Having rocked and rolled around the bottom of South Africa for a day or two, the Boudicca finally made landfall at Port Elizabeth, on the Atlantic coast of South Africa.
From here, you could take any number of safaris into the hinterland, and get up close (well, close-ish) to the exotic wildlife that is obviously a prime draw for people coming out here. Many went and did just that and, by all accounts, they had a fabulous time, too.
But I have had my fill of wild animals for now, thanks very much. Anyone who has seen Newcastle’s Bigg Market on a Saturday night will know what I mean there. After a seemingly endless, bone numbing winter at home, I was crying out for a beach, a beer, and some genuine quality time to simply chill out. And, luckily for me, Port Elizabeth had exactly the kind of sweet spot that I was seeking.
One of the great things about a Fred. Olsen cruise is the free shuttle buses that run to a central location in each and every port of call. In this case,a short, fifteen minute drive took us to a large ocean front casino and retail complex.
While blatantly commercial, this was a beautiful place. It came complete with ornamental lakes, ample lounging areas, and buildings of pale blue clapboard that were instantly reminiscent of New England. It had a very relaxed vibe and, although it was a joy to just stroll around it, the real attraction lay just beyond it’s leafy confines.
My first sight of it was through one of the archways leading out of the casino complex. A sudden sliver of biscuit coloured sand drummed by surging southern ocean rollers, the place sat under a vast, cobalt sky unruffled by even the hint of a cloud. After two days of muggy, overcast weather at sea, the summer sun broke through and beamed down on Summerstrand like some benign, benevolent deity.
I was drawn to it immediately. Summerstrand and it’s vast, breezy sprawl opened out in front of me like a slowly rising theatre curtain. The sheer scale of the place was as breathtaking as the surreal, mind blowing beauty on show in front of me.
That beach winds and snakes along like some sinuous, enchanting dance. Sand dunes dotted with sparse, parched clumps of grass gave way to jagged, worn rock formations in a hundred shades of red, gold and grey as the high summer sun glanced against them.
Rock pools and secluded little bays threaded along the shoreline as surfers rode like ballet dancers on the serried tiers of rollers that crashed against this spectacular sea and landscape. Children ran in and out of the charging surf; parents with strollers ambled at leisure along the pathways that threaded throughout the entire, sun kissed expanse of beachfront.
There’s a long, concrete pier that juts out into the sea like the jaw of some sporadically battered boxer. On this day, people strolled lazily along it’s sun kissed expanse, but every now and again the ocean’s spray flung itself against it like an angry fist; a timely reminder that this was still the Atlantic out there after all.
Still, the whole vibe was remarkably relaxed and uncrowded. There was not the long run of bars and restaurants along the beach that you will find in, say, Barcelona or Miami. But I did find a pretty little place called Cubana, with slowly whirling ceiling fans, huge, louvred windows looking out over the ocean, and outdoor, umbrella shaded tables that gave some respite from the now blazing sun.
My first beer felt like healing balm; for the moment, winter was banished from my memory. A kind of gentle, gratifying calm suffused the whole scene. Glancing upwards over the rim of my Corona bottle, no sky had ever looked bigger, brighter, or better. Any latent tension that might have been knotted deep inside me, vanished like melting snow. Summerstrand may not be Heaven, but maybe Heaven is over rated, anyway.
Nor was there any profound need to rush back to the ship. The shuttles to and from Boudicca ran for most of the day. This was fortunate, because by now I was so chilled out as to be almost liquid.
Later that day, a few clouds did begin to gather in the sky. Almost marble white in hue, they drifted in state across the azure canvas of the sky like so many ghostly galleons.
And, right there and then, I knew that I had fallen in love with a big country. A place possessed of a special kind of magic that is impossible to quantify, and just as impossible to dismiss. An irresistible, intoxicating diamond of a place, set hard, fast and unyielding against a backdrop of tireless, rolling ocean.
It was January in South Africa, and right at that moment, the whole world looked a whole lot better…..