Discovering the Golden Mile
Written by Will Bendix, photography by Luca Barausse
There’s no better way to get to know Durban than by spending a morning along its iconic beachfront. Travel writer and local resident Will Bendix points you in the right direction.
It’s barely 6am and already the promenade along the Durban beachfront is bubbling with activity as joggers, cyclists, and coffee drinkers pass by in a steady flow. As I make my way down to the water’s edge, surfboard under arm, a group of swimmers round the North Beach pier, churning up the warm Indian Ocean in their wake. My hands cup the soft water with each stroke, taking me towards the other surfers out the back and, beyond them, to the orange sun that is busy squeezing itself free of the horizon. Durban is a city of early risers.
Looking back at the butter-yellow beaches and buildings washed in morning light, it’s easy to see why this stretch of sand and sea has long been called the ‘Golden Mile’. But as little as a decade ago, it had lost much of its shine.
Durban has always revolved around the ocean, from the first Zulu people who inhabited the coastal hills to the seafarers who laid the blueprint for Africa’s busiest port. The city gradually evolved into a hub of commerce and a prime holiday destination, with the beachfront its crown jewel. But by the end of the 20th century, urban decay and crime from the city centre had taken its toll, spilling down to the shoreline. The beachfront became a place that was best avoided until the city launched a massive regeneration project in the mid-2000s. The promenade was revamped, new restaurants and businesses were opened, and the Golden Mile became the heartbeat of the city once more.
‘Mile’ is a bit of a misnomer nowadays, however, with the superb promenade stretching from Addington Beach in the south to Blue Lagoon, 11km further north. Don’t let the distance deter you, though – whether you choose to sample it in small bites or all at once, it’s the most enjoyable way to get to know Durban.
You can simply park along the beach and join the steady stream of walkers or joggers who regularly pound the pavement, or hop on a bike and take in the ocean as you pedal. Bike & Bean run an excellent refuelling station at Country Club, the beach furthest north. Their repertoire of locally sourced organic coffee, tasty munchies, and friendly baristas has developed a devoted following with the pedal brigade, so best get there early. Fortunately they are open from 6am or else there’d be a riot. You can also rent bicycles and skateboards to cruise the promenade with, and there are even tandems and tricycles, ensuring that nobody is going to miss out on the action.
Across the road from Bike & Bean is the Moses Mabhida Stadium. Since it was built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the stadium’s graceful curves have added an iconic element to the Durban skyline. For those who love sweeping vistas, the Sky Car will scoop you over 30m up the towering arches and deposit you at the top for a 360° view of city and sea that is hard to beat. The stadium is also home to a number of shops and restaurants, but the real drawcard for shopaholics is the monthly I Heart Market. Held on the first Saturday of each month, the market is a showcase for Durban designers and foodies to sell their wares. Expect to find everything from gourmet ostrich burgers to edgy local fashion, upcycled goods, and home décor.
Back on the beachfront, the promenade gives way to a successive number of beaches as you make your way south. Country Club melts into Battery Beach, which in turn becomes the Bay of Plenty, North Beach, Dairy, and finally Addington. Punctuating these beaches are a series of piers that were originally built to prevent erosion and provide safe bathing. They also happened to create some of the best waves in the world, making Durban the surfing capital of South Africa. When a fresh swell is sweeping up the coastline, waves thunder off the tips of the piers and roll for hundreds of metres, with surfers flinging themselves off the railings to avoid the gruelling paddle out. The piers also provide the perfect grandstand to watch the spectacle or, if you’re experienced, jump in yourself.
The further south you go, the smaller and gentler the waves become until you reach the shallow waters of Addington, ideal for anyone who wants to learn how to surf. You can rent boards from a number of surf schools on the promenade, some of which also offer lessons, or simply go for a relaxing dip in the balmy water.
