include an underground passage designed around a series of shipwrecks. Sharks, rays, penguins, seals, jellyfish and a bounty of tropical marine life get the complement of regularly scheduled dolphin shows. Visitors can also swim with the fishes if they choose to get wet. A snorkel lagoon packed with local fish does the honours and even offers a shark cage dive in a setting replicating the ocean floor.

Head inland from the ocean quay and find what local culture there is to claim in Durban. Streets here team with music, stores selling all manner of plastic goods from China, and the usual array of fast food emporiums. But you can step into the less travelled side of Durban with a visit to Victoria Market and the muti market beyond. For souvenirs of Africa, beaded jewellery, baskets and intricate weavings, Victoria Market is the right stop. The items are often artful and authentic crafts from as far away as West Africa  can be had for prices that beat the hotel and airport shop alternatives. Bargain a little, not a lot, as the prices are low at the outset. And then head across the pass to the muti market for a look at South Africa’s somewhat unsettling black magic traditions … if you dare. Caveat: keep valuables close.

Next wander through the Spice Emporium or just meander down Dr. Yusef Dadoo Street for an intense experience of Eastern and African cultural confluence. To see the city by casual tour bus, take the doubledecker Ricksha on a three-hour tour of the city that will include stops at uShaka Marine World, Emmanuel Cathedral, Victoria Street Market, Burman Bush and Blue Lagoon. Or take a manpowered rickshaw along the beachfront for a touch of Afro-Asian fusion transport.

For a dose of adrenaline, go to the Moses Mabhida Stadium that was built for the 2010 soccer matches and take the leap of a lifetime. The ‘Big Rush Big Swing’ has only the bravest of visitors casting off from the top of the stadium arch and taking the 660-foot arc for US$10 a jump.

Where to Stay
A stay in Durban can be accommodated at all ranges. Tsogo Sun runs the Elangeni at the north end of the beachfront walk, with rooms overlooking the Indian Ocean. Rooms are clean, modern and comfortable with deep soaking tubs and large closets. The US$300 pernight price tag includes a full buffet breakfast.

High end travellers will want to soak up the views at the Oyster Box, about 15 minutes down the coast in quarters that were created for travellers with sophisticated preferences. The property comes out of the sensibilities of the 1940s, built for diplomats and luxury travellers who wanted to take in the beauty of the South African coast. Today those 86 rooms and suites maintain a country look and feel with white rattan patio furnishings over looking the waters and cushy, bright interiors. An onsite hotel spa, one of the few in Durban, has a hammam and plunge pool and provides intriguing therapies with African and Indian motifs. Not to be missed: the curry buffet served nightly at the Ocean Terrace. Rates start at around Us$400.

Durban also has a Hilton hotel –  a shiny glass high rise in the center of the city, connected by walkway to the Durban International Convention Centre. Rooms run around US$200 per night.

Contact
Durban Tourism (www.durban-tourism.com). There already? Go to the helpful and map-stocked tourism centre next to the Elangeni.

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