Travel

Swim with Penguins & See the Coast When You Take the Cape Town Train

Want to adventure like a local? Hop on the commuter rail.

Dominique de La Croix/Shutterstock
Dominique de La Croix/Shutterstock
Dominique de La Croix/Shutterstock

Every year, millions flock to Cape Town to surf Muizenberg’s famous southeast swell, savor some of the world’s greatest Chenin Blanc, and pay a visit to the penguins at Boulders Beach. The best way to do so is by train-more specifically, commuter rail. To ride from the City Bowl to the Winelands or the Cape Peninsula is to experience a journey as fascinating and majestic as any destinations. Routes snake around Devil’s Peak, and offer unobstructed views of the kloofs (steep wooded valleys) serrating the Cape Peninsula and postcard-perfect changing shacks along False Bay. In other words: This isn’t your average commute.

It’s hard to think of a commuter rail in romantic terms. For many, it’s a distressing schlep from home to the 9-5, but this simply isn’t the case in Cape Town. The Mother City is blessed with an impressive commuter rail network stretching from Somerset West, to Stellenbosch, to Simon’s Town-and most points in between. To boot, Metrorail Western Cape’s Southern Line is arguably one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. So why aren’t more tourists talking about it?South Africa’s reputation for violent crime unfortunately precedes it, cowing visitors into overpriced hop-on-hop-off tourist buses and private excursions. This reputation, though, has been blown out of proportion. Cape Town’s transit network is comprehensive and safe. MyCiti buses and the newest Metrorail trains are all equipped with cameras. Those overly frightened of being robbed will, in fact, rob themselves of the ability to travel like a local and get to know Cape Town more intimately.

If you plan to ride the train, just be sure to exercise the same caution you would in any major city, though at a fraction of the cost. You can get from the city to Simon’s Town for 9 South African rands (ZAR)-about 50 American cents-for a one-way train ticket. In contrast, the trip would run around 380 ZAR via Uber.

Sunshine Seeds/Shutterstock
Sunshine Seeds/Shutterstock
Sunshine Seeds/Shutterstock

How to ride the Cape Town commuter rail

Ready to ride the train? First, some logistics. All Metrorail trains depart from Cape Town Station, right in the heart of the City Bowl. Purchase a one way ticket for 9 ZAR (or less) at the desk and you’re on your way to most destinations. Pro tip: If you’re looking for a day of grand adventure on the Southern Line, Metrorail sells a tourist day pass for 35 ZAR. With one of those, you can travel between any stops on the Southern Line-Woodstock, Observatory, Muizenberg, St. James, Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek, and Simon’s Town are the big ones-as much as you’d like for one flat fee. If you want to travel directly to Simon’s Town, you might have to transfer at Fish Hoek-pending the dunes not spilling onto the tracks. Another word to the wise, check @MetrorailWC on Twitter for any service changes. If you’re unsure, Tweet at them directly and someone will usually get back to you within an hour.

Begin at Cape Town Station

To get the full effect of Metrorail Western Cape’s Southern Line, here’s a suggested itinerary. Start your day by heading to Cape Town Station. On the way there, you’ll want to stop at Xpresso by Greenmarket Square for a 12 ZAR double espresso and to fill up your water bottle-tap water is safe to drink in Cape Town and most major cities in South Africa. Once you’ve arrived at the station, get your day pass at the ticket desk and take the next Southern Line train to Fish Hoek/Simon’s Town.

After about an hour and a half of Cape Town scenery, you’ll be spellbound and at the end of the line in Simon’s Town. If the dunes are covering the tracks south of Fish Hoek, go to the minibus rank outside of Fish Hoek station and one of the drivers will take you the rest of the way for about 15 ZAR.

places4you/Shutterstock
places4you/Shutterstock
places4you/Shutterstock

Swim with penguins in Simon’s Town

Named after the same Simon van der Stel that founded South Africa’s viticultural powerhouse Stellenbosch, Simon’s Town is the last hamlet before Table Mountain National Park’s Cape of Good Hope section. Walk past the Naval Base and the quaint main drag to get to Boulders Beach (entry fee 176 ZAR). Once you get past the visitors center, the place is absolutely wall-to-wall packed with penguins. Be sure to respect their habitat and give them space, but don’t shy away from swimming alongside them. If you’re lucky, you can do cannonballs off the boulders with them, too. If the entrance fee is too steep for your budget, nearby Seaforth Beach also has a small penguin sanctuary and it’s free.

Kalkys
Kalkys
Kalkys

Munch fish and chips in Kalk Bay

Once you and the penguins have had your moment in the sun, you’ll want to grab lunch. Head back to the station and take the Cape Town-bound train a few stops north to Kalk Bay-that’s Afrikaans for “lime bay,” and if you take a look at the Caribbean teal water, you’ll see why. But peer beyond the colorful ocean and you’ll find Kalky’s, one of two preeminent fish and chips shops in Cape Town (the other is Hout Bay’s Fish on the Rocks) and by far the best of the pair. You might think it odd to partake here, given that there’s no cod in this part of the South Atlantic, but Cape Town’s hake and snoek fish give London a run for its money. A plate of fish and chips should run about 90 ZAR, plus a few rand extra for tartar sauce (or the peri peri and mango atchar for a local touch)-though you’ll want to pair the food and harbor view with an ice cold beer, too.

Andrea Willmore/Shutterstock
Andrea Willmore/Shutterstock
Andrea Willmore/Shutterstock

Find peace in St. James

You’ve already gone swimming once today, but go again in peaceful St. James, located just one stop north of Kalk Bay. The town is so small that the cafe and convenience store are both located inside the train station. However, the real appeal here is the beach, which offers a total absence of tourists, one of the Southern Hemisphere’s great popsicles, and a tidal pool (meaning it has breakwaters that protect the beach from rough surf). Grab a granadilla (that’s the South African term for passion fruit) and cream popsicle from Folk Cafe for 35 ZAR and bliss out on the beach. The mountainous coastal view is worthwhile, even if you’ve had your fill of swimming.

A. Mertens/Shutterstock
A. Mertens/Shutterstock
A. Mertens/Shutterstock

People watch in Muizenberg

Every Cape Town guide book will tell you to go to Muizenberg, South Africa’s urban surfer paradise. Located one stop north from St. James, Muizenberg is indeed full of surfers, but the beach is extremely windy and the downtown area is a bit sparse. There’s no need to swim or explore the town; just plant your feet in the sand and people watch before sunset.

Sareena Singh/Shutterstock
Sareena Singh/Shutterstock
Sareena Singh/Shutterstock

Browse around in Woodstock

Now it’s time to head back to Cape Town. Take the train toward Cape Town from Muizenberg and treat yourself to one last adventure. Get off at Woodstock, Cape Town’s post-industrial hippie-chic neighborhood full of thrift shops and the famous Old Biscuit Mill. Shops like CollectMeaStory and Salt Circle Arcade on Albert Road are full of curios you might only find in Cape Town. Once you’ve had your fill of shopping, get on the train one last time to make your way back to your accommodation, if only to plan tomorrow’s commuter rail adventure.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

John Besche is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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