Travelling east from Cape Town for just over an hour, Jessica Mills reaches her cottage on the coast of South Africa’s Western Cape province. Situated between the dramatic Kogelberg Mountains and long, white sand beaches, her modest three-bedroom cottage rests on the edge of a shallow cliff in the seaside village of Betty’s Bay.
Once a whaling station, Betty’s Bay now lies within the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve, the first and only UNESCO-declared biosphere in the country. Jessica’s front door opens to this unspoiled wilderness that’s considered the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom due to its diversity of plant life. Jessica can recall as a child, “scrabbling along the rocks in the front of the house with friends, naming all the rock pools and bays, catching tadpoles in the fresh water pools and climbing the trees behind the house.”
Now when Jessica visits her family cottage, her days begin with a run along the beach followed by some surfing and sunbathing. Scenes of the sea aren’t left behind at lunchtime, as the cottage’s generous bay window offers a spectacular view of the water. After lunch, she might have an afternoon nap and refresh with a hot shower in the wooden enclosure behind the cottage. From there, she can soak up a vast panorama of the Kogelberg Mountains. She often takes the dogs for walks along the beach or within the reserve, topping the day off with a braai (barbeque) in the garden as the sun sets over the rocky terrain.
“My family has owned the cottage for about 25 years,” Jessica says. “We share it with two other families—close family friends—both of which are now based in the U.K.” The simply designed, thatched-roof bungalow was one of the first built on the Betty’s Bay coast. A brother of the renowned South African artist Irma Stern built the cottage in 1952. To prevent his sister from painting on the walls, he had them all stippled apart from two alcoves on either side of the fireplace in the sitting room. Irma couldn’t resist and brushed these spaces with unique images of guardian angels.
“After purchasing the house, we took our cleaner down to give it a good scrub,” Jessica says. “She wiped these paintings off the wall! My parents were horrified, and even more so as they had to tell the other two families.”
* * *
Electricity was introduced to the area in the 1990s, and with that, new construction flourished. “Unfortunately, there aren’t strict building restrictions like in other coastal towns,” says Jessica. Many of the newer holiday homes are built with little consideration for the natural beauty that abounds and are “very tasteless.”
But even the gauche construction cannot detract from what’s on offer in and around Betty’s Bay. The Harold Porter National Botanical Gardens stretch from mountain to sea, offering stunning examples of local vegetation, including proteas, restios and more than 50 species of ericas. Between October and February’s flowering season, gladioli, watsonias and rare red disas are in full bloom, while 1,600 other plant species can be found within the reserve. “The Botanical Garden is spectacular with dramatic walks up Leopard’s Kloof. It has a series of waterfalls and pools where we loved to swim as children,” Jessica says.
The region’s fauna is impressive, too. Since the 1976 ban on whaling, the number of southern right and humpback whales visiting the area’s numerous bays to mate and give birth has only continued to grow. Brydes, orca whales, and dolphins can also be seen from land and the area is home to one of only three breeding colonies of jackass penguin in mainland South Africa.
“For a time, as a teenager, I didn’t think it was a cool place to go,” Jessica says. “It’s very quiet and there are more popular spots along the coast between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.” At a cottage that offers everything from surfing and sandboarding to watching for whales and diving for crayfish, her teenage reluctance may be hard to fathom. But after relocating to Nairobi, Kenya, Jessica fully appreciates all her visits to Betty’s Bay.