Durban’s Wide World
By Monique Burns
Watching the sun set over the sands of balmy Durban, South Africa, is utterly romantic. Yet no less an authority than Lonely Planet has also called the steamy couples’ getaway one of the world’s most family-friendly beach resorts.
Durban’s “Golden Mile”—four miles of broad sandy beaches along the Indian Ocean—begins at uShaka Marine World, Africa’s largest aquatic theme park. It continues past nearly a dozen beaches, home to deluxe high-rise hotels like Southern Sun Elangeni & Maharani, part of hospitality magnate Sol Kerzner’s Sun International gaming-and-hospitality empire.
The Golden Mile then heads north past Moses Mabhida Stadium where you can take the bungee-like “Big Rush Big Swing” across the stadium, ride the SKYCAR to the top of the stadium’s arch for 360-degree views or leave on a city Segway Tour.
From there, it’s on to Kerzner’s Suncoast Casino, Hotels & Entertainment, resplendent in Miami South Beach Art Deco style, with two hotels, a spa, dozens of restaurants and boutiques, a cinema and two theaters, acres of slot machines and gaming tables, and its own beach and boardwalk.
Just beyond are the Durban Country Club, home to two of the city’s three championship golf courses, and the popular picnic spot, Blue Lagoon Beach, where the Golden Mile ends.
Those attractions will satisfy even the most hyperactive beachgoer. But there’s more.
A mile north, the in-city suburb of Umhlanga is home to casual seaside eateries and boutique hotels. Side by side in tony Umhlanga Rocks are two of the world’s most luxurious five-star resorts.
The art-filled Oyster Box Hotel charms with a red-and-white lighthouse, the elegant Ocean Terrace offering fresh seafood, pizza and tandoori ovens, and a seemingly endless curry bar, as well as secluded poolside villas attracting privacy-seekers like South African actress Charlize Theron.
Opened in 1964, The Beverly Hills Hotel, South Africa’s first five-star lodging, has graciously appointed restaurants and guest rooms as well as beachfront bungalows, an outdoor pool and a grassy waterfront terrace lined with chaise longues.
For many Americans, flying 15 hours from the East Coast to Johannesburg, South Africa, followed by an hour-long flight east to Durban might seem a bit much—especially since there are closer beach resorts in the U.S., Mexico and Europe.
But consider these facts. One, subtropical Durban is a year-round beach destination with average air temperatures in the mid-60s and 70s and water temps rarely below 70 degrees. Two, costs for hotels, restaurants, taxis and attractions are ridiculously low. Three, national carrier South African Airways offers frequent discounts so you can go virtually any time.
As for sharks, while great whites regularly prowl American shores, Durban’s regional Sharks Board long ago solved the problem with an ingenious system of anchored nets. There hasn’t been a single shark attack or fatality in Durban since 1952—over 65 years ago.
The only sharks you’ll see are at uShaka Marine World, or at Jonsson Kings Park, aka the “Shark Tank,” where Sharks rugby tickets sell for a mere 30-60 Rand, roughly $2-$4.
Indeed, the only caveat for visitors is that Durban can get very humid in summer—winter in our Northern Hemisphere. So, if you hate steamy weather, go during our spring, summer or fall.
Of course, there’s far more to Durban than just sea and sand. Durban is a world-class metropolis, largest city in KwaZulu-Natal Province and part of the sprawling eThekwini Municipality. Among the world’s fastest-growing cities, Durban is South Africa’s third most-populous city after Cape Town and Johannesburg. As for manufacturing, Durban is second only to Jo’burg.
Durban is also sub-Saharan Africa’s busiest port and the Southern Hemisphere’s fourth-largest container port. From the Golden Mile, watch big freighters from around the world head into Durban Harbour. Once there, take sightseeing cruises, visit the Bat Centre with cutting-edge art and enjoy nightlife on Wilson’s Wharf.
