Plettenberg Bay is the “playground” of the rich according to my travel bible, Lonely Planet. My idea of wealth being informed by the vulgar excesses of hip-hop videos, Forbes magazine lifestyle features and ANC Youth League parties, I went to town expecting to see people draped in diamonds and water fountains filled with champagne.
The town’s riches are immediately evident in the houses perched on cliffs overlooking the ocean. They all look like Michael Mol should be featuring them on Top Billing. Hell, the houses here are so beautiful I was tempted to press buzzers asking owners if they needed a volunteer live-in maid or babysitter.
An aspirant kugel, I have long wanted to holiday among the rich. Only I thought I’d never be able to afford a ticket to town on my bank balance, let alone a holiday. Yet as it turns out, Plett, as it’s affectionately known, is cheaper than a crack whore, which makes this drop-dead-gorgeous town the perfect budget holiday destination.
To get there, I took a city-to-city bus from Pretoria to George for a measly R300 and 17 hours. Like all long-distance bus rides, it was dull, tiring and involved a three-hour wait at the George station. From there I took a connecting bus to Plett for R100. It took about three hours of driving past pretty seaside towns to arrive at our destination.
Plett has its share of plush hotels, cosy-looking B&Bs and palatial homes to rent. I decided to rough it and paid R125 a night at Amakaya backpackers, one of numerous cheap and comfortable self-catering establishments in town.
Thinking I could not afford to eat out, I armed myself with a little black dress, posh heels and an accent, hoping the right look would make ordering “just a starter” seem like a lifestyle choice (instead of poverty alleviation). The rich don’t think the poor ought to eat cake so the dining choices range from fine restaurants to homely joints such as a roti caravan, a curry takeaway restaurant and S’khaftini (meaning lunch box) with its cheap and delicious seafood.
I had expected the town’s retail therapy to be made up of boutiques selling designer threads. But no, the shops are mostly retail, with a branch of Pep Stores instead of Prada and an American Swiss where I expected to find Shimansky.
I have always fantasised about Plett, imagining lazy days as a beach bum among whites inviting premature ageing and cancer in the name of a healthy glow. That part I got right. The golden beaches are indeed sprinkled with tanners, surfers and swimmers lounging about, then intermittently hitting the beach cafés.
One of the first things I noticed about Plett is that so many of the people have amazing bodies — from preteens at surfing school to elderly couples in safari-chic fashion, from supremely hot outdoor-inclined young couples to clichéd “cool” middle-aged moms of three. You see women way beyond 40 with taut bodies showing off thongs through light flowing garments as they do their errands around town.
It’s Plett’s active lifestyle that must be keeping everyone in shape. Activities include horse-riding, various watersports and a breath-taking hike around the Robberg Nature Reserve. There’s also quad-biking, sky-diving, helicopter rides, super tube rides and water slides.
Wildlife encounters come courtesy of rehabilitation centres in The Cragg (12km from the town). Tenikwa Wild Cat sanctuary offers close encounters with wild cats, cheetah walks and an opportunity to stroke two Cheetah cubs. Meanwhile, you can brush, ride and walk “trunk-in-hand” with elephants at the local elephant sanctuary. There’s also a snake park and a living forest experience with monkeys and birds at the Monkeyland and Birds of Eden sanctuaries. Not to mention a game reserve that offers a horse safari.
And all these thrills are cheap and affordable; starting from R25 to hike in Robberg and R2000 for a tandem skydiving experience.
But the biggest and cheapest thrill to be had is the natural splendour in which the town nestles.
People are friendly and they smile a lot. Everyone, including waiters, seems committed to offering good service. I have been going to impersonal city optometrists for 13 years, but in Plett a Jan le Roux was the first to actually remember my name throughout a consultation that proved to be long and detailed.
The waiters never once treated me like an invisible darkie and, most surprisingly, I found myself surrounded by black people everywhere I went (this I found particularly comforting).
The place where — as it’s claimed — the rich go to play is surprisingly free of airs and graces. As one local put it: “Everyone comes back and keeps on coming back.”