Whether the surf’s up or not, the Surf Riders Food Shack is a great place to have a bite and soak up the ocean while watching the endless procession of people go past. Vintage surfboards dangle from the ceiling, and the vibe is as relaxed as the food is good. Organic smoothies, gourmet pizzas, and excellent fresh seafood – like wood-fired prawns – are the norm. But you haven’t lived until you’ve tried the breakfast bun: a combo of poached eggs, chilli, and hollandaise sauce baked in their wood-burning oven.
A short amble further south is uShaka Marine World, which bookends the southern end of the promenade. The Wet ‘n Wild theme park has a water slide to suit everyone, from the the Body Tornado, for adrenalin junkies, to the Toti Splash, ideal for little ones. Four old shipwrecks have been expertly designed to house the largest aquarium in the southern hemisphere at Sea World, which will have you – and the kids – engrossed for hours. Here you will find everything from Nemo to giant fluorescent jellyfish and large ragged-tooth sharks that patrol the tanks.
There’s more to see and discover along the Golden Mile, but that’s the beauty of Durban. There’s no rush. Dig your toes in the sand, feel the embrace of the warm Indian Ocean, and just let the city wash over you.
It’s hard to drag yourself away from Durban’s beaches, but a trip to one of the many game parks in the KwaZulu Natal province is well worth the effort. Hluhluwe (pronounced ‘shh-sloo-ee’) to the north is Africa’s oldest game park and the only one in KZN that is home to all of the Big Five. The reserve stretches across a diverse range of habitats, from thorny scrub to the tropical banks of the St Lucia estuary. Whether you take a 4x4 safari, chug along in a boat, or do a guided hike, you’re bound to see lots of spectacular wildlife. Accommodation ranges from comfy tented camps to luxury game lodges. Regular safari packages depart from Durban.
Durban Sand Castle Contest
Endangered rhinos, Cadillacs, skeletons with billowing capes... it’s hard to miss these life-size works of art along the Durban promenade, built by a group of talented sand sculptors who make a living off tips from the public. The city has even billed their work ‘a living gallery of original artwork’ and recently launched the annual Durban Sand Castle Contest, along with a skills development programme to help empower the artists.
Roma Revolving Restaurant
Located on the 32nd floor of the John Ross House, Roma is like a trip back in time with a spectacular view. The heavy wooded décor and vintage photos of Durban create a decidedly seventies ambiance, while the floor gently spins around, offering breathtaking panoramas of the harbour and city.
The perfect curry
With the largest Indian population outside of India, Durban has a mouth-watering culinary heritage. Everyone has their favourite, but you can’t go wrong at Little India in the nearby suburb of Musgrave. Closer to the city centre, Little Gujarat is a legendary vegetarian establishment with the best masala dosas you’ll eat this side of Delhi.
Durban Botanic Gardens
Just a few kilometres from the beachfront lies Africa’s oldest surviving botanic garden, where you can take a stroll amongst ancient cycads, marvel at the orchid collection or picnic under a canopy of indigenous trees. The extensive gardens are immaculately maintained and the whole family is invited to rock out on Sundays, when top musicians regularly perform at the Music At The Lake concerts. Guided golf cart tours are also on offer.
Rolling down a hill in a giant padded ball might sound more terrifying than fun, but kids absolutely love it, and Groovy Balls provide the ultimate zorbing (as it’s known) experience in South Africa. They also offer paintball, off-road go-karting, and other activities that will keep the family entertained for the entire day.
The Oyster Box
Fifteen kilometres north of Durban is Umhlanga and the plush Oyster Box Hotel, located on the edge of the Indian Ocean. There are many reasons to love this five-star establishment – from its luxury suites overlooking the sea where you can spot dolphins at play, to its pet-friendly policy, delectable food, and award-winning spa. But, above all, the Oyster Box manages to seamlessly blend a luxury experience with a welcoming, family-friendly atmosphere.
Durban, South Africa
Distance: 6,392 km
Flight Time: 10 hours, 50 minutes
Frequency: Four flights a week