Once seen as the quiet cousin of cosmopolitan Cape Town and fast-paced Johannesburg, the natural wonders and cultural charms of Durban and its surrounds put it firmly on South Africa’s must-see map. Fly direct from London Heathrow to Durban with British Airways, then get exploring.
Go for gold
The best place for a first-look at “Durbs” – as the locals call it – is down on the Golden Mile, an iconic stretch (nearly three-miles long, not one, as its name would have you believe) of powdery beaches backed by a colourful pedestrian promenade, all of it smartened up for the 2010 World Cup.
Shimmering off to the north is another legacy project of the tournament, the Moses Mabhida Stadium. An 80-metre freefall and 220-metre arc makes the Big Rush Big Swing from the stadium arch the world’s tallest swing, while the more sedate SkyCar delivers superb views of the city and its beaches.
Surfing, whales and dolphins
With miles of golden sand, and water that rarely dips below 20C, Durban richly deserves its reputation as South Africa’s surfing capital. Surf schools on the promenade – try Xpression or Learn 2 Surf – will have you up and riding in no time. The smaller waves of South Beach are best for beginners, while expert surfers will delight in the long tubes of New Pier.
From May to November, these seas are also home to humpback and southern right whales, while Bryde’s, sperm and minke whales inhabit the oceans all year round. Look out for lobtailing, when a whale slaps its tail on the water to create waves, and breaching, when a whale launches out of the water as if ready to backflip. And that wasn’t enough, you can often spot dolphins diving in the crests of the waves. Whale and Dolphin Tours offer daily aquatic safari cruises from Durban marina; the company is committed to training tour guides from disadvantaged communities and supporting Whale Time’s environmental research.
Adventures in food
Oceans aside, Durban is giving Cape Town a run for its money when it comes to culinary adventures. On tree-lined Florida Road you’ll find a neat cross section of the city’s resurgent kitchen creativity, from pan-African flavours at Dukkah to the ice-cream-filled macaroons of chef Zakeeya Mitha’s Sugarlicious. The falooda-inspired Bombay crush ice-cream is the go-to here.
But when it comes to dining, Durban is all about curry. Don’t leave without braving the famous “bunny chow”: a quarter-loaf of white bread, hollowed out and filled with bean or mutton curry. You’ll find bunny chow across the city, but in Durban central the Oriental restaurant is an institution. A mutton bunny will set you back just R79.95 (£4.19).
It’s also just a short walk from the colourful Victoria Street Market, where spice shops are piled high with fiery bespoke blends. Around the corner, the Juma Masjid is worth a look. It’s one of the largest mosques in the southern hemisphere, the domed facade completed in 1943.
Forests, nature reserves and secluded beaches
There’s certainly plenty to keep you busy in the city, but as the capital of KwaZulu-Natal province Durban is also the perfect starting point for adventures farther afield. With public transport thin on the ground, an Avis rental car is your best bet.
A 20-minute drive north of the city brings you to the seaside suburb of Umhlanga, long favoured by South African holidaymakers. You’ll want to spend time exploring the walking trails of the Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve, or browsing the weekly Wednesday morning farmers’ market, but first drop your bags at the Oyster Box hotel, an elegant grande dame of South Africa’s seaside hotels. The pool terrace delivers impressive views – of breaching whales and the ocean – but the attentive staff will also happily set up deckchairs and umbrellas on the beach for you. And there’s no need to venture out in search of dinner: the generous curry buffet here is legendary. Beware the fiery beef vindaloo.
Another 30 minutes’ drive along the Dolphin Coast brings you to Zimbali Coastal Resort, where the Fairmont Zimbali Resort offers 154 luxury rooms, secluded beaches and easy access to the resort’s excellent 18-hole golf course, which plays through lush coastal forest. Bring plenty of spare balls.
Into the heart of the country
South Africa is synonymous with safari, and Phinda Private Game Reserve and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi park are just two hours’ drive farther north, with a clutch of upscale safari lodges dishing up five-star luxury and Big Five sightings. As well as lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffalo, you may even catch a glimpse of the elusive cheetah.
Or head west from Durban, towards the rugged peaks of the Drakensberg mountains. The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg park was declared a world heritage site in 2000, noted for its ancient San rock art and rugged scenery. The historic battlefields of central KwaZulu-Natal are also within easy reach for travellers with a car, with talented guides bringing the drama and tragedy of the protracted Anglo-Zulu wars of the late-1800s to life.
So now, the choice is yours. Battles? The Big Five? Beaches? Bunny chow? One thing’s for certain, Durban is no longer second fiddle when it comes to cosmopolitan coastal escapes in South Africa.
How to book
With direct flights from London Heathrow to Durban, British Airways Holidays can help make your South Africa fly-drive unforgettable. Book with British Airways Holidays and Avis to benefit from a 24-hour holiday helpline, full Atol protection and deposits starting from just £75 per person.