Why Port Elizabeth?
Having neither the natural beauty of Cape Town nor the big city energy of Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth has a tendency to be overlooked. It’s generally a last stop at the end of the Garden Route, or a base for Big Five game driving in the Addo Elephant National Park.
But the low-key-ness turns out to be its major source of appeal. The centre is equal parts shabby, historic and creative, and it seems to have little in common with the beach suburbs such as Summerstrand. These are full of families on bargain beach breaks and good wholesome fun. Combine the two sides of the coin, however, and it’s a mellow, highly affordable holiday spot with just enough going on to keep things interesting – the lack of expectation works in Port Elizabeth’s favour.
A comfortable bed
The best accommodation bets are all around Summerstrand, with the Boardwalk (www.suninternational.com/boardwalk) the top pick. It has an odd look – part clapboard beach house, part turreted castle. Despite plush rooms, the key selling point is the sprawling complex it acts as the centrepiece for – several shops and restaurants are on site, as are a mini golf course, go kart track and cinema. Rooms cost from 1,941 South African rand (Dh465) per night.
The Radisson Blu (www.radissonblu.com) is at the quieter Pollock Beach, and offers smart chain slickness, but with useful additions such as the multiple international plug sockets – which is handy when you realise universal adaptors are useless for South Africa's renegade three-rounded-prong system. Double rooms cost from 1,208 rand (Dh289).
For a bit more flair, the nine-room No 5 Boutique Art Hotel (www.no5boutiquearthotel.com) tries a little harder on the design front. The spa is a welcome addition, too, but it's set well back from the beach. Rooms cost from 2,070 rand (Dh496) per night.
Find your feet
The Donkin Reserve in the city centre has marvellous, elevated sea views, but there’s an awful lot more going on. Port Elizabeth’s historic tinge comes through in the Victorian houses to the side, the perky lighthouse and the rather odd pyramid memorial that was erected in honour of Elizabeth Donkin, who the city was named after.
Far more interesting, though, are the assembled art installations – which form part of the Route 67 art trail around the city. Huge mosaics, weird wavelike benches and odd sculptures looking like a cross between a fish and a bird are among them. But the long line of laser-cut figures in a voting queue curving around the spiral ramp towards the bottom of the reserve brings the biggest lump to the throat.
Head down Whites Road, where a series of shared taxi minibuses have been cut in half and mounted on the rock walls, and finish at the grand, Victorian City Hall.
Meet the locals
The local rugby union franchise – the Southern Kings (www.skings.co.za) – plays in the top-level Super Rugby tournament. They face off against the established heavyweights from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, and tickets are still fairly easy to get hold of.
Book a table
Stanley Street, in the gentrified, central Richmond Hill district, is the hot spot for dining, with several restaurants and cafes battling for business. Fushin (www.fushin.co.za) is the star, with sushi and seafood tapas – including the likes of spicy baked Peruvian scallops – as well as coal-fired tuna steaks.
Ginger (www.ginger-restaurant.co.za) at the Beach Hotel has a lovely outdoor terrace, which is perfect for warm evenings. There's a distinctively South African-slanted menu, with local creatures such as kingklip and ostrich popping up. A herb-crusted rack of Karoo lamb for 165 rand (Dh40) is a steal.
The city isn't exactly one of the globe's key shopping hot spots, but the new Baywest Mall (www.baywestmall.co.za) has a strong collection of largely mid-range chain stores. But for something a bit more interesting, the crafts stalls inside the Boardwalk complex sell wood carvings, traditional fabrics, jewellery and even hand-painted ostrich eggs.
What to avoid
Port Elizabeth – as with the rest of South Africa – has a problem with ATM scams. If anyone is hanging around offering to “help” you, don’t get any money out. The safest ATMs are generally inside shopping malls.
Port Elizabeth is about 45 minutes' drive south of the Addo Elephant National Park (www.sanparks.org/parks/addo), one of the few places in South Africa where the Big Five can be spotted in the wild. You will be lucky to see leopards, but rhinos, lions and buffalo are a bit easier. But as the name suggests, the real stars are the elephants. In 1931, there were just 11 elephants left in the area. Now there are more than 600, and encountering a herd can be a spectacular experience.
South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) flies from Dubai to Port Elizabeth, via Johannesburg, from Dh4,245 return.