If you Googled ‘things to do in Cape Town’, I’d put a sizeable bet that seeing the African penguins in Simon’s Town will be in the top 10.
It is. I checked…..before I wrote that. That’s weird.
It’s a bit of a strange list because you’ll also find Garden Route trips and Franschoek’s wine tram which aren’t really in the city of Cape Town, neither is Simon’s Town. However, it’s less than an hour’s drive along the cape peninsula so there’s no point being pedantic about it.
If walking amongst, and potentially swimming, with penguins sounds like something you might want to do (it should be) then I’ve included most of what you’ll need to know below.
How to get to Simon’s Town
I’ll assume that you’re travelling from Cape Town.
As far as I know, it’s either by car or by train. The train (MetroRail) is pretty cheap, as in a few US dollars, I’ve also seen prices ranging from R20 to R100 which is little confusing, but by all accounts it’s not the best. The sand dunes often cover the tracks near Simon’s Town meaning that you’ll have to take a replacement bus. You’ll also be limited in the places you can stop along the way, as trains do. The MetroRail line stops at Fish Hoek, Kalk Bay, Muizenberg, Wynberg and Claremont. We only ever went to Muizenberg so unfortunately I can’t comment on the other stops.
We rented a car because by the time we had organised getting to the train station, bought tickets, the £20 per day ($26) for the car between 4 of us made a lot more sense. It was a bakkie (pick up truck) as well, which was ace.
I appreciate that hiring a car is likely to be more expensive and a real hassle if you’re under 25 years old but if you can, definitely get one. Car hire in South Africa is super cheap compared to a lot of other places so make the most of it.
The main reason for hiring a car is that there’s a lot to do on the cape peninsula and a car gives you that freedom. Unless you’re a complete penguin nut you’re not going to want to spend the whole day in Simon’s Town. As such, if you hire a car you can make a big day trip out of it and visit some other places as well.
If you’re going to drive directly to Simon’s Town from Cape Town the your best bet is just taking the M3 straight there. However, if you’re staying on the Camps Bay side of Table Mountain then I’d advise driving down the west coast of the peninsula down the M6. You can then hop over the peninsula to get to Simon’s Bay, but with the west coast route you get to drive along Chapman’s Peak drive which is an incredibly scenic route.
Places to see on your way to the penguins
Out of a group of four, there were three surfers. Naturally then, we wanted to get in the water.
If you take the aforementioned route down the west cost of the cape peninsula the I’d highly recommend the following four things:
It’s 20 minutes south of Camps Bay and really really beautiful. It should be on your list regardless of whether you’re going to see the penguins.
Surf wise its colder than other places, can be crowded and tends to close out with bigger swells, but at head high it has to be one of the most picturesque places I’ve surfed. Crystal clear water, the hills of the bay around you. You can’t ask for more.
Much wilder than Llandudno, Noordhoek is a really big beach and exposed to the elements. It’s not the ‘safest’ beach in the world because its so large and therefore you are somewhat isolated, but just don’t take your fancy DSLR and go waving it around for everyone to see.
Surf wise it can be brutal. You have the Hoek on the right hand side past the rocks as you walk down from the car park. You also have The Dunes which is about a kilometer down the beach. We surfed The Dunes but the conditions were gruelling. Strong rip currents, a dead seal in the water and lots of close outs. Not great.
We went a few days later when the surf was smaller and it was much more enjoyable. Either way, it’s worth a visit.
Stop and relax on Chapman’s Peak drive.
It sounds a bit strange to tell you to stop on the side of the road, in a lay-by, and relax. It’s worth it though.
Chapman’s Peak drive is one of those roads that you’d expect Jeremy Clarkson to have a wet dream over. I can’t say that I’ve driven a lot of the world, but Chapman’s Peak drive has to be up there in terms of one of the most beautiful roads I’ve seen. It meanders along the coast, cut into the rocky hillside.
There are multiple places to stop and admire the views and its a popular spot for sunset as well.
Stop, take some pictures, relax.
Cape Point / Cape of Good Hope
This seems to be the most popular option to couple with Simon’s Town for a day trip from Cape Town. If you’re heading down the cape, it makes sense.
It’s a symbolic geographical point, especially in the nautical world and a spectacular viewpoint. I’ll write an article on this separately and link to it.
The viewing platform at Foxy beach
There’s two primary options for seeing the African penguins in Simon’s Town: The viewing platform at Foxy beach and the beach/water/rocks at Boulders Beach.
We didn’t go to the viewing platform at Foxy Beach even though most of the penguins tend to hang out there and it’s closer to the car park. With the chance to get up and close (and potentially swim with) the penguins, just looking at them from a viewing platform didn’t seem like it would compare.
Note though, you’re likely to see a larger quantity of penguins from the viewing platform.
Entry to Boulders Beach
Boulders Beach is just over a 5 minute walk from the car park and is probably the area that you’ll see most pictures from. It’s a beautiful beach with…..lots of boulders. You can walk on the beach, climb over the boulders whilst you hunt for penguins and if you’re lucky, swim in the water with the penguins.
HINT: you can see the beach from the path. If there’s no penguins there then you might be able to avoid the entry fee.
Entry was R175 Rand ($10.80 / £7.80 / €9.65) and I believe the entry also gets you entry to the viewing platform at Foxy Beach. If it’s the same vice versa then the previous hint is somewhat of a moot point.
The best time to visit the penguins at Boulders Beach
The best time of year to visit Simon’s Town is November to August.
As you will be able to see from the video, when we turned up at Boulders Beach we only saw around 5 penguins. Apparently the best time to visit is late afternoon, which is when we went, but I guess that’s the luck of the draw.
We actually ended up re-entering the beach because we spotted a mini stash of penguins in the boulders as we were walking back to the car along the path. The beach shut at 5pm but the gates weren’t closed so we just walked straight back in…..
Overall, it’s a really nice place and it’s really cool to see African penguins which are an endangered species. If you can couple if with the beaches and maybe Cape Point it makes for a great day trip from Cape Town.