City of hidden charms

You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into Yann Marte’s Life of Pi the first time you visit Durban.

The seaside city with its colonial influences, large Indian population and Art Deco love affair echoes the Pondicherry of Martel’s bestselling novel—which is all the more surprising considering how underrated this unpretentious city at the sea can be.

When it comes to South Africa’s uber cities, Johannesburg is the rich and ambitious bigger brother and Cape Town the effortlessly pretty sister everyone is a little envious of. That leaves Durban—the neglected child.

My multimedia colleague, Lauren Clifford-Holmes, and I had had little experience of the city before our plane touched down at the now decommissioned Durban International Airport. We hadn’t heard much either.
But, as we discovered, the city either has the worst PR or the locals are hell-bent on keeping Durban’s charms to themselves.

The “advance publicity” that reached our ears was all about the dirty city centre and how overcrowded and rundown the beaches are. Not a word about the friendliness of the locals whose propensity for drawn-out chats with strangers defies big-city sensibilities or the revamped promenades that border the bath-water warm Indian Ocean and the vibey art scene and nightlife.

Soon we were in knots trying to choose between the must-see beaches, can’t-miss tourist attractions and off-the-track treats.
Like us, most World Cup tourists won’t have much time to explore the city in detail. Here are some favourite spots, including a few gems for those who like to thumb their noses at the beaten path.

The Valley of a Thousand Hills
Twenty minutes out of Durban, the winding route through this prehistoric-looking valley would make Steven Spielberg weep. Green gorges plunge towards the Umgeni River en route from the Drakensberg (another must-see) to the Indian Ocean. The valley won’t be at its most magnificent during the dry winter months of the World Cup—all the more reason to visit it in spring and see it in its glory. Stop off at any number of game reserves, adventure activity sites, quaint shops and restaurants on the route.

The Golden Mile
Beach time is essential in Durban. Even in winter this city boasts highs of 23

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