In 2015, The New York Times listed Durban among the world’s top 10 places to visit. Yet, for all its charms, Durban still remains relatively unknown to Americans. CNN was right on the money when it called Durban “the coolest city in South Africa you’ve never seen.”
Midway along the Golden Mile and just inland are the attractions of Durban’s center-city, aka Durban Central, the Central Business District or simply the CBD.
Durban’s ICC, or International Conference Centre, and the DEC, or Durban Exhibition Centre, next door host various performances and major events, most notably Africa’s Travel Indaba, the Continent’s largest travel trade show, a three-day extravaganza showcasing African countries, airlines, hotels and tour operators.
Those working in tourism will find a tented marketplace selling South African art, brightly patterned clothing and colorful Zulu beadwork, and an outdoor braai, or barbecue, where folks lounge at picnic tables casually discussing business deals while listening to music, sipping South African beer, and eating grilled sausages, beef and wild game as if they were at a friend’s backyard cookout. “Durbs” might be kinda hot, but it’s also pretty chill.
Such goings-on give Durban a certain gravitas and a definite urban rhythm. While subtropical Durban is much too steamy to bustle, it fairly buzzes. Whether working or vacationing, you’ll be swept up in the vibe.
Durban City Hall is just west of the ICC. Modeled after Northern Ireland’s Belfast City Hall, the ornate Baroque Revival building houses the Durban Art Gallery whose collection ranges from 15th-century European paintings to contemporary African works, and the Natural Science Museum with an extensive bird collection.
Just east, the Durban Holocaust & Genocide Centre traces the tragic Jewish World War II Holocaust and its consequences. Nearby, the Kwa Muhle Museum is one of Durban’s eight major history collections. Housed in the former headquarters of the infamous Department of Native Affairs, it follows Apartheid’s dismal history. Under the notorious “Durban System,” the Zulus faced severe restrictions, including being prohibited from making and selling their own beer. Now, 25 years after Apartheid’s fall in 1994, Durban’s burgeoning craft-beer industry is particularly welcome.
The nearby Durban Botanic Gardens, with colorful orchids and other indigenous plants, is just west of the Killie Campbell Africana Library with its eye-opening collection of native artifacts. Both are north of Greyville Racecourse, which winds around the Royal Durban Golf Club.
Getting around Durban is easy. The PeopleMover ‘s modern, air-conditioned buses operate daily along three color-coded routes. The double-decker Ricksha Bus offers tours in Durban Central and outlying neighborhoods. For short rides, hail Japanese-style rickshas pulled by Zulus in tall, elaborately beaded headdresses. For longer trips, phone metered taxis, safer and more reliable than van-like “minibus taxis” prowling the streets.
Speaking of safety, traveling with four women from Los Angeles, Montreal and New York, and a gentleman from New York, I always felt comfortable. Durban is regularly listed among the world’s 50 most dangerous cities, but it’s actually near the bottom of such lists. To avoid theft or pick-pocketing, follow the usual commonsense precautions—travel in groups, use registered taxis at night and don’t flash around valuables.
For an intriguing guided tour of Durban, consider Wild Routes Africa, founded by an enthusiastic young Durbanite. The 14 full and half-day tours include excursions to outlying Zulu townships, safari parks and 19th-century Zulu battlefields. The Durban City Tour takes in both well-known and oft-overlooked sights. The Durban Foodie Tour visits trendy spots like Station Drive Precinct.
Station Drive Precinct is in Durban’s Morningside neighborhood, north of the train station and Moses Mabhida Stadium. It’s also just east of the Windermere neighborhood, home to Florida Road, with art galleries, boutiques, eateries and bars housed in quaint Edwardian-style buildings.
Day or night, Station Drive Precinct buzzes. Across from The Exchange, a gigantic antiques emporium, The Warehouse Building, at No. 6, has nearly a dozen shops and eateries. Momenti Artisan Gelati, opened by a young South African who perfected his craft in Bologna, Italy, offers luscious ice creams like Belgian Milk Chocolate and Turkish Delight plus vegan sorbets like honeydew melon and lemon basil & mint.
