To complain about East London’s lack of big malls and amenities is to miss the point of what it’s all about. East London’s real attractions are community lifestyles, seaside resorts, country markets and small, family-owned restaurants.
A few years ago, East London was slipping into dull obscurity and most South Africans saw the city as nothing more than an outlying suburb of Port Elizabeth. East London was the city that never got a World Cup stadium, whose beachfront never got a facelift and whose harbour is used for little more than ferrying Mercedes-Benzs in and out of the country.
As an East Londoner, I lived through the dark days when the most exciting thing about East London was our alleged dodo egg. That’s actually a rather interesting story. But these days, I’m grateful to say that East London seems to be finding its feet – and if you know where to look, it offers plenty to see and do.
There’s no better place to begin than at the Highlander Pub at the Blue Lagoon Hotel. Drinks on the deck there make you feel like a celebrity on the set of a photo-shoot for some high-gloss publication. The food’s good, the drinks are always ice-cold and the vibe’s always welcoming and uplifting. When the sun sets, however, the beats are turned up, happy hour kicks off. It’s a magnificent setting and a must-visit venue.
It won’t be long until you need to eat in the river port city and while there’s a wide selection of all the usual chain restaurants, I suggest you try something home-grown. East London isn’t known for its Michelin-starred, haute cuisine establishments, but we do excel at casual family dining. Pizza, pastas, gourmet burgers and snack platters are our staple fare – and nobody does it better than the Sanook. The pizzas are made from deliciously thin homemade bases and are topped with mouthwateringly fresh ingredients. The pastas are all homemade and the burgers are unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere. Sanook actually has two outlets, both of which recently underwent major renovations – and both of which are brilliant.
If you’re in a more energetic frame of mind, you’re in the right city. East Londoners are remarkably active. On any given day at around 5pm, you’ll see throngs of people out running, walking, cycling and even paddling in the Nahoon River. This trend has resulted in no fewer than four different park runs in and around East London and there’s talk of a fifth.
One of these park runs is located on the rural east coast of the city and has modelled itself on the hugely popular and successful Midlands Meander. Out here you’ll find kilometres of unspoilt coastline which are perfect for fishing, surfing, paddling or just lying in the sun. There are also rustic beach bars, opportunities to see the Big Five and when you get really thirsty, I recommend a visit to our very own craft beer brewery.
Emerald Vale started out as a farmshed home brew – and it still is, only now the shed is all glass and stainless steel. It makes four ales which are all delicious, though the proprietor will remind you that none of them are particularly good for your waistline. This is a delightful venue where you can relax, sip a pint of amber ale and watch rugby on the big screen while the kids run around outside.
Just up the road, only 30 minutes from town, is Prana Lodge – arguably East London’s best-kept secret. It’s small and personal and bookings are essential. I spent three years living right next door to this exclusive resort and every time I went there for dinner, I felt as though I was in a different country. Its food and accommodation are undoubtedly the best in the East London area.
The east coast is also the backdrop for the extremely popular Strandloper beach-hiking trail. One of the most prominent stops along the route is the internationally acclaimed Buccaneers Lodge & Backpackers in Cintsa. It’s home-like, down-to-earth and family-run, and you’re guaranteed to meet some interesting folk there.
A recent trend in East London has been the emergence of organic markets. Almost every Sunday morning there’s one in the vicinity offering organic produce, home-baked goods and a bang-up breakfast. In a city where not much else happens on a Sunday morning, this is a great outing with the family.
All the East Londoners reading this right now are thinking: “What about the Friesland?” When your time in East London’s over and you’re heading back to the airport, make sure you give yourself enough time for one last stop there. No visit to the city would be complete without a large, double-thick milkshake from this legendary establishment. It only makes take-away shakes and I assure you, making the detour there is well worth it.
Blue Lagoon Hotel: +27 (0)43 748 4821
Hemingway’s Hotel & Casino: +27 (0)43 707 8000
Prana Lodge: +27 (0)43 704 5100
Crawford’s Beach Lodge: +27 (0)43 738 5000
Buccaneers Lodge & Backpackers: +27 (0)43 734 3012
FOOD AND DRINKS
Sanook: Café -+27 (0)43 721 3215 or +27 (0)43 748 2494,
Lavender Blue: +27 (0)43 732 1172
The Cricketer: +27 (0)83 659 8899,
Highlander Pub: Blue Lagoon Hotel (see above)
Nahoon Arms: +27 (0) 87 350 4144,
Emerald Vale Craft Brewery: +27 (0)43 738 5397,
Friesland Milk Bar: +27 (0)43 722 3260