Since the early 1990s, the reputation of the coastal village town of Gansbaai has been inextricably linked to cage diving with great white sharks. This has led to the town, dubbed “The Great White Shark Capital of the World”, being viewed either as a convenient stop-over for a quick snack and cool drink or simply a place to drive through on the way to Kleinbaai, where the shark cage boats are moored, or to quirky tourist towns such as Baardskeerdersbos or Elim, further down the road.
In other words, a nice quiet, if somewhat boring town, with not a lot happening. The reality, though, could not be more different.
“Gansbaai has always been the ‘poor country cousin’ when compared to Hermanus. However, we have better whale-viewing, sharks, penguins and a host of other outdoor activities available. The tarred road between Bredasdorp and Gansbaai has also made a huge difference. Travellers now come to Gansbaai as part of the journey to or from the Garden Route,” says Dave Sawtelle, who, along with partner Caron Lee, owns Saxon Lodge, a guesthouse overlooking the harbour, that prides itself in offering down-to-earth, home-away-from-home accommodation,
A number of trends are re-shaping the town, adds Caron. “Gansbaai has become super busy in the last three years. More people, including foreigners, are retiring or ‘semi-grating’ here; more progressive business minds have invested here. Initially, visitors came for sharks. Now they come more for the peace and quiet, and the relaxed, unhurried atmosphere.
“I attribute these changes to the saturation and prices of Hermanus, the new road through to Bredasdorp, the repositioning of Gansbaai as an adventure destination and the authenticity of the town. Nothing is pretentious in Gansbaai. There is good value to be had in buying property here, especially for retirement. And with the increase in the number of ‘swallows’, Gansbaai has become more English speaking,” says Caron.
In 2011, the population of Gansbaai was 11 598. The Overstrand Municipality now estimates that the population is over 20 000. With average property prices approximately half of those in Hermanus, according to Property24, and the construction of a R21 million state-of-the-art health clinic already underway, it is easy to understand why retirees would be attracted to the area.
Gansbaai even has its own weekly Saturday parkrun now at Groeneweide Farm, a clear indication of the growth of the town. At the Groeneweide Restaurant, delicious homemade meals are also served in a rustic farmhouse with a large terrace and great sea views. There is a big lawn where kids can run around, play with the farm animals or amuse themselves on the jungle gym. And on Sundays they offer a hearty South African farm-style buffet for only R150.
Perhaps the most visible change, at least for visitors and residents elsewhere in the Overberg, has been the increasing and deserved reputation of Gansbaai as a culinary destination. Along with Stanford, a 15-minute drive away, this gastronomic corridor is wowing diners with the quality and unique nature of their restaurants. Some, such as Bellavista Panorama Restaurant even offer 180° views across Walker Bay along with their innovative cosmopolitan cuisine prepared from fresh, organic local produce.
These restaurants, including the Blue Goose, Thyme at Rosemary’s, Kloeksathome and Benguela consistently rank in the top 20 favourites of TripAdvisor in the Overstrand, establishing Gansbaai very much as the home of fine dining. Others, such as Great White House in Kleinbaai not only serve a varied seafood-inspired menu but also offer the opportunity to look at ‘Suzi’, an authentic southern right whale skeleton that has been hoisted up and secured to the ceiling of the restaurant.
Every night, Benguela owner, Jonathan Engelbrecht, entertains guests at his lavish 16-seater Chef’s Table to a magnificent five-course set menu paired with the finest wines followed by handmade truffles, espresso and Cognac, all for R600 a person.
Operating for three years now from the old family home, mostly by word-of-mouth, Benguela offers guests the opportunity to sit around one big table and get to know one another. “An instant large family and familiarity. This is what I want to create each evening. We are not trying to expand. We just want a big full table every night,” says Jonathan.
Established in 2012, Blue Goose has garnered a foodie fan club with guests from all walks of life and travellers from right around the globe reserving tables months in advance. Some even bring their own recipes for dishes to be prepared – and owner, Riaan Franken, is delighted to oblige.
“I bought a run-of-the-mill restaurant and I upped the game. I was told that it would never work because people in Gansbaai don’t have money. I said I eat in Hermanus a lot and I see the Gansbaai residents with money in the restaurants and coffee shops. I have had people come into my restaurant and say that they didn’t think they would ever eat in a restaurant like this in Gansbaai,” says Riaan.
“I’ve got 220 years of family history in Gansbaai. This is where my ancestors settled. We are fortunate to have had this house where the restaurant is now located in the family since 1950,” says Riaan who spent nearly every single holiday here growing up.
“There are such a lot of foodie things happening around town; the vineyards in the Agulhas area, for example. But there are also goat farmers and little vegetable growers. We get the best peppadews from Baardskeerdersbos. We use the cheeses from the area and the free-range eggs. My flowers come from the area. It’s amazing what you can get locally,” replies Riaan when asked why Gansbaai restaurants are becoming so well known.
Even newly-established restaurants such as Mama Rita’s have been pleasantly surprised by the town. “I’ve always been a small-town girl and if I look at what this town offers, it’s a lot. If I look at Hermanus and how it is bursting at the seams, then I see Gansbaai as the next coastal town. We are the future. I see it happening,” says owner, Rita van den Berg.
Top 10 things to do in Gansbaai
According to Dave Sawtelle
1) Eat at the top restaurants
2) Go quad bike riding
3) Do a trail walk along the cliff paths while whale watching
4) Horse ride at Pearly Beach
5) Visit the Klipgat Caves
6) Ride a Fat Bike on the dunes
7) Visit Platbos Forest
8) Do a Flower Valley guided hike
9) Go wine tasting
10) Visit the penguin sanctuary