The African Art Centre, at No. 15, sells indigenous Zulu crafts, many by rural women. You’ll find intricate beadwork, embroidered textiles, paintings and sculptures, and both traditional Ilala-palm baskets and stunning contemporary ones fashioned from colorful telephone wire.
At No. 43, the Foundry Building is Station Drive’s nightlife hub. On the first floor, S43—aka That Brewing Company—serves hand-crafted brews like That Red Ale and That Irish Stout; fine South African wines, and cocktails like Long Island Ice Tea served, appropriately enough, in a teapot. There’s food, too, including big burgers and well-stuffed tacos.
On the second floor, at Distillery 031, taste gin, rum and vodka along with exotic absinthe (with African wormwood), cachaça (South Africa’s first version of the Brazilian classic) and liqueurs (distilled from baobab fruit, coffee beans, or rooibos, used in South Africa’s fragrant tea).
Durban’s multicultural heritage adds to its allure. Some 51% of Durban’s citizens are Zulus. You sense their influence the moment you arrive at Durban’s ultramodern King Shaka International Airport, named for the region’s 19th-century ruler.
After the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War and up through Apartheid, Zulus were relocated to outlying townships. Since Apartheid’s end, Zulus have regained their rightful place in Durban’s business and civic affairs. Those still living in the outlying townships often venture into the city wearing animal-skin capes and carrying spears.
In Durban, you can sample Zulu cuisine, including shisanyama, a mix of meats and game grilled on the braai, and potjiekos, stews cooked in three-legged cast-iron cauldrons brought here by early Dutch settlers called Afrikaners. Side dishes include chakalaka, with onions, tomatoes, bell peppers and beans, and mieliepap, or pap, a maize porridge similar to Southern grits or Italian polenta.
A good spot to sample Zulu food, as well as seafood, is Moyo, with a location at uShaka Marine World on the Golden Mile as well as branches in Cape Town and Jo’burg.
Incredibly, Durban—not New York or London—has the largest Indian population outside India. Fully 24 percent of Durban’s population is Indian. The first wave arrived in 1860 as indentured servants working the sugar plantations. The second wave came a decade later, setting up various small businesses.
Aside from Hindu temples, Durban’s Indian influence is most evident in its cuisine. Curries, including beef, lamb, shrimp and vegetable, along with vegetable-filled samoosas, are served virtually everywhere except European or Asian restaurants. But if India gave Durban curry, Durban gave the world “Bunny Chow.”
A hollowed-out quarter or half-loaf of white bread filled with curry, Bunny Chow was invented, it’s believed, when a caddy at the Royal Durban Golf Club, unable to get off for lunch, asked someone to bring him takeout.
Every Durbanite has a favorite Bunny Chow. Along the Golden Mile, some say, the best is at the Panorama Bar and Pool Deck, in the Southern Sun Elangeni & Maharani Hotel, high above North Beach.
Sample both Indian and Zulu culture at bustling Victoria Street Market, around the corner from red-brick Emmanuel Cathedral and steps from the Juma Masjid Mosque, one of the Southern Hemisphere’s largest with eight gold-domed minarets. Also on Grey Street are lots of Indian eateries.
Formerly called the Indian Market, Victoria Street Market has 200 stalls selling exotic spices, colorful African clothing, wood carvings and brassware. It’s the place to get low-priced Zulu beadwork. Tiny multicolored beads, in bold geometric designs, form necklaces, bracelets, clutches and three-dimensional animal sculptures. Patterns on Zulu “Love Note” pins indicate varying levels of amorous interest.
Outside Durban, in KwaZulu-Natal’s townships, are more multicultural sites, including one-of-a-kind venues like Max’s Lifestyle and historic villages linked to Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. But that, my friends, is another story….
Continue to The Wonderful World Around Durban
IF YOU GO
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.