Today ask someone at random, standing on Gearing’s Point, for a single word explaining why she/he is in Hermanus and the answer will be: “Whales”. If you had asked the same question to someone as recently as the 1980s, the answer would almost certainly have been: “Holidays”. Historically people have been coming to Hermanus for holidays for 200 years, and during much of that time, the southern right whale was being hunted almost to extinction. While conservation measures and successful marketing have driven up whale awareness, even now whale-watching is usually part of a holiday experience for most people.

The idea of an annual or family holiday is relatively modern. In Britain, North America and Europe a holiday of several days or a couple of weeks only became possible in the 20th century, with the implementation of paid leave from work. In South Africa farmers were able to take summer holidays as early as 1800, and, interestingly, dominees of the Dutch Reformed Church were also afforded an annual break – many came to Onrust (as it was then) and some even to the Sanatorium, where they might well have met Dr. Andrew Murray. But for the average middle class family the annual holiday came later - in the 1930s and 1940s for the white population. The majority of the South African population do not aspire to a holiday even now.

When the first families moved to Hermanuspietersfontein in 1857 they did not have any ideas of establishing a holiday destination. They were looking for a safer harbour and better fishing and the people who came to settle with them were either involved in the fishing trade or had agricultural interests in the area. But, as the 20th century approached, Hermanus began to experience the economic advantages of being a holiday destination.

The growth in popularity of the summer holiday coincides exactly with the growth of Hermanus. From 1895, when Walter MacFarlane extended his home to take in overnight guests, the growth of the town as a holiday destination was driven by the increasing numbers of families that could afford to take holidays. By as early as 1910, the population of Hermanus in holiday times consisted of a relatively small number of permanent residents and huge inflows of non-residents, often increasing the population by a factor of four during December and January. This pattern persists till today.

We have evidence that farmers from the Caledon district (and further afield) took their summer holidays in this area long before the town of Hermanus existed. Generally, the extended family came by ox waggon, and camped near a convenient source of water and a place to fish. Servants (sometimes still slaves) accompanied the family to allow the women a break from domestic duties. Live animals were brought to provide milk and meat during the holiday, although the families ate more fresh fish and shellfish than were available at home. They lived out of and sometimes under their waggons, until, in the 1780s, one Hendrick Cloete of the farm Nooitgedacht in the Stellenbosch district, acquired land and built the first ‘holiday home’, De Mondhuis, at the mouth of the Klein River lagoon. He referred to it as his ‘fraaie osseplaats’ or ‘beautiful ox farm’.

However, all other families continued to take holidays in the old-fashioned way, and no other permanent holiday structures appeared until the first sites were sold in Hermanuspietersfontein in 1855. There are several detailed accounts of the journey to Hermanus undertaken by families in the early 1900s. S J du Toit collected one from Professor Andree-Jeanne Totemeyer, who was a young child in the early 1900s when this epic journey was undertaken on an annual basis by her family. The family started from Somerset West and travelled via Rooiels and Kleinmond to Voelklip. The ox wagon was heavily loaded so the children walked behind it the whole way. The journey lasted three days, during which they forded the Steenbras River (sometimes in flood) and crossed the Palmiet River by pont. At Voelklip, the family camped under milkwood trees, their cattle and sheep grazed nearby, but they had a marine diet of fish and shellfish. They usually stayed for six weeks and their father who was a dominee, preached to nearby congregations and even christened babies and married couples.

Since then the town has experienced waves of types of holiday makers, each of which found what they wanted in the town and surrounding countryside. However, we need to recognise a basic division that separated two classes of holiday-maker in Hermanus from the start and still does.

The first class of holiday-makers comprises those who own a holiday home in Hermanus, accepting the obligations of local taxes and service charges to ensure that the house is available whenever needed. A large number of houses specifically built as holiday homes are found in Voelklip, dating from the 1920s and 1930s, and built by the Moore family, whose ancestors had come to South Africa to build Sir Robert Stanford’s Mill. Voelklip holiday homes are now very valuable and are passed down from generation to generation.

