With Cape Point being most visitors' prime destination on a Peninsula tour, Simon's Town tends to get passed by as just another one of the dozen or so small towns along the way. Admittedly, at street le-vel nothing much seems to be worth stopping for, even though 21 buildings along St George's Street alone date back more than 150 years. Simon's Town is the third oldest town in the country and there is plenty to be discovered. Apart from quaint shops, museums, hidden alleys and walkways to secluded beaches you may be tempted by water sports, bowling greens and a golf course where you tee off on the other side of the main road.
Best of all, there is a good choice of seaside restaurants, most of them with ample parking facilities. The first one, coming from Cape Point, is the Black Marlin, just out of town at Miller's Point. The original Victorian building used to be a whaling station. Now baboons pass through at teatime, much to the delight of visitors who do not mind at all if they suddenly find a furry creature sitting next to them - despite the staff's best efforts to keep baboons away from the tables. "Guests are usually thrilled to be able to watch them from so close", a waiter told us one afternoon when the Chacma troop moved across the lawn down to the water. He also added that the restaurant replaces any meal snatched by a baboon. Next is Boulders Beach Restaurant, not quite on the water's edge but very close to the penguin colony, flanked by the Seaforth on the other side of Boulders. In the centre of town you enjoy harbour views from the Quarterdeck Coffee Shop on Jubilee Square, or continue a little further and turn into narrow Wharf Street with several restaurants at the Town Pier. The Meeting Place and the Captain's Table are first floor restaurants in St George's Street which also offer great views, and food to match, and on street level you will find some typical English pubs - as you would expect in a naval town with a British history. Or indulge in the best-ever baked goodies, sweet or savoury, in the patisserie The Sweetest Thing. And for those with an interest in South Africa's motion picture history there is Café Pescado in one of the oldest cinemas that still exist in the country.
Built in 1920, the Criterion Cinema brought entertainment to Simon's Town for half a century. After its doors were closed in 1973 the building served various purposes until it became a restaurant. Its decor pays tribute to the South African film history which dates back to 1896 when Edgar Hyman shot the first 'movie'.
Simon's Town started as a safe winter anchorage for the Dutch East India fleet. In contrast to Table Bay which is battered by heavy northwest gales from June to August, the False Bay side of the peninsula is sheltered. The first governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, chose this bay in 1687 as the safest anchorage throughout the year. Much later, under British rule, the principal base of the Royal Navy was moved to Simon's Bay in 1814 - and remained until 1957 when it was finally handed to the SA Navy.
The history of Simon's Town is very attractively presented in the Simon's Town Museum, housed in the VOC Residency built in 1777. St Frances Church next to the museum is the ol-dest Anglican Church in the country. Like many other buildings from previous centuries it is a National Monument. Another one is the old Mi-litary Hospital where famous crime author Edgar Wallace served as a medical orderly in the late 1890s.
The navy has been the lifeblood of Simon's Town for 200 years and more. At the annual Navy Festival in March the SA Navy presents itself to the public. The popular event opens with the SA Navy Band Dry Dock Concert on Friday evening, but really kicks off on Saturday morning with the Right of Entry Parade through the town. The Night Gunnery Shoot is another highlight. Sunday morning sees the SA Navy Remembrance Day Parade and in the late afternoon festivities wrap up with the Retreat Ceremony. Ships and submarines are open for public viewing on both days, there are tug rides and numerous displays of the navy's skills, drills and equipment, band performances and activities for visitors. Demonstrations of a submarine submerging and surfacing were a novelty this year. The three submarines, four frigates and four patrol corvettes are the navy's largest vessels.
A decommissioned submarine is permanently open to the public. The SAS Assegaai is one of the first three submarines which South Africa bought from France during in the early 70s. The 58 m Daphne-class sub will be brought ashore and put up at the SA Navy Museum next year. The museum is housed in the original Dockyard Magazine built in 1810.
No respectable harbour without a lighthouse: Roman Rock, sitting on a single rock which is exposed at low tide and completely covered at high tide, is the most unusual lighthouse on the South African coast. The prefabricated cast iron tower was shipped from Britain and took four years to install. Roman Rock shone its first light in September 1861. It was manned until 1919.
Just about every South African is vaguely familiar with the legend of Just Nuisance, the Great Dane which was enlisted by the Royal Navy in 1939. When the dog was brought to Simon's Town by his owner he soon started to befriend sailors who in turn loved and spoiled him. HMS Neptune became one of his favourite vessels and he would happily lie in everybody's way at the top of the gangplank - which is how he got his name. Just Nuisance regularly joined the sailors on their outings to Cape Town and escorted them back when they were drunk. But train conductors found the big dog a real nuisance and sent endless demands for fares to his owner. When the railways threatened to put him down the Royal Navy enlisted him as an Able Seaman. Just Nuisance now slept on sailors' beds and often appeared at parades wearing his seaman's hat. He became quite a celebrity and even attended functions to assist the War effort. Just Nuisance was laid to rest with full military honours in 1944. A life-size bronze statue of the famous dog can be seen in Jubilee Square which used to be the market square. It was renamed to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935.
More recently, several thousand penguins have become a major attraction of Simon's Town. Boulders Beach is the most remarkable mainland colony of African penguins. The first pair of the elegant swimmers arrived almost 30 years ago. Others soon followed suit, probably attracted by the plentiful supply of fish. Through migration, mostly from Dyer Island, the colony grew rapidly. It is part of Table Mountain National Park and visitors can watch the penguins from elevated board walks. You can even swim among penguins at Boulders.
Or watch them from the sea: kayaks are ren-ted out at the Town Pier, there is no age limit and no experience is needed. You just have to be fit, and if you are in particularly good shape you might even paddle down to Cape Point (4-6 hours).
A variety of boat trips can be taken from the Town Pier. A water taxi departs every hour to Kalkbay, while the Boat Company offers dockyard cruises and excursions to Cape Point or Seal Island, home of 75 000 Cape fur seals and therefore the hunting ground of the Great White shark. Big Blue Sport Fishing Charters is the only company that offers deep sea, game, tuna and reef fishing in the False Bay area. The spacious 28 foot catamaran is also available for scenic tours.
The exhilarating experience of a boat trip on False Bay - with the blue mountains of Hottentots' Holland to the east and the Table Mountain range to the west - is hard to beat. Dolphins are likely to be encountered, perhaps a Humpback or Bryde's whale or even an Orca. Southern Right whales are regularly spotted between July and November.
If you have a penchant for minerals and semi-precious stones look out for the signs to the Scratch Patch on your way to Glencairn. Take a closer look at the massive counter which is made of solid slabs of Tiger's Eye! Apart from picking your favourites from thousands of gemstones you can actually watch how they are tumble-polished right there on the premises, in one of the world's largest gemstone factories.
On your next visit to Simon's Town make sure to drive over Red Hill from Scarborough. This road actually qualifies as a mountain pass. Stop at the large parking area at the top and marvel at Simon's Town and False Bay spread our below in all their glory.
Or come by train, enjoy the leisurely ride along the coast and then continue with one of the reliable taxis waiting at the station. Simon's Town is the most southerly railway station on the continent.