The other group have no investment in housing in Hermanus and rent accommodation as needed, sometimes in a B&B or guesthouse or hotel, but very often from the owner of a holiday home.

We can identify at least six types of holiday maker in Hermanus over the 125 years:

  • (From 1890s to 1930s): people suffering from specific pulmonary illnesses, such as tuberculosis, or recuperating from other illnesses, who were (and, to a small extent, still are) attracted by the healthy air of Hermanus. These were the earliest ‘medical tourists’, arriving when Dr. Hoffmann opened his Sanatorium in 1896 and continuing to be an important group till the end of the 1930s. They were generally well-off and their spending had a positive effect on the local economy, disproportionate to their numbers.
  • (from 1940s to present):those seeking an affordable family holiday, renting a house or rooms in a house, close to the popular bathing beaches for children. There are records of families taking holidays as early as 1902, when it took two days to get to Hermanus from Cape Town – train to Sir Lowry’s Pass, ox wagon over the Pass and to the Palmiet River where they stayed overnight, then mule cart via Bot River, Hawston and Onrus and entering Hermanus from the west. Mr. Sidney Gearing (later a Mayor of Hermanus) took this journey annually with his large family for many years, staying in the family holiday home in Marine Drive.
  • (from 1920s to date): wealthy people seeking complete leisure, preferably pampered, in classy surroundings, socialising with people of a similar upper class and willing to pay more for this. Most of this group stayed at one of the 13 hotels operating in the 1930 and 1940s, when this class of holidaymaker flocked to Hermanus. Unfortunately, there are few statistics available, except for the Marine Hotel. Joey van Rhyn Luyt, the wife of the owner P John Luyt wrote a memoir of the Marine Hotel from 1915 to 1940, which was continued by her daughter Berdine, until 1947. Their writings give a vivid picture of the guests, ranging from British and European royalty and aristocracy, to wealthy businesspeople, politicians and artists. Joey Luyt mentions more than 260 individuals of this class by name. Her account can be found in a publication of the Hermanus History Society entitled “In Those Days: The Story of Joey van Rhyn Luyt at the Marine Hotel, Hermanus.” The Marine Hotel is now the only venue offering holidays comparable to the heydays of its own service and that were available at the Riviera, the Bayview, the Birkenhead, the Windsor and some of the other nine hotels that existed at the peak of Hermanus’s popularity with the rich and famous.
  • (from 1920s to date): Those seeking an activities holiday, with accommodation not a top priority compared to fishing, golf, bowls, sailing, and hiking, mountain biking and other strenuous activities. The important factor here is not accommodation, but access to sports activities and Hermanus has produced a very high number of clubs and societies and invested in facilities to satisfy these holidaymakers. P John Luyt was a great proponent of these clubs and succeeded in persuading Prince Arthur of Connaught (Queen Victoria’s grandson) to open the Golf Club in 1923. Today, there are many takers for activities he would never have dreamed of, such as shark cage diving, paragliding and ‘extreme sports’.
  • (from early 1900s to date): Those seeking a ‘back-to-nature’ holiday, camping in a decent camping ground, cooking for themselves over an open fire, and generally being ‘outdoorsy’. Hermanus has not been so successful in catering to this group and even the caravan park has now closed. However, Onrus does cater for them.
  • (from 1920s to date): Starting in the 1920s and growing ever since, travellers seeking an environmental experience, with the emphasis first on ‘wild flower’ (fynbos) viewing and then extending to hiking and whale watching. In modern terms these are ‘eco-tourists’. Most analysts agree that this group is the wave of the future as they have so many positive impacts on the host locality, and generally very few negative impacts. Members of this group are generally older, more affluent and more aware of damage they might cause to the environment. They are seeking knowledge, not thrills or parties, and spend on local produce and goods. Often, they arrive in organised groups and are more likely to tell friends about their experience, thereby sustaining the flow of holiday makers.

Many writers have left accounts of their special or typical holiday in Hermanus. In the next article we will learn about some of these in the words of each writer.

This article is part of a series presented by the Hermanus History Society and written by Robin Lee. If you are interested in joining the History Society or buying a copy of the book mentioned please contact Robin Lee: 028 312 4072 or